Do the times excuse the man?

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The other day I suggested to my dad that he watch Mad Men. And my dad replied, “I knew in the first three minutes that I wouldn’t like the show. I always know in the first three minutes if I’m going to like something – and this show is about an advertising executive in the 1960s. I was a hippie then, I lived in the village – I didn’t like Donald Draper then and I don’t want to watch a show about him now.”

Yet, after staying in and watching the entire first season of Mad Men – like a good book I couldn’t put it down – I think that there is so much nuance revealed, both about the characters’ lives as well as the decade they live in, that a decision made in the first three minutes is not a strong one. The poetics of Mad Men is that in order to truly delve into the show’s deeper meanings, one must watch the show. Each episode can stand alone, but each episode is also a chapter in a larger story, adding layers of detail in the characters’ story arcs. This is exactly what Johnson is talking about when he compares the increasing cognitive complexity of today’s television shows to older, less complex shows. (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/24/magazine/24TV.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1)

What remains an issue for me is that in the course of the show one comes to sympathize with Donald Draper despite the fact that he’s not that great a guy. I think that the particular lens of a period drama is what allows this to so easily happen; we are constantly comparing the world of 1960 portrayed in Mad Men to the differences in our present. What character flaws can be excused as a symptom of their times? Or can any of them? What decisions, actions, reactions can be attributed to that invisible but always surrounding feeling, expressed in the opening credits, of a man in a suit falling through the very world he helped create?

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2 Responses to “Do the times excuse the man?”

  1. Margaret Says:

    I think the really curious thing about period pieces, especially one like Mad Men that involves so much time-based excusable bias, is how we valorize characters that have our move progressive (I suppose is the word?) mindset. We’re entirely willing to suspend disbelief and don’t feel angry when Pete Campbell speaks derogatorily about “the Chinamen” or when Joan gives Peggy advice that would be appalling to any Feminist. Yet when Rachel Menkin defends her role as head of her family’s business, I am quick to almost break my suspension of disbelief and consider her more of a contemporary hero than the underdog she would have been in the 60s.

  2. alyshacasnellie Says:

    I think it’s interesting that so many people feel sympathetic towards Don. I just finished watching season 3 of the show last night, and I’m not sure I even felt too sympathetic towards him at any point. I was always hoping that he’d get caught, that he’d have an account that failed and that he’d be forced to tone down his annoying and extreme arrogance. I don’t really consider myself to be a feminist or to be more concerned about fairness and equality than the average person, but his feelings of superiority irked me throughout the seasons (though there were some notable exceptions, especially in the season 3 finale).

    I guess what is interesting is despite his annoyance, I never wanted to stop watching him. I never said, “Oh God, another scene with Don? Write him out already”. I suppose that’s because 1) the series more or less revolves around Don and 2) I believe you are right about the period somewhat excusing his behavior. Though as I said before I was never overly sympathetic towards him, I was well aware that this show is set in a very different time period, and if I’m going to watch a show about the 60s, I need to tolerate the 60s.

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