It’s the season for highlighting the best that was written, said, and done in 2010. The consensus is emerging that the most thoughtful TV show (and so the one that most deserves critical analysis) is, once again, Mad Men. Pop cultural commentary is neither above nor below my pay grade, and so let say a few words on the show’s message.
From our view, people not so long ago lived somewhere between contemptible self-indulgence and inexplicable insanity. Advertising executives in Manhattan around 1960 really did give themselves the cool nickname Mad Men. But the show's barely concealed message is that they really were mad. That madness is displayed for our complacent horror.
The Mad Men smoked like chimneys and almost routinely got drunk on multiple martinis. They ate huge pieces of red meat together with lots of refined carbs. They even had those martinis at lunch, right in the middle of the work day. So they got back to their offices sick, sleepy, and moody. Occasionally they didn’t even return at all. They exercised rarely or only for fun and never scientifically. Blood pressure standards were much more lax in those days than they are in ours. They weren’t as focused on either health or productivity as people are today.
Rather than have sensible, emotionless, safe, and deeply consensual hook ups, the Mad Men had complicated, emotionally sloppy, and altogether needlessly dangerous affairs. They found it almost impossible to think of women as autonomous individuals, and so they were guilty of all kinds of double standards and the cause of unplanned pregnancies. They weren’t as enlightened as we are about either safe or consensual sex. Really smart wives were stuck frustrated at home with multiple kids, and so they ending up abusing substances and having dangerous liaisons too.
So it’s altogether too easy for us to see that the lives of those men and women were needlessly risky and obsessive. Sometimes we just want to scream at the screen that you guys just got to get control of yourselves and be more responsible. Lives today are more calculated, more controlled. They are, as David Brooks wrote, bourgeois bohemians. People have their tasteful fun, but not at the expense of ignoring risk factors or undermining their productivity.
We also see how hellish it was to live as a women in more unliberated or less enlightened times. Ambitious women had to be much more skilled, industrious, and thick-skinned to have careers thought to be reserved for men. The civil rights movement was just beginning, and there’s some sensitivity at the agency to the African-American advertising market. But there weren't any African-American Mad Men, and nobody is talking about remedying that situation. The intelligent and caring black woman in the show is underemployed as a domestic, and she is fired capriciously by a lazy and neurotic white housewife. And the gays, of course, remain desperately closeted, frightened of being anything but invisible. Our country, in general, is more just than it was in those comparatively cruel days.
We postmodern conservatives can see that there’s been lots of progress in living as free individual since the early 1960s. People really are less determined by race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, and particular individuals are enjoying longer, healthier, and freer lives. (Actually, the obesity “epidemic” is a reminder of the continuing relevance of class, but that’s a story for another time.) The world is more a genuine meritocracy based on productivity than ever.
But to be fair to the screenwriters, we can also see a narrative of decline in Mad Men. The early Sixties was the beginning of a kind of decadence that continues to progress today. The Mad Men were, compared to us, pretty classy and creative; they knew how to dress and were more certain about how to act. Although the new generation at the agency is markedly inferior in certain respects to the more “paternalistic” old men, they still knew how to handle themselves as ladies and gentlemen better than we do. They were comparatively attuned to their social (if not their environmental!) responsibilities.
They were certainly less bourgeois or selfish in a petty way than we are. They weren’t afraid to let themselves go and have those multiple kids, and they weren’t obsessed—at the expense of enjoying life—with living forever. And the show often reminds us that there’s a connection between romantic indifference to risk and the liberated creative imagination and the highest levels of real productivity. Women, from a cynical or Marxist view, were just beginning to be liberated to be wage slaves just like men, and that liberation, we have to remember, gave women new choices but made the “traditional” ones harder. It’s harder not to think of oneself as, most of all, a free individual these days. Even or especially Darwinians might have to agree that we’ve become too self-obsessed to reliably do our duty to the species as social animals.