Friday, April 5, 2013

MAD MEN: Madison Avenue 90210

Mad Men is the only show I make a point of watching. Despite all that has been written about it, it is really just a soap opera for men. It is a melodramatic romance saga built around the drives and desires of men; sort of like High Fidelity is chick lit for men. But because MM is self-aware, and because soap operas are usually for women, Mad Men isn't seen for what it is.

Despite knowing this, I keep watching. Afterward I have dishpan hands.

Yottabyte after yottabyte has been dedicated to analyzing the show, mainly because it revolves around the illiberal corporate world of the 1960s, those murky, perilous days before sensitivity videos and feng shui conference rooms (if Genghis Khan were alive today, he'd quit his emperor gig to work in Human Resources). It takes a moralistic tone toward its era, and tries very hard to flaunt the sins of the past (you might call it anti-WASP porn).

I think this makes it a guilty pleasure for some conservatives: "Wasn't it great when everyone smoked? When you didn't have to walk on egg shells all the time? When this was a m-a-a-a-a-a-a-n's world!"

And for liberals, gawking at the bad old days is their raison d'être, so any opportunity to dig on how evil things were is not an opportunity to be missed! I knew things were bad, but I didn't know they were that bad. We've come a long way, baby! [Clap-clap-clap]

Because the producers are smart, Don Draper is kept more "modern" than most of the characters. He may be a dipsomaniac that constantly cheats on his wife, but because he exudes less WASPy evil than the other characters, he comes out ahead. Draper is kept pure so that progressive female viewers can guiltlessly fantasize about sleeping with him. It would be harder if Draper looked like John Hamm but talked like George Wallace (female viewers would still push through the guilt, possibly by first purifying their vibrators with fair trade chai).

I said the show was self-aware, which is why it loves to play with the "bad old days" theme. Overplay is more like it. Every episode has at least once ham-handed THINGS USED TO BE DIFFERENT moment. It'd be like if Star Trek had a point in each episode where Captain Kirk looked at the camera and said: "Can you believe we're in space?!" 

We get it. 1963 was different from 2013.

All this hyperbole keeps Mad Men from being the edgy feast it thinks it is. Because the show is full of subtle and not so subtle apologies for the material and the era in which it took place, at times it almost feels like an afterschool special. Contrast that with a show that was actually edgy like The Sopranos. The Sopranos never felt the need to write in the margins that "Murder is wrong!" It also offered no apologies for the politically incorrect conversations. You were either along for the salty, violent ride or you weren't.

Mad Men may be a soap opera for men, but its sensibilities can be downright girly. And I'll be watching the season premiere with bated breath.


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