Mad Men for the undiscerning viewer

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What have I learned since binge viewing Mad Men? The “undiscerning viewer” of the show being myself primarily and people like me who at first dismissed Mad Men with little thought about what it was we were so quick to judge.

Most viewers, as any long-term Mad Men fans will tell you, are very discerning when it comes to television.

First of all: I’m about seven years late to the Mad Men Mania. I was about six years late for the Breaking Bad Bandwagon and a year late for the House of Cards Cotillion, so lesson one: don’t be so quick to judge a TV show by it’s opening credits and slow start.

One of the first and most annoying things about Mad Men are those opening credits. Really, it looks like bad magazine advertising copy, which is probably the point. But it doesn’t jump out and say, “Watch this TV show!” Thankfully, the opening credits are less than a minute long and are easily jumped over; usually at the 39-second mark we can be past the credits.

But, here’s the catch: the theme song, “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2 is really good and as of yet it hasn’t become tiring. If you like percussion-driven songs, this one is tight. There is a version of it on YouTube that’s over four minutes long and recommended listening if you enjoy that little snippet at the top of the show. Every now and then I’ll put up with the cartoonish credits just to listen to the song.

Let this be a lesson to all you would-be TV critics and budding musicians alike: soundtracks matter.

Flo, the highly successful, very popular Progressive Insurance pitch woman, played by Stephanie Courtney. (Photo is screen shot from YouTube)
Flo, the highly successful, very popular Progressive Insurance pitch woman, played by Stephanie Courtney.
(Photo is screen shot from YouTube)

Second: TV shows are always better on Netflix, or whatever streaming service you use — no commercials. Entertaining commercials are hard to come by and before the advent of “pay” subscription cable channels like Home Box Office (HBO) and Showtime, we just sort of accepted commercials as part of the television experience. Flo, of Progressive Insurance fame, was very entertaining — for a while. And then … eh.

Then Progressive got linked to a terrible story involving a traffic-related death and the insurance company trying to avoid paying on the policy … it just gets ugly from there.

Commercials, by and large, are the price we pay for letting Congress decide how to reward the networks for using our public airwaves for barely a song.

Now, after subscribing to HBO, Showtime and now Netflix, it’s extremely hard to sit through anything on commercial television. When one of the cable channels showed The Matrix, key moments would be interrupted by four-minute commercial breaks and … it’s the same as coitus interruptus: you get excited, knowing what’s about to come next and then … hold on a moment, we gotta watch a commercial for a boner pill, auto insurance, toilet paper and then the boner pill again. That’s cause for one limp biscuit.

And the deeper into the movie we get, the more frequent the commercial breaks.

So, a new show comes on AMC (Mad Men) and we’ve just sat through those opening credits and roll into a noisy bar and then the offices of a mid-level advertising firm and get introduced to a bunch of characters that drink and smoke too much, set in 1960, right before John F. Kennedy is elected president. And then there is a four-minute commercial break.

“What’s on the HBO?”

Lesson from point number two: commercials can ruin TV viewing and obstruct a show like Mad Men from getting a bigger audience.

Don Draper smoking ... and smoking and smoking ... (Screen shot from YouTube)
Don Draper smoking … and smoking and smoking …
(Screen shot from YouTube)

The Third Thing I’ve learned, or at least thought about, while watching Mad Men: in many respects, the 1960’s were fairly awful years. It reminds me of so much I didn’t care for, like the incessant smoking. My old man smoked two packs a day (at least) and did so everywhere in the house. Everywhere we went people smoked. It seems crazy now, 50 years later, but people could smoke on elevators, anywhere in most buildings, even hospitals. Doctors smoked openly and guests never thought twice about entering your home while smoking. There were ashtrays everywhere.

Really shocking: we grew up being taught women are second-class citizens, even though they had the right to vote. The deal for women was: find a man, get married and start having kids.

Recently a book was published telling women they should find their man in college and get married forthwith, as in ASAP. College offers the best pool of husband candidates and the selection of good husbands diminishes with each passing year if a woman doesn’t hook up and get married in college or shortly thereafter.

Smarten Up!: Words of Wisdom from the Princeton Mom, by Susan Patton is the book.

Back in the ’60’s, women were going to college and then into the workforce primarily, they were told, to find a husband, if they hadn’t found one in high school. Mad Men has reminded us of this … anachronism and wouldn’t you know it, 50 years later women still have to fight for equal rights and autonomy over their bodies and health.

In one episode, well, in almost every episode, the men in this office denigrate and insult women with impunity, putting up tasteless and obscene cartoons featuring their female co-workers. And the men are allowed to ogle their female co-workers and talent auditioning for the ads and commercials; management even sends out alerts to let the men know when really good-looking women are auditioning for parts. Then the men try hooking up by flaunting their titles.

Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris. In Season Five, Episode 11 Joan become a part of the deal to get the Jaguar account — “The Jaguar Pitch.” (Screen Shot from YouTube)
Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris. In Season Five, Episode 11 Joan become a part of the deal to get the Jaguar account — “The Jaguar Pitch.”
(Screen Shot from YouTube)

Today all of that is unthinkable in reputable businesses. Less-than-reputable businesses, like telemarketing firms with call centers filled with youngsters in both mind and temperament, it still happens — but not like it did 50 years ago. Can you imagine today getting away with telling one of your co-workers, “You have a nice ass!”

The corporate antipathy and dislike for the Civil Rights Movement is front and center, as the all white ad firm accidently becomes an equal opportunity employer. But then like the rest of America the firm eases into it, hiring that one — token — Black secretary.

It was common for White liberals, like my parents, to be at least a little bigoted. Civil rights was okay, but not if it meant Black people would be moving to our block. And they often wondered, was all that violence we saw on the evening news worth it?

Fifty years ago Father James Groppi led Milwaukee’s African-American community on civil rights marches to try and cross the 16th Avenue Viaduct. The Southside of Milwaukee is extremely White and has been since … forever. The near Southside is somewhat mixed with Hispanic families, but where our family lived it was (and is) racially White.

Father James Groppi (Screen grab from YouTube video)
Father James Groppi
(Screen grab from YouTube video)

We had a thug of a police chief by the name of Harold Brier who kept the Civil Rights marchers from crossing that bridge. Despite passage of the Fair Housing Act, Milwaukee still remains a very segregated city and 50 years later America is still “easing” into racial equality.

Thirty years ago the Reagan Administration invented the myth of the “Welfare Queen,” aiming the well-worded diatribes against this mythical figure so that the first (and often only) image that pops into everyone’s minds is an over-weight Black woman, smoking and drinking and eating all the worst snack foods. And if they really wanted to lay it on thick, this mythical person was driving either a Cadillac or a Lincoln to pick up their welfare check.

Today, add to that mythical picture a smart phone. Facebook is filled with those little memes about someone standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, behind some Black woman who is talking on an iPhone and gosh darn it! She’s paying for those steaks and lobster — not to mention the Coca-Cola and Red Bull — with food stamps!

In many ways we have gone backwards since the 1960’s when Congress passed the great civil rights legislation that was part of the last great decade for domestic growth and progress. Now that we have a Black president people feel very comfortable and open about their bigotry.

(Part Two will appear on Friday)