I opened up this post-grad-level analysis of our favorite TV show thinking I was going to dislike it intensely (I’d followed a link about how the show feeds on its audience’s smug sense of superiority vis-a-vis the show’s characters) and rip it accordingly. Then I actually read the story and realized I had to back away from righteous indignation, right into something more gray-area-ish and complicated, which was particularly unsettling at 6:30 am PDT, with less than a cup of coffee in the tank and a lingering hangover from last night’s edition of too many cookies.
Schwarz makes some good points about the micro-merits and flaws within “Mad Men”‘s narrative. Some thought-provoking riffs on the predictable noble-ness of the African-American characters. And some assertions I don’t buy at all, particularly regarding some of the more outlandish early ’60s-style behaviors (corporal punishment! smoking! drinking! anti-Semitism!) the characters indulge in with such casual brio.
The author is exactly my age, which is both cool (I have a soft spot for 46-year-olds) and dismaying (At first glance at his photo I thought, ‘oh, he’s old.’) And while he’s far more involved in the intricacies of early Camelot fashion and style (did you even NOTICE how an office girl’s hair-do would devolve throughout the week? Or anything to do with clasp purses?) I can’t get behind this idea that I/we watch the show in part so we can feel superior to the characters and their archaic ways and means.
follow the jump back through the mists of time. . .
Some outlandish things just…were. For instance, check out the elegant, moody black-and-white snaps my dad took of my mom circa early March 1963, when she’s lounging in bed, just extremely pregnant with Yours Truly, watching TV or something, and just so casually and light-enhancingly, smoking a cigarette! With a baby onboard! Her not-quite-born-but-destined-to-be-a-fervent-non-smoker son, a/k/a me! Which seems ridiculous and awful, except for that either the Surgeon Gen’l hadn’t noted the connection between pre-natal smoking and your eventually-grown child’s life of angst and misery it surely would cause, or else Americans hadn’t quite internalized it yet.
Another outlandish-but-true ’60s memory: This one in 1968 or so, when I’m in pre-school. (The LIttle School in Seatle, for anyone keeping track). It’s nap-time. I’m on my electric blue blanket, clutching a teddy bear in the darkness with my little friends snoozing around me. And my lovely Miss Farrell-style teacher, given a quiet moment to herself…lights a cigarette! In the classroom! With her sleeping toddlers at her feet!
These things really happened. I have photographic evidence of the one, and a very vivid, undying memory of the latter. Neither of which make me feel smug or anything, but simply….impressed. At how the wheel turns. And how in 40 years time the stuff I do so casually with or to my kids (forcing them to take valium when they get on my nerves; ordering them to go out and cut down a switch so’s I can give them a good whupping, etc.) will seem absurd and stone-cold-obviously wrong.
It’s also important to note that “Mad Men,” as opposed to the ’70s smirkfest “Swingtown,” which debuted the same summer as “MM,” only on CBS, has real respect and sympathy for its characters, no matter how archaic they may be. “Swingtown” played like cultural slapstick, the better to allow us to gain prurient thrills from its wife-swapping swinger story, while simultaneously feeling superior to their ridiculous hair and moustaches (in 1976 every man was Harry Reems), horrid casseroles and pop culture that consisted entirely of every bad tv show and pop song you can remember from the mid-70s. That show sucked. And not in a good way, either.
PYTHON, ON THE OTHER HAND
Doesn’t suck. And as documented in IFC’s new six-part history, which comes with plenty of clips from MPFC and others (I didn’t know about Spike Milligan’s late ’60s series, which presaged the Pythons with eerie exactitude) reminds me how brilliant those original shows were. And are. The Beatles themselves (talk about timeless) were quick to realize that their collaborative spirit had settled on the Python crew. They were right, again. And just as the Beatles remasters serve as joyful reminders that the world was right about the Beatles all along, the IFC documentary performs the same service for the Pythons.