AMC’s Mad Men is yet one more product of television’s new golden age. The same combination of mindless leftism, foreign funding and ill-treatment of writers that caused the possibly fatal decline of American movies has chased talent and excellence to the little screen and shows like Mad Men are the delightful result.
If it had nothing else going for it than the sets and costumes that recreate the world of a 1960′s ad agency, it would still be a joy to watch. But writer Matthew Weiner has a powerful gift for inventing complex characters full of yearning, sorrow and humanity expressed through subtle and witty dialogue as well as meaningful trysts and confrontations.
These are brought to life by a wonderful cast, led by Jon Hamm. Hamm would almost surely have lived out his acting life in too-handsome-for-stardom second leads had it not been for this deservedly career-making role. He’s got terrific backup in actors and actresses – like Elizabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery – who are so well placed I can’t tell if the credit for their performances belongs to them or to the casting director (both, no doubt). I also have to mention the hilarious genius of putting Robert Morse in a role that serves as a running commentary on his famous star turn in “How To Succeed In Business.” Plus Bryan Batt for an admirably restrained and yet heart-breaking performance as a gay man in a world that can’t yet accept him.
So hurrah for great stuff. And what follows is not a criticism, but a commentary, something I keep noticing when I watch the show that grates on my sensibility.
It seems to me clear that lead ad man Don Draper is, to some degree, meant to represent the spirit of his America: Self-invented, desperate to leave behind the short-comings of the past, pouring vast amounts of creativity and insight into building a society of consumers, and forever torn between the appeal of home and family and the wild reaches of western freedom symbolized by his endless string of bohemian mistresses. While patriots might complain that this is a critical view of a great nation, humanity is flawed and will always deserve criticism under all systems and everywhere. The appeal, energy, liberty and sensuality of American life are all fully represented onscreen. You can’t watch the show without wanting to live in it.
That said, I do sometimes get a sense of smugness from the show that, given the social disasters of our current moment, seems wholly out of place. When white characters dismiss blacks, when men mistreat women, or when Batt’s creative, dignified Salvatore Romano is reduced to misery and loneliness on account of his inborn desires, the show seems to bristle with self-satisfaction, as much as to say: aren’t we so very much better now? Aren’t we, as Draper himself might’ve said, new and improved?
Well, no, we’re not. The institutional racism that once crippled black life has been replaced by an identity politics that mires many blacks in government dependency and illegitimacy rates that virtually insure generational poverty. The overdue acceptance of women in the workplace has been followed by a depressing perversion of femininity and a politically correct assault on homemaking and the natures of boys. Likewise, the enlightened welcoming of gays into the human community has been accompanied by a despicable radicalism that insults and even blacklists those who disagree.
The problem, I mean to say, is not Mad Men or its view of the 60′s. The problem is that there are not enough works of art taking the same sort of cutting and critical view of the accepted pieties of the present day.