Tonight Mad Men returns. I liked the show. I liked it before it became popular. (It’s not The Wire, but then, hey, what is, except The Wire.)
But now I fear for the youth of the country. The photo on the left–which I believe I have legally downloaded from the Mad Men web site since it is an advertising gimmick, which is in itself pretty funny–says it all. You can be in this photo. And it seems that many people would very much like to be in it, at least judging by the Mad Men mania among the young, many of whom collected in Times Square tonight dressed in period costume. The photo on the right is of a group of characters from The Wire, a show that struggled to stay on the air. (Its last season overlapped with the first season of Mad Men.) It never found a large following in its five seasons, although today it is considered by many critics and viewers to be the finest TV series ever produced. It is set in present-day Baltimore and one of the things that it is about is how America is broken. It is highly unlikely that The Wire could have advertised itself by holding a contest that says, you can be in this photo.
Mad Men is great fun. The acting, the clothing, the furniture, the nicknacks, and that wonderful lighting. And of course the show is dutifully critical of aspects of the period that it portrays. As a matter of fact, the narrative arc was apparently meant to swing from the uptight and hypocritical 1950’s to the liberation of the ’60’s. But something perverse seems to have happened or be happening. In our dark economic times the atmosphere and staging of the show are becoming the message. And this message seems to be: it’s kind of okay to forget about how awful and repressive the 1950’s and early 60’s were if its artifacts provide the fantasy or eye candy that we need in order to escape from our own times. I know, you are going to say that I am going too far. It’s not the TV show’s fault if it’s seductively adorned.
A short personal sidebar. I was a child in the 1950’s and a young adolescent in the early 1960’s, yet I can still feel the claustrophobia of the period. I can tell you that offices were rarely glamorous. They were enclaves of sexism and repression. I remember working in one as a mailboy in my teens. Men were stuffed into cubicles or small offices. Women worked in outer areas as secretaries–a version of what you see in Mad Men. The hierarchy was fixed. I can swear that the men spent half their time either making passes at the secretaries or making juvenile sexual jokes about them, which were not much different from what I heard in the high school locker room. If I were a girl at the time, I would have said “ick.” (Of course, I couldn’t actually say, “ick,” or I would have been seen as a sissy.) What about the clothing, you ask. Let me tell you, when you actually had to wear this sort of clothing day in and day out or be ostracized for not wearing it, it wasn’t any fun. (I had to wear skinny ties in a public school until the late 1960’s.)
Perhaps I am getting worked up over nothing. After all doesn’t the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, feel much as I do about the period? But I am not the first to suggest that Weiner may be conflicted regarding his own creation. (See Natasha Simons.) The period is romanticized even as it is criticized. Let’s be clear, the romance is a mistake. The period was so bad that if I invented a time machine I would make sure that it would self-destruct before it could take anyone back into it. From this perspective, the Mad Men contest photo does not appear innocuous. It’s not simply suggesting: wouldn’t it be fun to be on a TV show. It’s suggesting: wouldn’t it be a blast to be back in that time, when, to paraphrase Ogden Nash, candy was dandy but liquor was quicker.
This season Mad Men will present us with the trials and tribulations of a bunch of middle class folks struggling to build their own business in a day when the economy was still booming. Escapism surely has its place. But as we enjoy the accouterments of the characters’ life styles, I wonder how much time we will spend focusing on how far their world actually is from ours. Which brings me back to The Wire, in which the drug of choice is heroin, not liquor, and upward mobility is not about getting a corner office but avoiding the coroner. We don’t really want to watch The Wire. It presents a political and economic system that is ill-equipped to grapple with depth of the corruption that plagues various strata in our society. It doesn’t provide any eye candy and it certainly doesn’t hold out the hope of a world in which our homes and offices are bathed in sunlight. If you are going to watch the fourth season of Mad Men, and you haven’t seen The Wire, it might be an interesting experiment to view them together.