Sunday, July 20, 2008

"Mad Men" and Crazy Me

The AMC cable TV series Mad Men, a discerning depiction of a New York ad agency in 1960 and the tone and temper of American middle class life in that era, has won much critical acclaim and 16 Emmy nominations. Its creators strived for authenticity in every detail and whether one looks back on that period as the good old days or views it with the virgin eye that accompanies exposure to an unfamiliar, bygone time, it’s a captivating examination of an America that is no more. As a prelude to the start of the series’ second season next week, AMC is running a Mad Men marathon of season one today, and although I’ve already seen it, I’ve been enjoying this second look.

I was eight years old in 1960 and was very much shaped by that era, a society defined by clearly delineated roles, modest technology and innocence, on its way out but still palpable. I was 18 when I worked for a now-defunct advertising and p.r. company that held the distinction of being the first black-owned firm of its kind on Madison Avenue. As Mad Men reveals, this world (even ten years later) embodied everything that we today regard with disdain, if not outright horror: racism, sexism, corporate chicanery, entrenched alcoholism, sexual harassment and chain smoking.

We’re supposed to be appalled – and fascinated. And I am both. But I’m also filled with a sense of longing; I miss a lot of that stuff. I miss straight skirts and high heels and higher hair and pancake make-up. I miss private offices. I miss TV in black & white with seven channels. I miss typewriters and heavy black telephones tethered to wires. I miss men in smart silk suits accented with unwarranted confidence and superiority. I miss ignorance of the rest of the world, a sense of unlimited plenty, the delusion of national greatness, the false promise of married bliss and suburban delight. I miss the lies and possibilities. I miss the comfort of certitude and prime beef and cocktails. I miss the companionship of Top 40 radio and thriving libraries. I miss a New York of native New Yorkers in disparate neighborhoods, a time before gentrification when some apartments were still cheap and middle/working class families could buy houses for $20,000 that now cost more than $1 million. I miss the time when one could clearly distinguish between Democrats and Republicans and neither (as a rule) felt compelled to bring religion into their politics.

Now, I realize that my nostalgia is in many ways ridiculous, born of emotional fatigue, intellectual disappointment, the frenzy of technology run amok, the hostility of social polarization, and a non-smoking outside world (I dearly miss cigarettes for 50-cents-a-pack that could be gotten from machines that were everywhere). I’m not forgetting that, as Mad Men shows, women were treated like idiots, toys and office perks, that many housewives were truly desperate. I’m not forgetting that blacks and Hispanics were totally disenfranchised, Jews were marginalized, and gays were relegated to shame-filled, secretive shadows. I’m not forgetting Boogeyman Communism and elementary school drills that tried to make us believe we could hide from a nuclear assault under our desks. I’m not forgetting that we were duped by advertising and politics, and that our sense of well-being was built on a foundation of sinking bullshit.

But I feel so displaced by the present, so restricted by political correctness, so limited by humorlessness in all quarters, so imposed upon by the needs, rights and imperatives of the rest of the world, so horrified by our methamphetamine pace, so defeated by environmental decay. Call me crazy, but I miss the miseries of a simpler time. But I do love cable TV. Life is such a constantly evolving (and devolving) trade-off, isn’t it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder what kids now will be nostalgic about when they're 50?