Someone posed the question: would you honestly still think Mad Men was a great show if it wasn’t set in the 60’s?
My short answer is yes and no and it’s an unfair question.
Everyone talked about the smoking and drinking at work and either said it really was just like that or argued that it wasn’t, those who remember those days. The rest of us wondered if it was really like that, a time not that long ago, and watched fascinated. Could you have lifted that show out of that 60’s setting and had a show anyone would watch? Yes and no and it’s an unfair question.
Would Star Wars have been a hit if it wasn’t set in Space? Yes and no and it’s an unfair question. There were compelling story elements that would have translated to a contemporary or historical setting; in fact a lot of people, fans included, would say Star Wars is a lot of tried and true story elements lifted and placed in Space, but part of the magic that made Star Wars such a hit obviously included its setting in Space.
I’m in the middle of a rewatch of Mad Men and am loving it just as much the second time through. Four and a half seasons of ‘look everyone smokes and drinks at work’ wouldn’t keep me watching. Here are two snippets pulled from recent episodes that would have worked in any contemporary show:
A subordinate is going to see The Rolling Stones with his boss, Don Draper, on business. He says, “Show starts at eight, but there’s a great little Italian place if you want to go early for dinner first.”
“Okay. Then I’ll meet you at 7:30 having already eaten.”
Roger Sterling asks for a favor but the other guy refuses even after some time spent trying to convince him. Then he offers money. After some more convincing, the guy agrees to the favor and accepts the money and says, “All right, but you’re going to owe me.”
Roger says, “No. I’m not. That’s what the money is for. This is a transaction now.”
Note: these are both clever bits that stood out in episodes I watched soon after this question was posed to me, the show is filled with moments like these.
Although Mad Men isn’t strictly a comedy. In another recent episode an old girlfriend of Don’s runs into him. He comments on how skinny she looks and how good. He ends up at her apartment, where he uncovers her clumsy plot to extract a little drug money from her rich ex. He asks her why she doesn’t just stop using.
“Because, it’s heroin.”
If you know someone who has struggled with a heroin addiction, the subtlety of the moment leaves you aching all the more for her.
The 60’s setting works as a way of seeing our society, the way science fiction can point out issues and offer fresh perspective. In one scene, the men at the ad agency decide to bring in the “girls,” adult women hired exclusively as secretaries, to have them talk about make-up to inspire the men watching from behind a one-way mirror to come up with a marketing strategy. An already inappropriate invasion of privacy becomes even more repulsive when the men start ogling them and making crude comments. No one finds this offensive except for you, the viewer.
We learn how far we’ve come but we also discover how much farther we need to go. This scene is so clearly damaging to women, subjugating them, and reinforcing a system that will make progressing in their careers difficult for future generations. Yet groups of women are still referred to as “girls” in professional settings. I often snarkily whisper to someone near me when I hear women referred to as “girls,” “How old do you have to be to work here? Eighteen, right? So they aren’t girls, they’re women.” I usually get an eye roll for being “too PC,” or someone will say, “That’s just what people say.”
Well, things people say and do comprise a society that fails to meet the ideal of equality. The most disturbing scene in the series might be Roger Sterling wearing black face and singing to an amused crowd at his wedding or engagement party, in season three, episode three. What makes the scene so awful is no one reacts to how appalling this is because no one thinks it’s appalling. A typical show would have that one character who displays disgust, the character who recognizes the problem, the representative of the society on the verge of change. Mad Men doesn’t always do that, because that would dilute the viewer’s experience. A rich white guy in front of a rich crowd of his white peers is making fun of the black guy who runs the elevator that takes him to work every morning, a co-worker, but of course he doesn’t feel like that’s exactly what he’s doing and neither does anyone watching, except you.
What this makes me think of, living in Northeast Ohio, is almost every day I have to look at a caricature of a minority group plastered on the paraphernalia of Cleveland’s baseball team. Scientific study has repeatedly demonstrated that the sight of a caricature of a minority group makes people less sensitive to all minority groups, i.e. racist. If we continue to progress in sensitivity, there could be a show twenty or thirty years from now that gets people talking by having characters wearing these shirts. Did people really wear shirts like that to stores and restaurants? Maybe people will argue about whether or not it was really like that, back in 2015.
The characters in Mad Men are all experiencing the changes of their time as they’re happening. No one is entirely sure that women should be moving into positions higher than secretary. The most secure are the ones blindly certain that things should remain exactly as they are, everything’s already fixed: women can vote, black people are free. What else? The show shows us that this is the conflict social groups are constantly facing and have been for all of time. A way sets in and someone suggests a change to that way and changing is hard, so it’s always easier to say no to the change and fall back on it being fine the way it is. It gets even more complicated because sometimes the change wouldn’t be good, so sometimes not changing is the better way. And we have to make these decisions collectively which is why change is so slow, and while we’re slowly changing, things are mostly staying the same. Maybe that has something to do with why Mad Men gets criticized for being paced too slow. Seven seasons in and Peggy, who went from secretary to copywriter to one of the company heads, is still an exception to the way. Because without a model for another way, changing is scary. It feels safer to think Peggy is an exception and keep all the other women at the level of secretary. I think of this again and again when I look back on history. We call women who fought for suffrage courageous but we will never truly understand just how brave they were to fight so hard for something we only know now should have been the way all along. Mad Men is a show that helps us realize that this struggle between the familiar and known old way and the frightening and unknown new one existed for every change people fought and died for.
Let me add a self-indulgent bit to the end of this (I know, you’re thinking, You mean another one!), and if I phrase this wrong I’ll sound like a snob, but I almost gave up on Mad Men after a few episodes. A friend recommended it and I reported back that I found it kind of boring. She said, “Really? You didn’t think it was funny when Betty caught her daughter playing with that plastic garment bag and told her if she found her husband’s suit that was supposed to go in that bag crumpled on the floor that she was going to be in trouble.”
I hadn’t found it funny because I hadn’t gotten it. She had to explain it to me. That was a joke because something we know now, that children playing with plastic bags is dangerous, wasn’t as well known back then. And while there are scenes like that in Mad Men that look so odd to us now that they make us laugh, there is a morbid side to that joke. It took a while to get those labels on plastic bags because it took more devastating accidents than it should have to get us to start labeling those bags as dangerous, because change is hard and we resist change.
And my other point with that is that Mad Men is a show you have to watch closely to get. That’s where I realize I’m flirting with snobbery, but it’s not really about snobbery, it’s just a style that show has where it relies on subtlety to hit its marks. That doesn’t make it a better show than any other show out there, it’s just a show type. Not liking that type of show is fine, but if you’re not prepared for it, you could miss that, as I nearly did. If not for that conversation with the friend who recommended it, I might have stopped after a few episodes and it turned out to be my favorite show on TV.