The Mad Men Are Serious Downers

I’m only three episodes deep into Mad Men, and I’m already struck by how grim the show is. There’s misogyny, sexism, racial and ethnic prejudice, sexual prudery (of a kind), depressing suburban life, loveless marriages, loveless affairs, rigid gender roles, corporate language, the vapidity of advertising, and smoking indoors. And alcohol, lots of it. Mainly martinis and scotch, consumed at all hours of the day, in offices and homes, and during kids’ birthday parties. (I’m not sure if I’ve missed out on anything; I’m sure fans will correct me if I have.)

In using ‘grim’ as a description for the show–which I intend to keep watching for the time being just because it is morbidly fascinating–I do not mean to look past the stylish dressing, the carefully designed interiors, the loving caresses of the whisky and martini glasses, the nostalgia for a time when boys could be boys, white folk could be white folk, and women knew just how to be women, that apparently captivate so many of the show’s fans. Rather, I find that adjective appropriate because despite the apparent cheeriness and cleverness of the office banter, the endless drinking and dining in fashionable Manhattan restaurants, and the freedom to drink in one’s office, no one in the show seems to have had the most minuscule ration of any kind of happiness doled out to them. This is one serious downer of a show.

This should not be entirely surprising. Advertising consumer products requires the careful manufacture and sale of a fantasy, one underwritten by a corporate imperative. What Mad Men does quite well, whether deliberately or not, is to depict participation in that fantasy-mongering as an ultimately soulless, dispiriting enterprise. After all, if you’re shoveling it all day and all night, wouldn’t you find your life a serious drag? Once this is realized, the near-constant drinking suddenly becomes much more understandable; who wouldn’t need a few stiff ones to navigate through the lives these folks lead? Pour me a large one, please.

The dispiriting effect of Madison Avenue is not restricted to the office and the boardroom; it spreads out into homes and suburbs too.  As an advertising account executive, if you spend one-third of your life talking in platitudes, and spinning yards and yards of not particularly clever mumbo-jumbo, there is a good chance you’ll bring home that contagious emptiness with you and let it infect everyone and anyone around you. Resuming drinking at home seems like a good way to deal with these domestic blues.

The show’s writing is clever in parts, and the pretty displays of archaic behaviors and attitudes are certainly generative of the morbid fascination I mentioned above. For the time being, I will plough on, hoping that the Mad Folk don’t harsh my mellow too severely in the weeks to come.

Note: I read Daniel Mendelsohn‘s memorable review of Mad Men a while ago, long before I had seen a single episode of the show. I intend to reread it once I’m a couple of seasons deep.

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