Friday, February 29, 2008

MAD MEN: The Show People Love to Love and Hate to Hate

WHEN THE TELEVISION SHOW Mad Men, debuted on AMC last year, it was an immediate hit. Hipsters loved it for its irony-free vintageness, middle-of-the-roaders cottoned to its nostalgic representation of the late 50s-early 60s, and lefties claimed it made subtle yet powerful arguments about gender. Impossibly, all of these seemingly disparite reactions are valid (and even accurate) readings of the show.

No doubt, Mad Men's ability to "mean" on all of these different levels is one of the main reasons for its success, but its many hats also raises questions about the relationship bewteen nostalgia and interrogation. By this, I mean, can a show be both nostalgic and interrogative at the same time? Can it sentimentalize the very past it calls into question? Can a text accurately examine an era it is seduced by?

On one hand, it would seem that Mad Men--a full-on period drama that looks at the birth of big-time ad agencies on Madison Avenue in 1960--has to choose between objectively recreating an already romanticized time (and place) in American culture and asking probing questions about that time and place. And, indeed, at times this is exactly what seems to be happening. The era gets a big hug.

People relish smoking and drinking at work. There is relatively easy and repercussion-free sex in the office. Gender roles are clearly defined, and everyone knows exactly what is expected of them. And, everyone just looks so . . . not postmodern.

The structure of the show adds to this feeling. Close-ups on old school phones, comments about hair curlers, visits to the switchboard, conversations about the advances in typewriters, remarks about the prices of everything, and the unfolding of the Nixon/Kennedy presidential race reinforces at every possible moment the same mantra: this is 1960, this is 1960, this is 1960. And, it seems to do so happily, jubilantly, without hesitation.

Part of this derives from the acting, which is fabulous and completely without arch. The actors play it straight--no winks, no nods, so dramatic irony. The show seems so fully in itsself.

But, some of the darker sub-plots of the show--the unhappiness of the housewives, the fallout of infidelity, the various gender-based pressure to pass as alpha male or super female, and the pervasive racism and sexism--ultimately serve to undermine the veneer of play than animates so much of the program.

In many ways, the program is about identity--who we are and what makes us who we are. For men, it's work. For women, it's work; just a different kind. But each have their own set of rules, and, most importantly, their own sets of expectations. An inability to measure up can mean, for either gender, failure. And since there are few alternatives, failure (or the fear of failure), can mean disaster.

Critics of Mad Men claim the show wants it both ways--to passively luxuriate in a period piece and to be progressive and edgy and political. The question is, why can't a text do this? Isn't the benefit of history the carte blanche to see a text of the past through a different lens?

Ultimately, desipite all of the fun at the office, no one in the show is happy. Everyone is miserable, aware of all that they don't have. As the great American poet Wallace Stevens notes, "not to have is the beginning of desire."

It is possible that the most political project is one that so fully immerses the viewer in a time and place, they see just how restrictive the culture was, how few choices people had, and how ubiquitous social norms and mores were--enabling us, now, to see the totality of narrowness, and the dangers of exhuming it.

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