Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Going Mad over Mad Men

I have to admit that I'm not really one for television, even though I pay $70 a month for digital cable. In reality, I spend all that cash to watch soccer, ice hockey, and lacrosse. I'm not a terribly big fan of a lot of today's dramas mainly because their topics either don't interest me, or they're a LOST clone where the scriptwriters make the narrative complicated for its own sake because that guarantees a cadre of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder that will bicker and fight over every easter egg in the show--real or imagined. However, there are three shows that I do watch, mainly because I find them entertaining and they tell a good story.

Of late I've been rewatching AMC's Mad Men, and have found it entertaining and thought-provoking. The show is set in the early 1960s, and through the story of an ad firm on Madison Avenue in New York, explores the changing social mores in that timeframe in addition to the lives of the story's main characters. Having watched the previous three seasons a couple of times and having just finished the first season again, I've come up with some observations about various things. Needless to say, if you're obsessed with not seeing spoilers, well, don't read the rest of this article, or any article I write for that matter. Revealing spoilers is a matter of course for me.

Five Things I've Picked up while watching Mad Men 

(1) The show really nails the visual feel of the 1960s.

One of the draws of Mad Men is really how they nail the visuals of the 1960s. My grandparents' house was built in 1961, and the interior of the Drapers' home is virtually a carbon copy. Their dress? Couldn't have done it any better. Pete Campbell's haircut? Everyone wore that back then. And the office furnishings look straight from the era. Simply put, it looks like the show was filmed in a community that was tossed in a time capsule in 1960 for use at a later date.

(2) If you lived in the 1960s, you smoked like a train and drank hard liquor like a fish.

I think I've damaged my liver and upped my risk of lung cancer by at least 10% just by watching this show. In virtually every scene on the show, the characters are lighting up cigarettes, drinking hard liquor, or both. Sterling Cooper (the ad firm in the series)'s apparent response to anything positive to happen to them is to break out the glasses and the decanter. I understand that times have changed and that I'm completely clueless as to actual people's drinking and smoking habits in general since I do nor have ever done either in the past, but the drinking seems a little more excessive than what I would expect. However, knowing how attitudes toward smoking were in the past, the amount of smoking displayed isn't too shocking.

(3) There's a little too much presentism going on in the show.

On one hand, I do understand that one of the pillars of the show's plot is to show the changing mores of society during the early 1960s, but it seems to be a little hard to believe that Don Draper comes in such close contact with a civil rights activist (Paul Kinsey), two closeted homosexuals (Sal Romano and and a short-term ad executive named Kurt), some beatniks (Midge, one of Don's mistresses, as well as her friends), and an alleged friend of Ayn Rand (Bert Cooper) within such a short period of time, especially for being a guy with no more than a high school education. Like I said, I understand why it's done within the context of the story, but it still feels shoehorned into the plot. It would have been a little more believable had Don interface with perhaps the hipsters, and some of his coworkers have some brushes with the other groups mentioned, rather than Don having personal contact with all of them.

(4) Mad Men does storytelling right.

I absolutely loathe what LOST has done to dramatic storytelling. In their quest to make an immersive story experience, the screenwriters seem to have the idea that a plot that's complicated for complication's sake is somehow better than your normal narrative experience. To their defence, it's done well for them as people with no life and an obsessive-compulsive disorder have duked it out on Internet message boards for years over the minutae of the series and what they may or may not mean. However, I think it's pretty dumb to be honest. I much prefer how Mad Men tells its story. The narrative is rather straightforward, but the characters are written in a way that allows the viewer to not just see the characters operate, but also use them as a mirror to view their own lives and analyze their decisions and motives. Perhaps the best example is character of Pete Campbell. Sure, Pete is an obnoxious corporate ladder climber, but once the story explores Pete's motives, you find that Pete's motives are more for showing his family and his in-laws that he is his own person; not so much climbing the corporate ladder solely to make a name for himself and boost his ego. If I had a literature class that was mature enough to deal with the themes, I would gladly use Mad Men as an example of good plot development and characterization.

(5) Don Draper's lack of introspection is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire series.

Don Draper has the perfect life. He's the partner in an ad firm on Madison Avenue, has an attractive wife and two (now three) children, owns his house, and truly is a self-made man, since he took on a new identity in order to escape from the Korean War, after all. However, this secret proves too much for him to bear, and in the process he throws all of his perfect personal life away through an ever-increasing series of affairs. By itself, Mad Men proves to be a compelling investigation of how people throw away everything through completely illogical self-destructive behaviour.

However, I think something that hasn't been explored in depth in the series thus far is exactly how Don Draper feels about this. Why does he think that the best solution to expunging his past from his present is to sleep with a wide variety of women, after all? What does he expect to gain from his unfaithfulness, a couple of hours where he could just forget about his problems? A way to have control over a situation that he feels is becoming less and less under control? If the latter is the case, what caused him to want to be unfaithful in the first place? It's questions like these that I would like to see discussed in the next season of Mad Men, because it is something I find fascinating.

Maybe it's because I feel that I'm missing those things in my life that I find Don Draper's actions so reprehensible, but at the same time, I also realize that we as humans are never really satisfied with our situations no matter what. I'm sure my more evangelically-minded readers will immediately jump to the conclusion that Don Draper needs to become a Christian and all would be well, but I tend to disagree. In looking at my own life, I am by all measures a mature Christian, but I'm not satisfied with my current situation in the least. I've always thought that I would be in many ways complete  once I was a husband, father, and schoolteacher. Even though I only have one of those checked off, I don't think for a second once I check off those other two objectives that I will feel satisfied, as each of those provide new challenges, and to be frank, opportunities for indigestion for me to deal with. We're always striving to improve and refine our situations, and I don't think there's ever any true solution to this, much less a nice, neat solution that only takes a sentence to state.

So there you go. Those are my observations from watching Mad Men thus far. Considering I'm off of school this week, and there's not much going on educationally wise, much less anything for me to complain about at church to catch some flak, so I figured some media discussion would do nicely. Hope you enjoy it, and feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments section.

Until next time.

1 comment:

MrsAlbrecht said...


This is a great analysis of Mad Men, and it makes me want to watch.

I especially appreciated your line,

"I absolutely loathe what LOST has done to dramatic storytelling. In their quest to make an immersive story experience, the screenwriters seem to have the idea that a plot that's complicated for complication's sake is somehow better than your normal narrative experience. "


Thanks. Will see if I can get it out here where I live.. and will let you know what I think.

Keep writing. You're good at it!