Saturday, August 23, 2008

DIGGING THROUGH THE CULTURAL LANDSCAPE WITH MAD MEN

I have been watching the first season of the show Mad Men on DVD, and after five episodes I am struck by the sense of silent anguish and the inherent malaise that lies beneath the surface in this portrayal of the Madison Avenue lifestyle in the early 1960's. Everything sure looks "swell", but there is a constant sense of unease that is always lurking in the shadows.

There is a great scene where a suburban housewife who is clearly suffering from depression is being reassured by her hapless husband who is completely bewildered by her condition and has no reference point for dealing with this. He is genuinely perplexed, and while pointing to all their belongings asks innocently "how can you be unhappy with all of this?".

It seems that the post-war prosperity is at it's zenith, and yet we see numerous characters who despite the appearance of having all the trappings of success and material acquisition are clearly unfulfilled. It makes me wonder how our era would be portrayed 50 years from now.

I think that we risk being portrayed like a herd of lemmings being blindly distracted while the world implodes around us, remaining hypnotized and transfixed by the brilliant and glossy images and the endless barrage of information constantly at our disposal.

Although there would be some truth to this type of portrayal, I also believe that there are more people getting switched on, using technology to engage with the larger culture and become agents of change in an increasingly complex world. Hard to say, perhaps those of us who are still around in 50 years can be hired as consultants to provide some nuance to any depiction of early 21st century western society.

Regardless, I appreciate how Mad Men presents a playful portrayal of some of the more acceptable cultural norms of the early 1960's; constant drinking and smoking while at work, the subversive role of the female secretaries in the male dominated ad agency, the sincere conversations about the benefits of smoking and kids playing with pellet guns at birthday parties while their parents get drunk.

It gives us an opportunity to be a little smug about how "far" we have come, though I suppose it is more of a challenge to try and step back and take stock of our own present day absurdities and poke a few holes there. This to me is the role of good art. Whether looking backwards or forward it challenges us to step outside the dominant paradigm and take stock, if even for a moment.

6 comments:

DCup said...

What a great review of this program. I haven't seen all of season one, much less in sequence, but what I have seen has struck me, not only as good art, but also as interesting commentary on the time.

I'm inspired to get the DVDs and watch them in order. Thanks!

Liberality said...

I like the internet for the reasons you mention. I am able to reach out to others in the wider community and do not feel so all alone. Watching television in your house is so isolating. Before television divided people away from each other while at the same time reinforcing media norms upon us, people used to be a part of their community and reach out to each other. Being a part of a community is more important than having all the creature comforts in life.

mellowlee said...

I had never heard of this series, but now I will be looking for it. Sounds like something I will find very interesting. Thank you :O)

Comrade Kevin said...

You're quite right. The entire series has quite a pallor of gloom and is darkly lit.

I wonder if we really are still living lives of quiet desperation and if much has changed in fifty years time in that regard. I claim not to be an expert on what most people do and do not do.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I haven't seen the series, but have heard a lot of great buzz about it.

I think our current opiate of the masses - digital technology - is actually quite neutral. Yes, we can be isolated bubbles in front of our individual screens, but we can also reach out and connect with others around the world. It is what we make it, I think.

Westcoast Walker said...

Thanks for the comments all - I like turning others onto programs or music that inspires me.

I also see a great deal of merit in Liberality's and Barb's comments - I agree that there is now a unique opportunity to be switched on and engaged with the world in a manner that is unique to the digital age.

I can easily attest to some of the great folks (i.e. all of you & more!) that I have been able to engage with and share ideas through blogging.

Kevin also poses a good question, and I think that there are many people living in quiet desperation, only now we have more methods to mask this and to distract ourselves from this reality.