26 July 2008

Going Mad

In my Emmy-nominations extravaganza last week, I promised I would talk about the return of Mad Men. The much-praised drama begins its second season tomorrow night on AMC. So, what's the big deal?

For one thing, it's gorgeous to look at. It's set in the early 1960s, and every detail is lovingly fussed over: the office furniture, the home decor, the clothes, and the cigarettes all emit period authenticity. For a design fetishist like myself, it's a blast to watch. But the show is more than just looks. Beneath the pretty, polished surfaces, there are depths. Each character is richly drawn and complex, and after the first season's thirteen episodes, I felt like we'd just begun to understand them.

Setting a story four or five decades in the past allows its creators to use the vantage point of the present to examine how people behaved back then, and how things have changed. Office politics, women's empowerment, domestic life, gender roles, sexism, racism, classism, anti-Semitism, birth control--all of these have been addressed, without preaching or pandering. And while our 2008 selves may not approve of the behavior being portrayed, it's important to remember that it was a time of conformity. People did not want to be seen as different, so they probably said and did things that they didn't necessarily agree with or believe.

The show is much more than just a soap opera about the lives and loves of office workers. One of the things I appreciate most about the show is that it treats its characters' problems and situations seriously, and in an adult way. It's a show about grown-ups, for grown-ups. It's smart and sophisticated, sexy and subtle. It captures these people at a moment in their lives when the post-World War II status quo was about to give way to enormous change. They don't know that change is coming, but we do. If we're lucky, the show will be around long enough for us to see how its characters experience the upheavals on the way.

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