Monday, August 22, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  


I have a basic mantra to which I often resort when a new movie is over-hyped. It goes “If a film is worth watching now, it will still be worth watching in four years’ time. If it is not worth watching in four years’ time, then it is not worth watching now.” This gives me a sound reason to not jump on the bandwagon and watch what is currently publicised or discussed. It also saves me a lot of money as I do not rush out to see things simply because they are new.

Of course this is a wordy apologia to lead you into this day’s sermon.

I did not see any of the US TV series Mad Men when it was broadcast on New Zealand television. For all I know, it might still be in the process of being broadcast. In the US, the series ran through 92 episodes in seven seasons between 2007 and 2015 and perhaps the later seasons are still being shown here.

But recently one of my daughters took out a subscription to Netflix for us, and through this medium I have recently been able to watch the first two seasons of Mad Men. Suits me. When it comes to television series or serials, I prefer not to be at the mercy of broadcasters for when I watch them – and should a series appeal to me, it is sometimes nice to watch two or three ad-free episodes in one evening.

From the little feedback I read when the series was being broadcast here, I gained the impression that it was a wildly satirical show sending up the ways of advertisers half a century ago. Indeed, I thought it was going to be a comedy. But this is not the case. The (New Zealand) reviews I had read were mainly written by a woman who had strongly feminist views, and hence who treated the show’s sexism to heavy satire of her own.

Mad Men is drama, not satire. Set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency, the first two seasons (the only ones I have so far seen) take place in 1960-62. From reading ahead, I understand that the following seasons – with some changes of cast – continue through the 1960s, taking account of changing fashions, mores and advertising techniques. So all seven seasons amount to a portrait of the 1960s as seen from Madison Avenue.

Central character is a self-confident and, of course, devious advertising executive called Don Draper (I will not trouble you with the actors’ names). He has a blonde beauty-queen wife in the suburbs as well as two cute kids and a shady past. We learn early on that he has both re-made and re-named himself to hide his embarrassing and humble origins. I think the scriptwriters intend this as a  big metaphor for the way all ad people disguise and distort reality, though at once credibility factors arise about how Don has been able to maintain this deception. Around Don in the ad agency office, other major characters are Peggy, apparently the innocent new office girl, but soon shown to be very much a careerist on the make; an annoying junior ad exec, employed because of his daddy's money, who is just learning the ropes and frequently makes a fool of himself with embarrassing outbursts; a sexpot, always in a red dress, who sleeps with one of the elderly senior execs and regards herself as the mentor of the girls in the typing pool; and others whom I won’t bother mentioning. You get the point. The series draws recognisable “types”.

The strength of what I have seen, however, is the series’ sense of period.

Suits, dresses, interior decoration, habits of speech, all belong to the age in which the series is set. As an avid anachronism-spotter, I have yet to spot an anachronism.

More important, Mad Men creates what I assume were the mores of the age for this particular profession and social class.

Everybody smokes unapologetically and in all circumstances – at board meetings, while typing, at parties, after making love etc. etc. – even if an early episode has admen wondering how they will market Lucky Strike when annoying doctors are beginning to talk about the health risks presented by tobacco.

Gallons of alcohol are consumed by the admen, not just at the inevitable long, liquid lunches but in the office itself. Announcements – even trivial ones – are greeted by the boys gathering round and chugging back bourbon.

Blacks appear only as lift-attendants, wash-room attendants and waiters.

And – in terms of storylines, the really big one - women in the office are only secretaries, typists and telephone operators. Here is the sexism, which made that New Zealand critic react in a way that led me to think this would be an outrageous comedy.

No women hold executive positions – though even in the only two seasons that I have watched, there are the beginnings of a whisper that this might gradually change. The male executives regard all women (who work in the open-plan part of the office) as sexually available. Models who come for photo shoots are eyed up lustfully and overtly commented upon by the boys. Senior executives take it for granted that they can make passes at all attractive women in the typing pool. Most of the executives have recruited mistresses from this available talent. Indeed, this is regarded as one of the perks of their position. And, as depicted here, most of the women understand that these are the rules of the game and try to play them to their own advantage.

The gay man in the art department of course has to stay in the closet and pretend to be one of the boys. Meanwhile, back in the suburbs, the news that a divorced woman has moved into the neighbourhood makes the fellers think that of course she is sexually available to them. And of course Don Draper’s wife is beginning to go crazy with what would later be called suburban neurosis.

I do not for one moment think that this was how everyone (even on Manhattan) thought or felt in 1960. But it is a persuasive presentation of a past age and place and its everyday morality, and this presentation is what is best in the series.

BUT (and here comes my sermon) there is always a price to pay when you turn drama into a television series that runs for many hours. (See my earlier post Even Shakespeare didn’t have to write thismuch, which was written with reference to the series Homeland.) No matter how well acted the leading roles are, no matter how convincing the mise-en-scene, and no matter how accurate the portrayal of past mores, a series of this length will inevitably become, at a certain point, soap opera. I had watched less than half the first season when I had registered everything Mad Men had to say about the advertising industry then and there. After this point, I felt I was watching unnecessary happenings in the lives of characters whose totality I already knew. It was fun to find who was sleeping with whom, who was getting caught out, who got fired, who got promoted, and to register the way a period recording was played over the end-credits of each episode when we had been left with a cliff-hanger. But this was sheer soap.

I know (as defensive television people have often told me) that the same could be said of many long and much-admired nineteenth century novels. Aren’t there passages in Dickens, Balzac and others that could be regarded as soap opera in the sense of spinning things out for the sake of spinning them out and keeping readers hooked? Possibly true. But then they have the great consolations of prose style and either raucous or ironical wit. Mad Men is smooth, well-presented and frankly a teensy bit smug (doesn’t the whole concept depend on the assumption that we are NOW more gender-equitable and aware?). Like an advertisement, in other words. And it does indeed go on and on.

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