AMC’s new show Mad Men is a must-see. It’s set in 1960 in a high-pressure Madison Avenue ad agency. Other than sharp writing, gorgeous visuals, and a top-notch cast, what Mad Men has going for it is an unapologetic eye about the mores of the late 50s/early 60s (what they’re now calling “mid-century”).
The “values conservatives” of the world, David Broder, Jonah Goldberg, and other people with pseudo-brains filling their skulls, believe the 1950s were an idyllic time. Women knew their place, none of that pesky feminism to mess around with their pretty heads. Abortion was illegal. Sex was never discussed in the public sphere, and when it was alluded to, it was only the heterosexual sort. Men wore skinny ties. (I kind of agree about the skinny ties.) The notion, of course, is that mid-century was a happy, innocent time. Families were all Ozzie and Harriet or Leave It To Beaver.
The fact is, the man behind the curtain was already visible at the time. Kinsey published in 1948 and 1953. Brown vs. the Board of Education was 1954 and the Montgomery bus boycott was the following year.
What Mad Men shows is direct and uncompromising. It is a man’s world, but the show has strong female characters, struggling in a world where they must choose between career and marriage, where most opportunities are closed to them, and sexual harassment is not only legal, it’s encouraged. As oppressive as the sexism is, it’s matched by the casual, normative racism and anti-Semitism. Homophobia isn’t even mentioned, but there is one character who is clearly closeted and struggling to be ‘one of the boys.’
Maybe I’m naive to think it would make a difference for people to actually see what they’re idolizing. I’m well-informed, I know a lot about the world my mother grew up in, and yet I found it shocking. There’s something about the visual impact that can’t be denied.
The mise en scène is pretty amazing. They are very careful to get the clothing, speech and attitudes just right. And the cast, as I said, is excellent. Whedon-heads will be pleased to see Angel and Firefly regulars back on TV.