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.