Chez Historianndoesn’t have cable–at least, not beyond very, very basic cable, and only then because we couldn’t get a wi-fi connection without it. So, we therefore don’t have HBO or any of the other cool channels we might actually like to watch (as opposed to re-runs of Full House and Saved By the Bell on our local WB CW affiliate.)
Since a member of the family is under the weather, and that weather is one of our twice-annual onslaughts of rain that lasts for days, I rented the first DVD of the first season of Mad Men, HBO’sAMC’s latestheavily-promoted and critically acclaimed series. For those of you who missed the weeks-long promotion of the premiere of the show’s second season, it’s about Madison Avenue advertising executives in the 1950s 1960s and the women who serve them as girlfriends, wives, and secretaries. The main characters are all white, and the few African American characters in the pilot episode appear only as elevator operators and waiters. Aside from admiring the attention to detail of the costume and set designers, who have crafted a world that is full of mid-century modern design, I don’t really understand the popularity of this show. (As usual though with historical dramas, the hair is all wrong. Hair is something that’s much more particular to an era than just about anything else.) Recent historical scholarship has revealed a 1950s 1950s and early 1960s that was much more varied, complex, and contested than Mad Men suggests, so it just seems too flat and simplistic.
Historical dramas are tricky, because either they run the risk of distorting race and sex relations in order to conform to modern notions of acceptable behavior (The Patriot, anyone?), or they run the risk of upsetting viewers by portraying historical truths too realistically. (Remember all of the controversy about the supposedly upsetting realism of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List?) But, some movies and TV shows get it right, and some don’t. In my opinion, Mad Men was full of the offensive entitlement of wealthy, young- and young-ish white male advertising executives, without any redeeming social critique. The only thing that signaled that we’re not supposed to like these guys very much is that the main character and his cronies are working on a cigarette account, and most of the main characters are smoking constantly and are shot through a scrim of smoke. Ooohh–smoking! Smoking is bad bad bad! We get it. We shut it off mid-way through the first episode. We just didn’t care whether or not the main character came up with a brilliant idea to save the account or not. His problems were too trivial to drive the drama.
As my fellow viewer said, “Roots was compelling and successful because it wasn’t about the masters,” and that about sums up my wariness of and boredom with Mad Men. Those of you who have seen more of it, let me know what you think, and if you like it, why you like it. Should we give it another chance? (We’ve got 4 more days to see the next 2-1/2 episodes.) Beyond that, how do you think TV and movies should deal with the prejudices and realities of the historical period they’re set in? What are examples of shows you think got it right, and of those you think got it all tragically wrong? (I’m considering giving Deadwood a try.)
UPDATED 8/18/08: Last night, inspired by all of you who are fans and wrote so persuasively about how compelling you find the show, I watched another episode and a half. (I think it was episode 8, when Don smokes pot with his girlfriend and her Beatnik pals, and has flashbacks to his Depression-era childhood. I feel asleep during the next episode, which was about Don’s wife getting back into modeling while he was being courted by a big ad agency.) For a TV show it’s above average, but I still found it very stiff, like a big 1960-themed dressup party with all of the stock characters performing lines that are more about the 2000s than about 1960. (Sorry about the errors above in thinking that the show was set in the late 1950s–I saw several references to the 1960 Presidential campaign after writing that. If Shaun is correct–see his informative comment below–and the show will end ca. 1972, it’s clearly meant to span the “long 1960s,” starting with the 1950s-ish early 1960s and ending with the late 1960s, which actually only ended in the 1970s.) Finally, I found the writing (in these episodes) sounds like a David Mamet impersonation. (The philosophical Hobo whose insights are more eloquent and profound than anybody? Please.) Don I suppose Mamet sounded edgy and cool in the 1980s, but twenty-five years on, not so much.
I may watch a few more episodes, to keep my ailing family member company. (Ze’s the reason I was sent out yesterday to rent episodes 4-6 and 7-9, as ze’s becoming quite a fan!) But so far, count me among the phillistines who doesn’t really get this one.
Someone who does get the show, and who wrote an extremely interesting response to this post, is Clio Bluestocking–go read it. I think she’s right that “writers [of historical fiction] are not so much trying to create a historically accurate world — although they must adhere to certain rules of history much as science fiction writers must adhere to rules of science — as they are trying to explore a contemporary subject,” although I still think that historians should evaluate historical TV, movies, and fiction as historians, with an eye to accuracy, period details, and overall mood. (Again, The Patriot, anyone?) Her post raises questions about the uses of contemporary movies and TV shows set in the past, and how we can use them responsibly in the classroom. Although I don’t teach the 20th century any more, it seems like having students watch Desk Set (1957) rather than Mad Men would be a better assignment. But, what are those of us who teach before motion pictures supposed to do? Can period movies and TV shows play any role at all in our teaching, other than perhaps giving students a glimpse of how the past might have looked (albeit cleaner and with much better lighting and dental health), and to have discussions about how movies reflect more the world in which they were created than the world they purport to re-create?