New "Mad Men" TV Show Uses the Past to Reveal Racism and Sexism of Today


Matt Weiner describes his new show, Mad Men (Thursdays on AMC), as "science fiction" -- but in the past. What he means is that, just as science fiction often uses a future world to say things about the present you can't say directly (it's both figuratively and literally ahead of its time), his show uses the overtly sexist and racist atmosphere of a 1960 New York advertising office to talk about issues that persist today but that we are too "polite" (to use the words of Alan Taylor, one of the show's directors) to talk about openly.

To say this strategy is brilliant is an understatement. As you watch the show, you feel like you are peeking under someone's bed, into their medicine cabinets and their closets ... and through their dirty laundry, for good measure. You can't believe that he or she wants you to be seeing all this stuff -- but there they are, flouting it loudly and unabashedly in front of your face.

As the viewer, you sense that the people you are observing are larger than life -- their world is a microcosm of America. But you also understand instinctually that it's not America of some hazy past but the America you live in.

This use of an allegorical past is not completely new. Most famously Arthur Miller employed it in The Crucible, in which he used the Salem witch trials to talk about the McCarthy Era. And as I've mentioned before, David Milch has used it in Deadwood to expose the continuing "treachery" of American capitalism.

But for Miller, Milch and others, the trick was showing that the past was just as bad as the present -- giving historical context to a contemporary nightmare. In Mad Men, Weiner is doing somewhat of the opposite -- revealing that the present is just as bad as the past. Unlike the McCarthy Era, we live in a time of innocence, believing we have overcome much of the sexism and racism in which the characters in Mad Men revel.

The advertising world is the perfect setting for Weiner to make the connections between the present and the past. The postmodern world -- in which image is everything and "reality" is tough to see through all the social construction -- is very much the product of American marketers in the latter half of the 20th century.

In a revealing scene during episode 2, advertising executive and reticent war hero Don Draper (played by Joe Hamm) tells Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) over cocktails: "You’re born alone, and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget."

Menken asks if he's ever been in love.

"What you call love," says Draper, "was invented by guys like me to sell nylons."

The show has been getting a lot of press for its style rather than its substance. In some ways, that perspective is self-imposed since they thrown themed parties for critics on both sides of the country to promote the show.

But don't let the smoking, martinis, suits, scarves or pomade fool you. Look at the way the characters interact -- within and between gender and races -- and see how, underneath the superficial differences, their internal and external conflicts speak to very contemporary tensions.

The show is not without flaws. Through the first three episodes, the characters themselves are underdeveloped. At times they feel more like cogs in the narrative machine than fully realized, complex human beings. And at least according to Adam Hanft over at Slate, the show is simply perpetuating the stereotype of the advertising business as full of "hard-drinking, womanizing, amoral slime buckets."

But considering the scope of its allegorical ambitions and sheer joy of watching such large canvas come together each week, I can live with these flaws for quite awhile.

In fact, you can divide up the reviewers of the show between those who "get" the allegory and those who don't.

Frazier Moore of AP gets it:

The charm of this series is that it doesn’t treat 1960 as a quaint aberration. Instead Mad Men provides an unexpected window on America in 2007. It's a contemporary series, purposefully unfolding at a half-century remove.
Hanft doesn't:
I approached Mad Men with higher hopes than usual. I figured that even if it got some stuff wrong, it might do for advertising what The Sopranos had done for the mob. Namely, capture the industry at a moment of profound change and offer a more nuanced portrait of the men doing the dirty work than our popular culture usually allows for.

But Mad Men, in its first few episodes at least, is gripped by no such ambition. It traffics in heavy-handed stereotypes, with no greater goal than to elicit some knowing winks and nods and to inspire nostalgia for those pre-sexual-harassment days when secretaries were secretaries and not administrative professionals. It's a screenwriter's fantasy: Cue the martinis, stick a cigarette in every actor's hand, trot out the standard-issue 1950s clichés about ambitious young men and marital infidelity, stir well, and you've got yourself a show.
Tom Shales also misses the weightiness of the show's key moments:
The odd thing about all this is that the content might sound, well, contentious, or at least controversial, but the stories unfold in a dry, drab way and the pacing is desultory. Series directors are fond of long pauses that serve no purpose other than to give the impression that an actor forgot his next line. It's a shark-eat-shark world populated primarily by sea turtles.

Details of the period, however, are nicely captured.
Both Hanff and Shales are missing the forest for the trees. They are so caught up in wanting another Sopranos (for which Weiner wrote) that they the revolutionary aspects of the show are passing them by.

The radical nature of the show, though, is fairly obvious for the average viewer unclouded by critical agendas. You feel it in your gut, in the way you cringe at a derogatory comment or laugh uncomfortably at what should be awkward humor. And that's the show's major accomplishment -- making such a powerful allegory accessible to everyone.

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