Sunday, April 07, 2013

Mad Men -- In history not consumed by it

As Mad Men begins its sixth season, moving deeper into the part of the Sixties that made them famous, there has been some excitement about it perhaps confronting the issues of the day, like race.

I hope they ignore this advice, and judging by the first five seasons and Mattew Weiner's sensibilities, they probably will be.

What makes Mad Men interesting is that it offers a window into how certain people confronted the same type of issues that confront us -- how do we approach family life, professional life? How do we deal with upstart competitors?  What shortcuts are we willing to take for business success?  How do we respond when these things begin to shift?

The historical setting offers a couple advantages.  For one, we know how the choices the characters made worked out generally.  For another, it offers some historical context to fill in the background.  Show set in the  near-present like almost every other show generally have their characters operating in a vacuum, since it's difficult to import a current news event that would be plausible.  In Mad Men, the historical events actually happened, and we know this (or can look it up).

What's interesting about the show isn't that the partners have a big Conversation about Race, but the micro-adjustments they make as the landscape changes.  Which mirrors the way macro events tend to impact our lives.  Proponents of same sex marriage like to write that allowing it will have no impact on heterosexual marriages, which is at least superficially true.  While this is likely a historic event, in particular for same sex couples, it does not really impact what my day-to-day concerns are.  One could tell the story of John McG without touching on the same sex marriage debate.

I think the way Mad Men handled the Kennedy assassination -- weaving it into a wedding -- was brilliant in this regard.  Historical events happen, even big ones like the assassination of a president or the 9/11 attacks -- and people still get married, have kids, make mortgage payments, and have to deal with backstabbing co-workers.  They change us, but in subtle ways that are not best captured in a Special 9/11 Episode.

Some critics complain that the only people of color in the show are essentially window dressing to bring out some quality in the main characters.  But, though this also seems true to life.  Mad Men has a rich cast of characters that viewers care about.  I think it would be misstep to introduce another central character in order to explore another aspect of the events of the time.  The show is about what it's about.  If someone wants to make another show about the 1960's from the perspective of a black elevator operator, they are welcome to do so.

So, as I tune in tonight, I'll be interested to see how the characters respond to the turmoil of the late 1960's.  I am not terribly interested in having the show tell me that Racism is Bad, and War Is Wrong, and other Big Messages.


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