I need to apologize to my readers, both of you. I haven’t been posting for the last few weeks. I just need to be open and honest now. I haven’t just been taking a break from film. I’ve been seeing another medium. That’s right. I’ve been spending time with television.
I don’t usually watch TV series’ because… well… I don’t have a TV. When I was growing up, I spent way too much time with television, watching cartoons over and over again because they were there. When my wife and I got married, we made the decision not to get a TV. My problems with TV were twofold: First, it doesn’t have an automatic “off switch”, so as long as you don’t take action, it will just keep going. It is the ultimate in passive brain numbing inactivity. Second, is the commercials. I hate ads. Almost all ads. They are deceptive and manipulative and makes you “need” what you do not need. Television ads are the worst, for they are repetitive and the best of them draw you in like tiny films. Now, the internet is almost as bad. I see my children hooked on online games as much as I was hooked on daytime television. And while the internet ads aren’t as compelling, they are as omnipresent.
So it is ironic that the TV show I get hooked on this year is Mad Men. Not only is it television, but it is about ads and those who make them. So it is like getting twice the ads. Well, not really. Like I said, I don’t have a television. I have a computer. So I watched Mad Men on Netflix that only advertises other films, which I don’t mind. And I do occasionally catch some other TV series’—Lost, House, Bones, The Wire—usually on DVD from the library. I’ll usually watch one season at a shot, often with my wife. We’ll finish a season in about a week, and then go sometimes months before watching another.
But why Mad Men? Honestly, it’s pretty much a soap opera, which as a genre has never caught me. And it’s a pretty quiet soap opera, the drama builds, but it’s not especially intense. No violence, plenty of clothed sex, but once who know who the philanderers are, there’s not much interest there. No science fiction or fantasy to distract one. Some of the characters are charismatic, but they don’t do anything that interesting, really, and they are often so unpleasant and immoral. Just normal people, living their daily lives in the early 60s. Yet I watched between one and three episodes a day in four weeks (finishing out four seasons in that time). Once I’d watched the first few episodes, I was hooked. Why? What is so compelling? Below are some reasons. I’m not trying to be deep here. I’m just trying to understand my own compulsion.
1. The short stories are really well written
A great insight from David Bax on the podcast Battleship Pretension is this: Television, at its best, is a series of short stories (episodes) that build on each other within a larger story (series). While this isn’t always true for good television—30 Rock, for example— I think that it does hold true for the best television. And one of the main strengths of Mad Men is that each episode is complete, well-written and containing its own themes, but keeps you wanting to see the next part in the overall story. Lost was good at keeping you hungry for the next part of the story, but rare is the episode that is good in and of itself. Mad Men presents you with one gem after another. I could write an in depth essay about the themes and development on easily half the episodes of the series. I can’t imagine doing that about any other television series I have seen. Maybe The Wire, but that’s it.
2. The era is like a foreign world
Next year we will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. Fifty years isn’t that long, historically or even culturally. Rarely is the era that changes a lot in fifty years. But the changes over the last fifty years are so remarkable and vast that to watch an accurate drama that takes place in that by-gone era is as different as watching a drama that takes place among a common family in Tibet. I was born in 1965 and I can barely remember some of the differences, but Mad Men is such an accurate portrayal of that gone era that it is amazing to consider that people actually lived this way. Cigarettes and alcohol everywhere, women considered to be idiots, black Americans are clearly separate and unequal, even the lines rolling through the TV screens—it seems so odd, so quietly insane.
3. The satire is exceeding subtle and thoughtful
One of my favorite scenes is the Draper family having a picnic together, relaxing, having a good time. When the picnic is over, Mrs. Draper picks up the cloth with all of their trash and leftovers and shakes it off, leaving all their debris for someone else to clean up. My mouth dropped open… but I can barely remember that this was the attitude of people in the early 70s. We would throw trash out of our car windows and think nothing of it. All throughout the series there are jabs at the different attitudes of the 60s as opposed to today. But there are also jabs at us, at our business and personal practices that would seem horrifying to someone in the 60s.
4. The changes are slow but revealing
Related to the last point, Mad Men is fascinating because as the seasons go on, we can see the transformation of culture, ethics, media, family life and so much more step by step into the world us Americans live in today. It is a class in the everyday life of Americans of the 60s. And if the series continues to be successful, it may go into the 70s.
I recently read a book called Coming Apart by Charles Murray, which opposes the sociological structure of the United States from before JFK’s assassination to today's structure, and he describes in detail how remarkably different things are. It is telling of Mad Men’s accuracy that he referred to the series a number of times. As opposed to That 70s Show or The Wonder Years, (which are mostly nostalgia fests) I think Mad Men will remain a document accurately describing an era and gives us compelling drama to understand why this glimpse back is important.