Thursday, February 24, 2011

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show

As experiments in human physical endurance when dealing with severe sleep deprivation my wife and like to engage in what we term as Power Watchings (we don't actually call them that, I actually just made that up) - that is we start watching a show, begin to enjoy it, then just watch the shit out of it.  I mean, just watch it to death until all hours of the morning and jeaporadize both our proffessional relationships and personal health just to "watch one more episode" of our newest favourite show.  This only works, however, if you have access to multiple seasons of a show via DVD or BluRay, Netflix, or some other (a-hem, Ryebone) means of pirating acquiring digital media outside the bounds of the law in the strictest sense.  It's really a grey area.  Well not really.  Pirates are cool and therefore the act of pirating is cool which means that Henry Winkler does it which means its OK for me.  In our latest case Netflix was the purveyer of our drug, and a powerful drug it was. 
 Mad Men has been occupying a prominent place in the public consciousness for the past couple of years.  During the summer months when I spend some more time at home I end up watching Live With Regis and Kelly and Regis is totally into Mad Men almost as much as he is into wearing bad ties.  (As a side note to Regis: learn to relax a little.  You always seem to be yelling for no reason and it scares me just a little bit.)  Then there was a recent Simpsons Halloween special I caught at a friend's house and at the time I had have explained to me that a silhouette of Homer Simpon slowly falling amidst an abstractly drawn skyline was actually a reference to Mad Men.  I was starting to feel a little left out and fairly hungry. 

So one cold night in January when the kids were shipped off to bed my wife and I made some poporn and watched the first episode of Mad Men.  And we were immediately hooked.  Watching that first episode I got that same feeling I got watching Deadwood or Rescue Me or The Sopranos for the first time.  Even though it wasn't an HBOor FX show and didn't actually have swearing or nudity what it did have was excellent writing and a great cast and almost-nudity (hurray for tassles!).  It's far too complicated to sum up here but Mad Men basically follows the life of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), an ad executive (well, creative director) at a little firm called Sterling Cooper and his home and work life.  Mad Men is unique from other period shows like Deadwood or Rome, however, in that its focus really isn't so much on depicting life in that particular period , but in emphasizing the differences between that period and our own.  And that, to me, is really at least half of the enterainment value of the show.

Right out of the gates one of the key aspects of the show is battered into your skull.  Gender roles and how men and women relate to each other is just driven home again, and again, and again like Ron Jeremy pounding some tender, young ass hole with his giagantic meat wand.  It sometimes seems like the whole goal of the show is to show us the differences in gender roles in the 60's and gender roles today.  And the assumed reaction from the audience is "Holy shit, I can't believe it used to be like that," which, of course, is my first reaction.  I can only really speak from my experience as a white male (Apparently past lives aren't yet recognized in a court of law.  Crazy, I know.) and to me how women especially are treated in the show (and presumably in the real 60's as well) seems very foreign.  I understand how we tend to fill the roles that society creates for us and that even today some people might still percieve minor inequalities, but even the staunchest feminist has to admit how drastically social scripts have changed in the last fifty years.  If even half of what Mad Men presents is factual, well, holy shit, man.  I mean, the women at home are relegated to cooks, cleaners and childrearers whose secondary function is to look good at social functons and occaisionally recieve her husband's sperm in whatever oriface he sees fit to deposit it in. 

In fact the whole institution of marriage is front and centre as the only woman on the block who has been divorced (gasp!) is seen as some kind of otherworldy creature or at least as some kind of social deviant.  Marriage is depicted in the show as basically an entire support system for the husband as he basically gets to come home, eat his dinner, have a drink, fuck his wife, have a cigarette then fall asleep only to awake in the morning to freshly cleaned and pressed clothes, dressed and fed kids, a hot breakfast and a kiss on the cheek as he heads out the door again.  The women at work don't have it much better.  The audience is constantly being reminded that the only jobs most women could get were as secretaries or maybe as a sales associate at a department store or as the mistress of a rich, married guy.  The exception, of course, is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) who works her way up from secretary to slightly more attractive copywriter who represents the slowly changing attitudes towards women and the rising feminist movement of the time. 

With the constant reminders about gender roles comes the constant sexual encounters between the married Draper and various women, and indeed between virtually all the married male characters in the show and random secretaries, au pairs and struggling artists.  This purpose of showing (but not showing) gratutitous amounts of sex is A) because it's entertaining to watch and/or imagine people having sex and that sells B) to once again emphasize changing views on sex and marriage C) to give us a brief glimpse of the sexual revolution in the 60's and D) to show differences in what body types were desirable in the 60's and E) to frustrate legions of male fans by not showing January Jones naked.  God bless you HBO for the bounty we always recieve from you.

And when we're not being slapped in the face with differences in gender roles it's some other cultural differece that's being rammed down our throats.  There's the flippant attitude towards drinking -at home, at work, morning, noon, night, sitting, standing, at your kid's birthday party, driving (A whole new generation now has a better understanding of what "One for the road" actually means) waiting in the waiting room for your baby to be born while your wife goes through the delivery alone, or during some kind of strange beatnik performing art bullshit.  The attitude in smoking is both explicitely (one of Sterling Cooper's biggest clients is Lucky Strike, a cigarette company) and implicitely (everybody's smoking all the time, even the gynaecologist during a pelvic exam) emphasized in practically every episode.  Littering is taken for granted, you were allowed to hit your kids, and when they made a mess you could just get your wife to clean it up while you got your ten-year-old to mix you another cocktail. 

All these differences between society in the 60's and today are so much the forefront of the show, that at times they overshadow the characters or the plot.  But I fucking love it.  I eat that shit up.  It's so fascinating and entertaining to me to go watch Mad Men and go "Holy shit, I can't believe it used to be like," or "Holy shit I can't believe they actually thought like that," or "Holy shit Christina Hendricks has a great ass that you could just get lost in for days."  To me all those "Holy shit" moments are at least if not more entertaining than the plot and the character developments and the dramatic reveals.  What's more fascinating to me than Don Draper's secret past (which is very intriguing and engaging, don't get me wrong) is how Don Draper is (mostly) a man of his time.  What's crazy is that this character is from around the same time period of my grandparents, so I keep imagining a younger, more attractive version of my grandfather (he was a good looking guy back in the day) hanging out with Draper, drinking excessively and slapping the waitress's ass.  And I begin to wonder how much of these social scripts my grandparents went through time and time again.  The answer is probably all of them.     

And then it hits me.  We aren't men and women.  We are men and women of our time.  Which kind of makes me worried.  It's amusing to me to watch Mad Men and laugh at how silly their views on smoking were or how much fun they seemed to have as they drove their Cadillacs while sipping glasses of finely-aged scotch, or shake my head at their narrow views on homosexuality or their treatment of black people.  But then I take pause.  And what I think about then is how future generations will view us and how we will be depicted in their TV shows.  And then all of the sudden watching Mad Men makes me a little bit sad.  But this isn't a bad thing. 

And now for your viewing pleasure:


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