Thursday, August 27, 2009
"Mad Men:" An Advert For Your Rights
I was tempted not to join in all the general noise about "Mad Men," AMC's excellent alternate to their usual fare of Chuck Norris and John Wayne movies. It's so good I can't help myself.
If you're not watching this show, grab the DVDs for seasons 1 and 2 and catch up now. You will not find such excellent televised storytelling anywhere else-- basic, broadcast or premium. There is a specific aspect of "Mad Men" I find fascinating and unique. It seems to be somewhat under-reported, so here I am.
"Mad Men" lovingly recreates the world of America in the early 1960s. But it goes much further than the visual, skinny ties and Herman Miller chairs and extremely complicated women's underwear. It sends us a message about us, and what we, as a society, have lost.
Every period film or TV show is a reflection of the era when it's made. For instance World War II films have evolved over the years from propaganda (30 Seconds Over Tokyo, 1944) to nostalgic comedy (What Did You Do in The War, Daddy?, 1966) to sober moral equivalence (Letters from Iwo Jima, 2006). In Rio Bravo (1959), Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson rode the wild West sporting sticky-looking Elvis pompadors.
The characters in "Mad Men" live in a world that is, in the details, quite different from our present. Everyone smokes and drinks. There were no warning labels on anything. Raw eggs are cracked into caesar salads. Kids play with dry-cleaning bags and romp freely in moving cars. If some of these little bits of Kennedy-era life were seen enacted out in the open in 2009, they could lead from anything to meddling to outrage to actual arrest.
I've noticed that when reviewers or online commenters note these details, they tend to look at these 1960s foibles with amusement, bordering on horror. I think they're missing the point "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner is trying to make. The characters on this show live in this unregulated world and do things we would consider unhealthy and dangerous-- but there are never any consequences. Sure, Roger Sterling has a heart attack in Season Two, but he rather righteously claimed he was scrupulously following medical advice-- advice current in 1962 (i.e. A rich diet can ward off high blood pressure). "Mad Men" makes a point of showing normal people with what we now consider unhealthy and dangerous personal habits-- and thriving nonetheless.
The social mores on display show an American society without helicopter parenting, nanny government, NIMBYism, or class-action lawsuits. It shows a well-functioning (if still wildly unequal) society that values individual liberty and personal decision making.
Every time we pass a Megan's Law or ban smoking outdoors or require children be strapped into seats until they are high schoolers we surrender a small bit of our freedom for collective safety. Sometimes the act of yielding is benign: other times, these little impositions cut little pieces out of our constitutional rights. Think about this the next time you take your shoes off at the airport or a strobe on a robotic traffic camera goes off as you cruise through an intersection.
Daniel related a recent incident on his other blog about being pulled over on suspicion of DUI. (His headlights were off. There was a cute German girl in the car with him, so I can see why.) He beat it, of course, but If he decided to have a second Rob Roy he would have wished he lived in 1962. Back then, a DUI first offense was a simple moving violation. Now, that first-time DUI can lose you your car and your license, make insurance unavailable, wreck your credit rating (!), cost thousands, and generally ruin your life. I'm not saying we should repeal DUI laws, but I am saying it's the overly enthusiastic enforcement of those "motherhood" issues-- DUIs, child safety, anything that makes people go all Maude Flanders and wail, "What about the children?" -- that creates a creeping effect on every other personal right we hold dear.
Like I said, movies and TV shows are contemporary reflections, regardless of period setting. "Mad Men" makes a point of showing, by raw comparison, how unfree we have become in 2009, and maybe that will make us more aware of just how important it is to defend our dwindling right to be left to our own ends.