There's a lot of buzz about the AMC dramatic series Mad Men, so I finally decided to rent the first three episodes on DVD. The show is well acted and well produced, and certainly captures the look of 1960. It can be funny and smart, though the pace is rather slow. Overall, though, I found myself a little peeved at Mad Men, at least if I can judge the whole series by only three installments.
The problem I have with the show, besides the sometimes glacial pace of the narrative, is that it seems to be written by people who have no personal experience of the 1960s - young people whose whole idea of that era is derived from books and movies.
Now, I have only limited personal experience of that decade myself. I was born in 1960, and didn't start to pay much attention to the culture around me until the late '60s. Still, I remember enough to know that the show's depiction of this time in America's history is more caricature than reality.
Let's look at some specifics.
Smoking. On Mad Men, everybody smokes all the time. People smoke the minute they wake up in the morning. They smoke while cooking breakfast. They smoke on the commute to work. They smoke constantly at the office, and at restaurants, and everywhere else, and they keep smoking after they get home, right up until they go to bed. And if they wake up in the middle of the night, they light another cigarette. They live surrounded by swirls of tobacco smoke, like an everpresent curtain of gauze or - in group scenes - a sickly London fog.
Well, sure. It's true that in the 1960s, smoking did not have the stigma that it carries today. It's true - as depicted in the series - that pregnant women, or at least some of them, smoked. It's true that bars and restaurants and railroad cars could be dense with tobacco fumes.
But let's not get carried away. Most people didn't chain-smoke the way the Mad Men characters do. They smoked socially, they smoked more than was good for them, but they didn't smoke everywhere, all the time, in every situation. A doctor would not light up a cigarette while examining a patient, as a gynecologist does in one of the early episodes. And some people, even back then in those benighted days, didn't smoke at all.
Drinking. The amount of hard liquor consumed by the characters in Mad Men could have kept Al Capone in business throughout Prohibition. The lead character, Don Draper, is almost never seen without a cocktail in his hand. He has a well-stocked bar in his office, and he and his colleagues miss no opportunity to pour themselves a stiff drink at any hour of the workday. At lunch they get even more potted, and if they go out for dinner, the booze keeps coming in an endless supply. On the rare occasion when no cocktails are available, Draper contents himself by downing half a dozen cans of beer, apparently without ill effect.
Draper and his friends drink so heavily, I'm surprised they can ambulate from one room to another, much less get through the day. Did people drink in the '60s? Sure. Did they drink all the time, to such obvious excess? I don't think so. The three-martini lunch is one thing; a twenty-martini work day is another.
Chauvinism and adultery. In the universe of Mad Men, it seems that all married men cheat on their wives, usually by pouncing on one of the "girls" from the steno pool. Marital fidelity is apparently unknown and certainly not expected. Women in the workplace are treated like slabs of meat; married women are uniformly housewives, who are treated as domestic servants and otherwise ignored.
Of course there's some truth in this, but things weren't quite that bad. I would wager that adultery was actually less common in the 1950s and early to mid '60s than it became later on, after the much-hyped "sexual revolution" loosened societal mores. Many men put a high premium on being a loyal husband, a good father, and a reliable provider. This wasn't just an act; it was the way they were brought up.
Nor did the typical husband necessarily regard his wife as a mere convenience. I can remember my father coming home at night and having long, serious conversations with my mother about developments in the office, in which he would solicit her advice about the best way to handle office politics and other problems. She was, in a sense, the power behind the throne. I don't think this was an unusual relationship. There was a saying back then: "Behind every successful man there stands a woman." Women's opportunities to advance in the workplace were severely limited, but they did at least find ways to advance their husbands' careers. Often the wife was better at seeing opportunities and getting her husband to capitalize on them than he was. Corporate advancement was a team effort; the wife was not ordinarily relegated to the role of Barbie doll - at least, not if her husband wanted to get ahead.
Sexual orientation. One character in Draper's advertising firm is a swishy guy who is obviously in the closet. His effeminate style of walking and talking make this immediately clear to the viewer. Yet we're supposed to believe that none of his colleagues can see through the ruse.
It's true that homosexuality was largely off-limits as a topic of conversation in that period. Either people didn't talk about it at all, or they used euphemisms like "confirmed bachelor." But that doesn't mean they were oblivious to the world around them. They knew perfectly well that some people were homosexual, and they could probably make an educated guess about which ones fit that description; they just didn't want to discuss it. I'm not saying this was a healthy situation; it led to emotional repression and needless suffering on the part of gays. The point I'm making is that, contrary to Mad Men, most people in 1960 were not naïve, clueless dolts.
And that gets us to the heart of my objections. Mad Men is a show written by young people about an era they never knew, and their attitude seems to include a large element of mockery and derision. In almost every scene, I can hear some smug twentysomething or thirtysomething scriptwriter whispering, "Look at these idiots. They didn't know smoking was bad for you. They didn't know liquor can cause health problems. They didn't think women had minds of their own. They didn't know there were gay people in the world. They were so stupid!"
Followed by: "See how much smarter, more worldly-wise, and enlightened we are?"
But let's think about this. Who exactly are the Mad Men generation? They're people who grew up in the Depression, defeated the Axis powers in World War II, then came home and built America into the world's leading industrial economy while staring down the Soviet Union. Tom Brokaw famously called them "the greatest generation," and while I think there's some hyperbole in that term, it's probably more right than wrong.
You can say a lot about these people, you can criticize them for attitudes and lifestyles that we now regard as misguided and antiquated, you can certainly make fun of their narrow ties and silly wigs, but I don't think you can say they were stupid, naïve, or ridiculous.
And that's why I'm not mad about Mad Men.