Monday, October 27, 2008

The Season Finale of Mad Men + A Second Shot at Swingtown

TONIGHT'S SEASON FINALE OF season two of Mad Men was more about the future than the past. Crippled by the Cuban missile crisis, the merger of Sterling Cooper, and the unexpected news of both pregnancy and paternity, the men and women of the show braced themselves for the invisible unfolding of the future, even though the audience sees them as relics of a charming era when people actually ordered gimlets and wore tie clips without irony.

It is a tribute to the show's writing that so much of the program eschews the easy nostalgia for 1962 and instead focuses on the unsettling encroachment of postmodernity with its incredulity toward metanarratives and its tofu. And now it's going away!

If Mad Men's hibernation has you antsy for an interesting companion program, check out Swingtown. The first season, originally on CBS earlier this year, is currently being rebroadcast on Bravo.

Though it is set in a suburb of Chicago in 1976, Swingtown shares a great deal with Mad Men. In particular, both series feature detailed examinations of the romantic and emotional relationships of unusually attractive (and slim) suburban couples who seem to be drifting apart. Much of the topical source of the tension in Swingtown is a long-married couple's decision to "swing" with some saucy new neighbors, but, like Mad Men, the roots of the infidelity are deeper than mere fad. Though the contexts in the two shows are different, it's astonishing how similar (and awkward) suburban communication between men and women can be on TV--even more awkward than the hair.

Like Mad Men, Swingtown revels in the trivia of a bygone era, pulling more generously from music, icons, and the joie de vivre of the times than its '62 counterpart; but it lacks the historical or political depth of the older model. It's less dark, less moody--in short, less cable--and, as such, Swingtown is also less enjoyable. It lacks Mad Men's relational tension, its pressure of codes and restrictions. In Swingtown's suburban Chicago of the 70s, pretty much anything goes, which you would think would make for fun TV. But that lack of circumscription (plus network TV's enforced circumscription) makes the series about wife-swapping not quite as swingin' as you might expect.

Still, it's fascinating to see how fashion, interior design, music, culture, and sexual freedom changes from the 1962 of Mad Men to the 1976 of Swingtown. It's hard to imagine the era between the two is only 14 years; it seems like twice that much. And yet, it's equally stunning to see how little gender roles alter, despite the fact that so many other aspects of American life seem to completely invert. In these suburbs, women still stay home, they still depend on their husbands, and they still have no idea what their partners really want. The women--particularly the wives--also don't know what they want. Both programs are at their best when the changing shape of culture catalyzes the women's moments of self discovery.

I have suggested before that Mad Men is really about women, and I would make the same argument for Swingtown. The guys are fine, and their extra-marital conquests are fun to watch. Or, are they painful to watch? Regardless, whether it's the 60s or the 70s, the emotional landscape of women--with its hidden pitfalls, its peaks and valleys, and its rivers of consequence--is just more interesting terrain to map.

1 comment:

  1. Mad Men is a good show. I like its plot, cast and theme music. Thanks Dean for making this post so good and informative.