The Idiot Box: Mad Men

The span of years from immediately after World War II up until around 1963 is generally viewed in a number of ways.

Conservatives tend to remember the 1950s with an awed nostalgia. It was a time when you could leave your doors unlocked, when families stayed together, when people were moral and upright. It was the dawn of American supremacy, the point when the United States stood alone for the forces of freedom against the tyranny of the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, the Left define the '50s by consumerism and sexual repression, a patriarchal, buttoned-down era where men couldn't be themselves and women were property. It's the picture painted simplistically by films like "Pleasantville", where adultery is usually the answer to all life's problems.

"Mad Men", the critically-acclaimed television series from AMC, leans toward the latter, but avoids those gauche simplicities. To be fair, the series focuses on the early 1960s, when puritanical facades were beginning to crumble and the country began to show signs of a hard left turn. Besides, watching cleancut men smoke, drink cocktails and toss sexist jokes at very attractive women is only novel for so long...eventually, we want to see what makes these characters tick.

It's hard to tell how accurate "Mad Men"'s portrait of that era is, primarily because it seems so alien. Ironically, the world "Mad Men" depicts is more shocking than "South Park"...every character smokes constantly, drinks at work, and the only conversation between sexes is draped in obvious double entendres. I found myself cringing more at some of these lines (watch with caution) than I have during profanity-laden moments in, say, "Curb Your Enthusiasm".

"Mad Men"'s depiction may be over the top, but I'm inclined to trust the spirit it portrays. I've grown up believing in the idyllic '50s, but it's reality doesn't fit with A) what we know about American history and, B) what we know about human nature.

Historically, it's impossible to believe an era could be so clean and pure when it was bookended by the horrors of World War II and the overreactive, explorative 60s. The men returning from the European and Pacific theaters had experienced atrocities and barbarism, and we are expected to believe they just went back to normal lives? Similarly the hedonism and self-centeredness of the '60s had to be a reaction to something.

What's even more difficult is to imagine a time when sin just wasn't as prevalent, when society as a whole was somehow "better". If we're to believe what Jesus says about sin in Matthew, we know that action is not required for sin, that lust and murder can happen in our hearts. It's easy to say our inner and outer sins are equal, but many of us don't quite believe it because the consequences aren't so obvious.

In a sense, our nostalgia for the '50s is what politicians like Sarah Palin are appealing to, a time when our societal laws took a stand against sexual immorality and crime. The problem is, those societal laws just drive the sin underground. The sin is still there, but we're forced to deal with it on our own, afraid of how we'll be judged. As any recovering addict will tell you, overcoming your demons alone doesn't work out too well.

Oh, and "Mad Men" is extremely good.

1 comment:

  1. Jordan,

    Now that I've seen all of the first season and the first two episodes of the second I know just how right on this commentary is.