Mad Men

I've been meaning to write about the AMC original series, Mad Men for a few weeks. If you haven't seen it, it is a period piece about an advertising agency in the late '50's/early '60's that highlights how different life in the U.S. was not so long ago. There isn't a lot in the way of music to write about, but Mad Men is as culturally significant as any of the political music that I write about, and probably the smartest show I've seen in awhile (which is saying a lot given how much television I watch).

There is a lot of buzz about the show's mid-century aesthetic in the blogosphere. While that particular style of furniture is still very much present in modern homes and offices, finding sofas in the proper colors, countertops with the retro metal siding (like mine, in my 1950's kitchen), and other various room details must have been quite an endeavor. The show demonstrates the tension and transition between an era of more classical, even Baroque design (especially in shots of upper east side Manhattan apartments) and a new mid-century modernism based on cleaner lines and geometric shapes. The clothing is also genius, but that is a discussion for another day.

Most of what I'd otherwise like to say in the way of synopsis or social analysis has already been said, and I'd recommend Alex Carnavale and Molly Lambert's analyses at This Recording. I will say a few things, though. While the social cues are subtle, the characters' behavior toward women and minorities is stark. Women seem to balance the opposing drives of absolute submission to their husbands and being on the cusp of resistance. As Lambert puts it, the show demonstrates "why the fifties were an era that begged to be rebelled against later on in the sixties." Attitudes toward race were also much more complex than many of our generation can even begin to understand. In a time in which Jewish or Italian Americans were considered non-White, the world of White privileged society was exclusive in ways that are very foreign to us now. Most people do not know that there was a long period of struggle and assimilation that led White Americans to socially think of Jewish and Italian immigrants as members of "their race." I won't get into the history of that now, but it is worth mentioning that the show captures this dynamic perfectly, especially in Don Draeper's affair with Rachel Menken.

In season two, we learn that Paul Kinsey, one of the advertising execs, has an African American girlfriend. He is accused by an ex-girlfriend of using her to demonstrate that he is "cultured" and "interesting." The girlfriend's character (I wish I remembered her name--they barely mention it) is significantly one of few African Americans present on the show. Of these few, most are men who work in the office building as elevator controllers or janitors. The only other African American women on the show are hired domestic workers (referred to as "the girl" by Draeper) and friends of characters with "fringe" behavior, such as Kinsey and Draeper's mistress, Midge. The show attempts to demonstrate the careful relations between White Americans who relate to racial minorities in unorthodox ways (for the time) and does it quite brilliantly, with each interaction causing the slight discomfort of some of the characters and causing cognitive dissonance.

I was really afraid that the show would focus too much on the valorization of the period (Pleasantville, anyone?), but it is, instead, like a careful eye watching the mundane actions of privileged people, watching them flinch as the times are changing. It is incredibly successful in its silent observation, allowing the stark difference of the era to speak for itself. There are a lot of other things that I could say, and probably will write about as the second season unfolds, but for now, if you have not seen it, rent it immediately.


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