Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mad Men Returns. The End is Nigh.

The Most Important Television Event that ever evented happened this weekend. In case you missed it (how could you, really) Mad Men came back to our airwaves after a protracted 17-month-long absence bringing with it another “hard” look at life in a slowly changing Manhattan as it transitions from the 1950s into the more dynamic 1960s. While the first four years of the show have given us the slow burn of change as our characters gradually come to realize that the world may not actually be all white and male, the fifth season is at last finally starting to show the cracks in the veneer of upper-crust society.

Zou Bisou Bisomethingorother

By this time, Mad Men is a certified cultural icon. It's engrained in our national dialogue, but the reasons for that aren't always as clear as we think. We watch the show not because we’re fascinated by the 1960s, but because it’s a commercial, packaged and dressed up and shopped out like something Don Draper himself would have put together, for how far we’ve progressed. It helps us to feel better about ourselves in our turbulent modern times to be able to point back to a different era and chuckle at the people using racist and offensive terms around the office with impunity. “See?” we say to ourselves, “We’re not like those people. We get it.”

Which is why this season is so critical for this show’s success. We’re now in the summer of 1966, on the cusp of all of those Big Changes that the country is about to go through. Mad Men is nothing if not a stickler for historical accuracy, and so far that’s shown. Our characters, as titans of business and the upwardly mobile, have spent the first four years of the show comfortably ensconced in suburbia and the leftovers of the post-war Eisenhower lifestyle. Which is to say, they’ve been largely pretty boring and, frankly, pretty infuriating. The unstated promise of this show is that we, the audience, would be given a cast of pretty and narcissistic misfits to look at in all their unenlightened glory with the expectation that eventually we are going to get to see them get bitch-slapped by history.

Most of our characters are on the wrong side of the cultural landmines that were the late 1960s and part of what we’ve been waiting to see is which characters are going to make it through this intact. Season five’s opener started to crack that egg for a us a bit as we see Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce being forced into hiring a black receptionist not because they wanted to be progressive but because they got their bluff called while mocking a rival company. Meanwhile, the social and sexual politics of the psychedelic mod era are starting to seep in, thanks in no small part to Don’s new “sex kitten” wife and her birthday dance for her new husband in front of his colleagues. Put another way, we’re starting to get a little more of a glimpse of Rome outside of the royal palace, while our Neros fiddle away in the corner.

This creeping reality is definitely welcome. Mad Men has always had much more in common with a soap opera than a typical evening drama, albeit one that we’ve cut a whole lot of slack due to its ridiculously meticulous production values. Still, the plots are certainly cousins of one another – Will Don’s infidelities catch up with him? Will Pete scheme his way into becoming a Senior Partner? Will Joan tell anyone that the baby isn’t her husband’s? Really, we’re only one case of amnesia and a demon possession away from entering the show into next year’s Daytime Emmy awards categories. With all the real upheaval that happened in this era, the show needs to start putting more energy toward those events and letting us see the rest of the world, rather than just focusing on the privileged classes as they try to adapt to these new-fangled “rights” and things that people who aren’t white men apparently are also keen on having.

Maybe they can also teach us better dancing?

With the real world starting to pound on the door of our favorite advertising agency, the question for the show over the next three seasons (creator Matthew Weiner has said he plans the show to last through 2014) should start to veer less from the question of how will they all adjust and more toward the question of who will be left standing? Mad Men is, in its own way, actually a story about the apocalypse and the survivors who are left after the world as we know it comes to an end. If the show lives up to its promise, we will be treated to a timely and well-thought out message about how to deal with monumental changes and how to create a new society from them that is better than the one that proceeded it. If not, we'll have been taken for a very pretty ride with a whole mess of people that we never really wanted to know to begin with.


Maggie Cats said...

Well, that was cynical. I always thought the point of Mad Men was to show how LITTLE we have changed and how MUCH like them we are. That people are and always have been utterly and completely self-absorbed and mucking their way through life and change as best we can.

But maybe that's just me.

Clovis said...

i admit, my reaction to the show could be because (for the most part) i dislike all the main characters and i think the show has never met a heavy-handed metaphor that it didn't love to beat you about the head with. i've been rooting for Don's destruction pretty much since the first season because i think he's a horrible human being, so that probably influences how i view the bigger messages of the show.

still, interesting that both of us saw the same thing and had the EXACT opposite reaction in terms of what we believe showing that time period is supposed to say about ours today.

Maggie Cats said...

Ha, good point about Don--he is pretty much a total toad.

I just read online that the show creator has also said its about the decline of NYC, from the glossy city on a hill of the 50s to the trash strewn pit of the 70s. And the rise of California--which makes sense considering how the show depicts LA.