Third season premiere was last night.
Slate’s TV round table, TV Club: Talking Television
Monday morning afterthoughts: Upon reflection, I realize how little there is to reflect upon re last night’s episode. No delayed resonances, no psychic residue, only the ray of sunlight in knowing there’s a new Nurse Jackie on tonight. I understand that the mission of a season premiere after a sizable layoff is to reimmerse the viewer in the show’s designer ambiance and cloistral atmosphere (since nearly everything is shot on sets, hermetically sealed in a Sixties container) and to get storylines rolling, but Mad Men tends to get autointoxicated on its darkling moods and the Brit takeover of Sterling Cooper strikes me as a strategic error, adding clutter to the cast and trafficking in transatlantic cliches. What’s the point of even having Robert Morse’s elder sage around now? And why is Peggy dressing as if she’s leading an Easter egg hunt?
I suppose these and other mysteries will go unsolved for several episodes, when more minor mysteries will be introduced, which will also go unsolved.
Scott Locklin at Taki’s Magazine:
Mad Men makes the obligatory genuflection at the false god of the counterculture; making dumb nihilist beatniks appear to be somehow in on a secret that the ad men like Draper can’t fathom, when in reality, all they really have on Draper is an inferior drug stash. Booze and smokes, after all, were the background relaxants and cerebral stimulants of America’s greatest years. Booze and smokes split the atom and conquered the moon. Beatnik drugs are responsible for cultural innovations such as teaching second graders how to put a condom on a banana. Real beatniks made the imaginary misogyny of “Mad Men” seem like small beer. One would be hard pressed to find a mainstream 1960s novel as appallingly misogynistic as Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, which more or less treats women as if they were animated cadavers for the pleasure of the grubbins heroes of that sordid tale. That sort of irony is one of the unspoken tragedies of the mainstreaming of the counter culture. While the cultural revolution of the 1960s claims to have freed women from the sexist chains of their evil white male overlords, women are now “free” … well, to work unpleasant office jobs and to be chased down like pieces of meat. Rather like the situationportrayed in Mad Men, except modern pants-suit-chasing executives aren’t as well dressed as Don Draper, and work isn’t as much fun. The writer for the series admitted to using countercultural writers of the era: Kerouac, Cheever, and Gurley-Brown as historical source material, apparently in absence of actually knowing anyone who was alive in those days. This isn’t much different from using Father Coughlin broadcasts to learn about the cultural norms of 1930s era Reform Judaism.
Of course, people didn’t behave in the “made for TV” way. For example, while I’m sure there was plenty of sexism and seducing of coworkers in the early 1960s, the extremes portrayed “Mad Men” are historical fiction. I’m pretty sure people were less interested in passing themselves around like trays of tea biscuits in the old days. It seems obvious to me on a number of levels. The practical issues immediately come to mind: birth control pills, widespread social disapproval, the fact that abortion was a serious crime, the fact that adultery was still considered a crime, the fact that family law was completely different in those days: no fault divorce was not granted in any state in America until 1969. Divorce was virtually impossible in many civilized parts of the world of 1961. As for the casual sexism portrayed in the era; why is it I am able to think of dozens of famous scientists, writers and political figures from this era who happened to be women?
Clark Stooksbury at TAC responds to Locklin:
The only episode I remember featuring beatniks for any length of time, they seemed like jerks. How he equates “beatnik drugs” with putting condoms on Bananas for second graders; instead of say, Dylan’s Bringing it all Back Home or early Saturday Night Live episodes, is beyond me.
He continues in this vein while employing the sort of rightwing special pleading I’ve come to expect from sites such as Big Hollywood, while offering no genuine insight on an excellent program. He is under the mistaken impression that the viewer is expected to look down upon the characters and feel superior.
Latoya Peterson at Double X:
Although Draper has a gift for engaging and seeing through marginalized types—the unwed mother, the Jewish heiress, the closeted gay man—in the case of the black characters, the relationship never goes beyond shallow conversation. Mad Men takes on a number of cultural controversies, yet race is treated with politeness, distance, restraint, and a heavy dose of sentimentality. For a show that takes place in the early ’60s, as race riots are breaking out, this is a glaring omission.
Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to Peterson:
Mad Men is a show told from the perspective of a particular world. The people in that world barely see black people. They’re there all the time–Hollis in the elevator, women working in the powder-room, the Draper’s maid, the janitors, the black guy hired at Leo Burnett–but they’re never quite seen. I think this is an incredible statement on how privilege, at it’s most insidious, really works.
I was never one of those people who wanted to see more black people on, say, Friends, or felt that Seinfeld was too white, any more than I wanted to see more white people on The Bernie Mac Show. I think we have to careful. I don’t watch Mad Men to get a lesson on gender–though I sometimes do–I watch to see a good story. I understand, given the times, the desire to have the show take on race. But I don’t want to see Mad Men “take on” anything. That’s for bloggers, and historians to do.
Ann Friedman at Feministing:
And indeed, I love how the show paints an unvarnished picture of ’50s gender roles and how the female characters are so three-dimensional. They don’t easily map onto the sorts of stereotypes prevalent in TV shows and movies set in all decades. The bookish achiever (Peggy) is also kind of a slut. The slut (Joan) is also kind of a bookish achiever. And the devoted wife (Betty) is primed for a feminist awakening. (I’ve often wondered if the character was named after Betty Friedan.)
If we can set aside our concerns about the willfully ignorant asshole population’s relentless inability to catch a hint, I would argue that “Mad Men” actually has done a remarkable job of getting its political points across in a way that could create profound change in some audience members. Certainly, I’ve heard plenty of people, men especially, talk about how much they feel their eyes are opened by the unvarnished portrayal of 60s sexism. And that really wakes people up to the way that sexism still works in our culture, because the show dispenses with the myth that it was one way before second wave feminism, and then everything completely changed. You see that women had jobs, and that women had a lot of rights and autonomy in the early 60s, but that didn’t mean that sexism was over by a long shot. You see that women in the early 60s had “choices”, but that wasn’t the end of the story, nor did it mean that men didn’t have power over them. And you can see how, if those narratives were stupid in the 60s, they’re stupid now.
And let’s face it—the only reason it feels subtle sometimes is because the dialogue is so rooted in character. Last night, the single male secretary in Sterling Cooper complained that he works in a “gynocracy”. What he means, of course, is that having female peers in the secretarial pool emasculates him, and unless he gets special privileges for being male, he’s being oppressed. It’s the same line sexists use now, pointing to places where they feel that men are getting unduly fair treatment, and suggesting that nothing less than being held above women means that men are being oppressed. I’d argue that what they were doing there wasn’t very subtle, and nor was it particularly subtle when Betty joked that her daughter Sally was acting like a lesbian because she likes to bang a hammer around.
Rachel Sklar at HuffPo sees Morning Joe as Mad Men.
Frank Rich‘s column from Sunday:
That the early ’60s of “Mad Men” seems more contemporary than the late ’60s of Woodstock has little to do with the earlier period’s style or culture in any case (however superior the clothes). The rock giants of Woodstock remain exponentially more popular than Vic Damone and Perry Como, the forgotten crooners heard in “Mad Men.” The repressive racial and sexual order of Sterling Cooper, the show’s fictional ad agency, is also a relic, in part because of the revolutions that accelerated in the Woodstock era. The misogyny, racism and homophobia practiced in the executive suites of “Mad Men” are hardly extinct — and neither are the cigarettes that most of the characters chain-smoke — but they are in various stages of remission.
What makes the show powerful is not nostalgia for an America that few want to bring back — where women were most valued as sex objects or subservient housewives, where blacks were, at best, second-class citizens, and where the hedonistic guzzling of gas and gin went unquestioned. Rather, it’s our identification with an America that, for all its serious differences with our own, shares our growing anxiety about the prospect of cataclysmic change. “Mad Men” is about the dawn of a new era, and we, too, are at such a dawn. And we are uncertain and worried about what comes next.
UPDATE: Peter Suderman at Sully’s place.