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Mad Men Season One: Thoughts

Somehow I've gotten very behind on television the last few years. Fortunately, DVD-by-mail services are a good way to catch up, and one series that T and I are watching right now is Mad Men. We started awhile ago, then got stalled when it took GreenCine (from which we recently switched to Netflix) six months to send us the second disc of Season One. Maybe because of that, it took us a little while to get sucked into it. But we've finally finished the first season, and now we're looking for more.

Normally, I can only get into a show when I find that I can relate to at least some of the protagonists. There has to be some character who hooks me, gets me feeling sympathetic. Even if I hate all of the others. So far, Mad Men comes closer than any other show I've liked to breaking that rule. With the possible exception of Peggy -- sometimes I like her, but sometimes I find her to be breathtakingly naïve -- I don't really like any of these folks. Not Don Draper, not Betty, not Joan (although she has started to grow on me, maybe) not the smug, sexist Young Turks who populate the office, and especially not Pete Campbell: spoiled, self-centered, full of himself. He reminds me of a badly-behaved puppy, always yapping at Don's heels. Sometimes it really looks to me as though Don would love nothing more than to swat at him with a newspaper, especially during the thread toward the end the season when Pete was threatening to expose Don's past. When Pete finally got that swat, it seemed to be only what he richly deserved. Why Peggy continues to be obsessed with him, I will never understand.

I'm not quite sure what to make of Don, really. He's almost a Magnificent Bastard (warning: TV Tropes link), but it's as though he can't quite commit to the role. Maybe it's the insecurity of having to hide his true identity (and his secret past is probably the aspect of his character that I find most interesting -- maybe he's too invested in believing that he's the Good Guy. Which he is not -- he's an anti-hero, at best. His affairs, especially, are always portrayed as a betrayal of Betty, and sometimes, as with Rachel, of his mistress as well. When Betty reveals in the final episode that she knows he's cheating on her, it came as a huge relief to me: she's not stupid, just willfully blind, because she knows it would rock the boat too much to confront him on it. Given how the last episode played out, though, I have a feeling a confrontation is coming.

Obviously the show and the setting both are dripping with sexism. After we watched the first couple of episodes, T expressed surprise that I was able to watch a show where the sexism was so blatant. In another kind of show, it would indeed bother me, but I actually think it handles the sexism quite well so far. It's a corporate office in Manhattan in the 1960s; of course the people who work there are going to be blatantly racist and sexist (and homophobic, and anti-Semetic, and...). Anything else would feel unrealistic. But it's never presented as a good thing or as something to emulate, and sometimes I get the idea that show is forcing us to question how much has really changed in the last 50 years. Some things, yes, of course. But sometimes I look at the Young Turks and see a gang that would be perfectly in place walking down Wall Street today. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's a feminist show, but it has some interesting things to say. Regardless, I would much rather watch a show that is self-conscious about portraying the dark side of a particular time and place than the blatant but unconscious sexist portrayals that we see in a lot of modern media.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 11th, 2011 02:58 pm (UTC)
Aaah, this makes me want to rewatch and catch up.

I agree with you that the entire cast is, for the most part, flawed and oftentimes downright cruel. But I think their realism assures they're not entirely unsympathetic. Real people are selfish and unstable and stupid all the time. I may not have a single character I feel I can really cheer for or relate to -- but I think that's understandable as it's a show full of antiheroes. And, as far as I've watched, (missed the last two seasons -- argh) each of them have episodes in which they're elevated and others in which they are smacked the hell down. It's a very neutral show -- and I absolutely agree with you that it's more about 'interesting things to say' about ism rather than committing to exactly dismantling them. Though it does do some of the latter, it often goes about it in a subtle way and because *none* of the characters are Proper, Good Heroes, the message can get twisted.

I guess I wonder -- because I can't tell from this review -- if you *like* it so far? If you keep watching, I'd definitely be interested in reading your response. And if you get to season three, I'd totally be down for finally watching it too.
Jan. 11th, 2011 02:59 pm (UTC)
*about -isms
Jan. 11th, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC)
Heh, I didn't mean to come across as cryptic there! Yes, I do like it, quite a bit, although it look me a little longer to get invested than I expected to.

I think the fact that all the characters are consciously written as anti-heroes helps a lot. If I thought I were suppose to like them, or that they were supposed to be some sort of role models, then the show would be dead in the water for me. Making the characters interesting but mostly unsympathetic (except for Peggy, for me, and/or in flashes) is the best choice for a show like this, I think.
Jan. 12th, 2011 03:18 am (UTC)
Oooh, thanks for thinking out loud about this show. We're halfway through season 2, and I'm constantly wavering about whether or not I want to watch it anymore. I get a little frustrated with how much time/space they dedicate to showcasing the isms when they could be looking at other issues, etc., but I guess that's not what the show is about though.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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