Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What it is About

o' for a muse of fire...

I sat, sipping on an African ale, stretching cheese tendrils from the slices of my brick oven-baked pizza. I sat with a friend from the office, a regular reader who had less of an appetite, but who sipped a hot toddy to ward of the winter, nonetheless.

We chitted and we chatted and I related my recent television viewing experience as best I could.

"So," I said, "we've been watching Mad Men on DVD. Netflix, you know..." I added that last bit to punctuate my independence from network broadcast strictures. I mean, with DVD, Tivo, DVR, On Demand, and YouTube, who the hell watches anything when it's on anymore??

"Ohh!" Her eyes lit up. "I've heard that's really good. What's it about?"

What's it about? What's it about. I had no good answer. I've been fiddling about with that query for three days now, which has brought me no closer to anything like an acceptable answer. In fact, I have applied the same question to several other great programs as well.

Which just leads to more questions.

The show is set in 1960. Firmly, deeply, unapologetically set there. It is set in an ad agency on Madison Avenue in New York. But that is certainly NOT what it is about. It is no more about the advertising business, than Deadwood was about gold mining or Big Love is about Mormonism.

Style. The show adheres to a strict 1960 aesthetic. There are no anachronisms. It is a pristine alien environment. The vocabulary. The clothes. The music. The behavior. But the show is not about style.

Shock. This hits closer to the mark, but is not the point either. Shock is a tool to make the point. Shock is a side effect of the point being made. Racism and sexism are open and accepted norms. Sexual harassment is par for the course. Women secretly sleep their way to the glass ceiling. Men assert their dominance with a never-ending carnal carnival of grab-ass and insults. The copious, and somewhat gratuitous, cigarette smoking is, as another friend and regular reader put it: "nothing short of pornographic."

The pregnant woman smoking the cigarette while polishing off her second cocktail is not even noticed.

And while the social shock of very primal and disturbingly-unenlightened behavior will be the lasting hallmark of the show (I'm confident that every frat boy in America is busy memorizing every line), that is not what the show is about.

What the show's creator says the show is about is "The internal struggle of men, and the women who suffer for it."

But actually, I think he's not exactly right. He may be right about the internal struggle thing, But it is not gender specific, and it is moderately misogynistic to suggest that only the women suffer or that they suffer only because of men.

Some 50 years later, we find ourselves with radically different values. PC run rampant. We have educated ourselves and trained ourselves so far away from the way things were, that the workplace and the relationships of 1960 are barely recognizable today. We are more diplomatic now. More respectful. At the very least, more tolerant.

Yet the show pushes every button we've been trained to ignore. It spotlights every internal impulse, every conceit, every private assumption and desire.

Who are the men you know today?

Why, they are Ross, Chandler and Joey.

But who are men really, beneath the politeness and the sensitivity? At their hidden core? Men are Don, Pete, Roger and the other boys at Sterling Cooper. Men ruled by their Id and their fears of inadequacy.

And the women who suffer? No, women who play the game and perpetuate it's rules. Women who are complicit in the values of the culture. Women who prey on other women. Women who prey on men. Women who practice the mystic art of manipulation, conscious or not.

But we have have made a new game for ourselves, written a new rule book. We try to behave better, but it is learned behavior. The expectations are somewhat artificial.

A dog can be trained to not eat a steak, but is that natural?

So, really, the show is about us, and our inner struggles, and our attempts to be better people, but it pokes, it prods and it shocks its way into making its decidedly-pointed point. It is an uncomfortable ride to take, but the vehicle has style.


  1. Try watching it while noticing how each character determines his or her identity or is forced to assume an identity. How is identity shaped by one's past, friends, co-workers, career, spouse, society, social ranking, etc. Then, notice how each one of them rebels against that identity.

  2. You sure you don't just watch porn?

  3. Too many words and not enough pictures...brain hurts now.

  4. Sarah Palin9:12 AM

    I can see Russia!

  5. Ralph9:14 AM

    My cat's breath smells like cat food.

  6. Way too complicated for my head today. Due to the snow I drank too much yesterday and I'm tired and, well, a bit hung over

  7. the panty1:43 PM

    Can you see me?

  8. Lucky Red5:18 PM

    The dog and steak theory. Close. I often view PC and it’s pros and cons as a way to control the herd mentality. You slap ass, another think it’s ok and so forth. Many boring college thesis centered on this very well known observation of humans. Therefore, PC makes sure we all stay in line, but also, it has allowed doors to open up as well for folks to think what is hurtful to others and harmful, generally speaking, to society.
    PC isn’t all bullshit. If you look at statistics from that time in history, rapes were low. Child abuse, almost unheard of. But really, it wasn’t spoken of, it wasn’t reported. It wasn’t believed. PC has opened the door for society as a whole to be made aware. And as a women, I’m saying thank you.
    Now as for manipulation – as Mr. G&T says, that we have all learned to work in and around it… I agree. It is simply Darwinism at its finest. Without PC would women and minorities have success still? Yes, the very fucking smart ones would find a way. The manipulators, the one who could pull back and see the big picture. But those in the herd who were a bit slower, a bit less agile, well the cheetahs would pick em’ off and eat them alive.
    Do we owe it to the slow in the herd to do well? Dunno. Although I question why we let them reproduce…

    Have I ever had my ass slapped in a bar and pretended to be really pissed about it, but deep down smiled and thought, “I still got it” damn straight I have.

  9. the bunny8:07 PM

    I like carrots

  10. Lucky Red6:22 AM

    You may have two carrots. Only two. Not one more.


Be compelling.

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