Sunday, 6 January 2013

#333: Mad about Mad Men

I am hooked on Mad Men

When I was working, I was rarely able watch at its usual time, and after a few episodes I gave up.  But I knew I would get back to it, and now, five years later thanks to the magic of Netflicks, I've seen the first five seasons in quick succession. Bring on 1966!

A lot of us are mad about Mad Men. But I am sure that no-one enjoys it as much as the cohort of folks who have first-hand experience of the Sixties.  If you are over 65, this was your life--your smoke-filled, alcohol-fueled, sexist, racist, homophobic life.   And that is just the first episode.

In fact, I am sure that the under-40 crowd cannot possibly experience this TV show the way I do. I think that younger viewers probably find it compelling , but in the same way that I appreciate Downton Abbey.  (I love everything about this early 20th century English saga although I have not lost loved ones to mustard gas, or toiled below stairs, or rallied for women's suffrage. The series is interesting, even captivating, but my appreciation is not the same as if I watched Matthew in the trenches.and experienced a visceral flash-back, a "this was my life" epiphany.)

Not so, Mad Men.  Take that first episode.  The staff at the agency are attempting an advertising makeover for Lucky Strike in the wake of research that hints at bad luck for Big Tobacco.  But for those of us who lived or worked or hung out with smokers (and that was pretty much everyone), watching Don and his advertising cronies struggle to think of something good to say about cigarettes while they light up again and again is not just a bit of dramatized social history. It is an OMG I was there experience.  I remember smoky bars, cars and staff rooms. I sat in those spaces.  I choked on that air. And if you were alive in 1960, you did too.
Got a light?

There is plenty of  "real" history in Mad Men:  Kennedy dies, John Glenn walks on the moon, Beatlemania hits North America, etc. But it is the social history that resonates, and smoking is just one of many gasp-inducing (pun intended) behaviours that assault our current sensibilities.  The sixties precipitated an avalanche of social changes and Mad Men exposes them all by simply and faithfully dramatizing life as it was, exactly as I/we lived it.  I remember that! must surely be the guaranteed response of every 70-ish viewer to every episode.    You'll know what I mean if you have watched while Don and the gang blithely drive drunk (seat belt-free), smoke in bed, litter, waste natural resources, swat their kids (and worse),  make racist, sexist and homophobic references, and most tellingly, boss around their secretaries and their wives.  Assumptions about the role of men and women in the workplace and at home propel many of the best story lines.

In my case, however, I remember that translates more accurately to I'd forgotten about that, but now I remember, and I am slightly appalled.  And here is where younger viewers have an advantage; they can view this careful portrayal of my life and times without feeling somehow guilty.  It is harder for those of us with personal experience.  There has been such a complete attitude adjustment in the last 50 years it is hard to imagine that my generation was once so unenlightened.  With the wisdom of hindsight, I feel vaguely responsible, and cannot help but wonder how could we not have spoken up?   Perhaps I can excuse myself because in 1960, I was only 16.  But even the adults I knew tolerated a good deal more than they complained about.   Cigar-chompers were not sent to the patio even though others were made sick by the smell. If a girl "got herself" pregnant, it was assumed to be "her fault".  Drunken drivers left a party and no-one thought to stop them.  Women assumed domestic chores (on the job and at home), unhappily but without question.  We were polite and adaptable-- just like the staff at Sterling Cooper.  Even Peggy, the clever, quietly ambitious copywriter with whom I most identify, knows the necessity of accommodation.

My daughters and their friends can watch as the Sixties lurch towards liberalism on Mad Men and be  impressed at how far we have come.  My response is more personal.  I wonder what took us so long.   We were like those frogs that adapt to boiling water,  tolerating the status quo because we didn't really know how else to behave.  Not yet.

OMG, indeed. 



  1. Superb writing, Nancy. I will stumble through my few comments.
    I started watching Mad Men after having heard and read quite a lot about it, so I was intrigued. It didn't seem to be the usual predictable series.

    So I watched my first episode and pretty soon worked out that it was season two, first episode. Imagine my joy that, half an hour later, I could see another episode. Hmmm... there were some interesting non sequiturs and I concluded that I would have to keep my wits about me as I watched.
    The next week I repeated my double dose and remained puzzled. I decided that it was too clever for me and that this was a challenge.
    Before the next episode I worked out that I'd been watching season one half an hour after season two each week.
    So I settled down to watching season two, which I loved, but then it disappeared off our screens altogether. Some day, when we have finished watching all the other DVDs we have around the place we'll borrow our daughter's boxed sets and watch it all.
    And I know that it's a pleasure to come, and it won't be too 'hard' for me at all, just brilliantly entertaining.

  2. That is sort of the way we were until we started back with episode one, season one. Then it will all fall into place and you will find yourself 3 episodes at a time