This summer, my wife and I started watching Mad Men via DVDs from Netflix. I’m sure our postman got tired of seeing red Netflix envelopes come and go, because we worked our way through the first three seasons quickly. We are now up to season 4, which we are watching via Amazon Video on Demand, downloaded to our Tivo. (An entirely different topic, but part of our motivation to watch a new show was the ditching of our satellite dish this summer, and we — and our wallet — are quite pleased with a Tivo, Netflix, and six channels from our antenna.)
Mad Men, if you aren’t familiar is a show about an advertising agency in the early 60s. It is striking for its visuals, attention to details of the period, and rich dialogue. Any synopsis you read will tell you that it is a look at how the advertising industry was finding ways to change even as the culture itself was beginning to go through giant shifts. There are a few themes present throughout the 3 and a half seasons I’ve seen that hold my attention:
We’ve come so far in 50 years. Kind of.
What intrigues me about the time period of the show is the proximity and distance it has to where we are at 50 years later. Must of what the show exposes is shocking because we have come so far in 50 years, and yet much of what the show reveals still exists as undercurrents in our culture. The racism and sexism, the general suspicion of the other, are blatant in 1960 in a way that isn’t acceptable now, and yet seeing it then illuminates how it still exists today.
The grotesque underbelly of consumerism
A line in the first episode had me hooked on a theme the keeps unfolding. While having drinks with a potential client he had offended, primary character Don Draper explains: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” The 50s were a time when advertising thrived, selling the American Dream to an ambitious post-war USA. But some are starting to see that it isn’t quite working. The people in the agency are broken people, trying to live the dream they are creating, all while experiencing the reality that it doesn’t exist. And that leads me too…
These people are a mess. There is so much about them to like. And so much about them not to. They are a lot like you, and a lot like the person typing on my keyboard right now. If you want to choose a favorite, or try to define a protagonist, then you are forced to do it in spite of their apparent brokenness. And that’s the most common conversation I’ve had with my wife — do I, or don’t I, like any particular character. It’s not straightforward and simple — it’s more like, you know, life.