July 25, 2010 Leave a comment
For me, there’s something about the way New York looked and is portrayed in the 1950s and 60s that’s somewhat magical. It hadn’t quite descended into the blight it became in the 1970s (a look reinforced by a recent viewing of the original Shaft, where every person walking down the street looked like they were up to at least a misdemeanor), and while the skyscrapers are there, it’s wasn’t quite the steel jungle it is now. Everyone’s sharp and wearing hats, the hairstyles are all neat and tidy, and the city just looks like a place on the vanguard of the future we were promised with Telstar and Mercury.
There are a couple of establishing shots early in the first season of Mad Men that conjure up that feeling. We see the big, rounded cars, the less-expansive skyline, and it feels almost like once-upon-a-time. But even in this seeming urban fairy tale, some people don’t seem to be living happily ever after.
I started watching Mad Men late in the game, trying to catch with the first season using On Demand when the third season was about to begin. Of course, with my usual luck, I started the day before the episodes were set to be removed, so I only got two episodes into the thing. Yeah, I could have gotten in on the ground floor, but I’m funny in that if I don’t catch a show from the beginning, it feels like cheating if I don’t start from the point. So Season 1 went by, and I said I’d watch it, but then Season 2 started, and before I knew it we’re facing Season 4 and I figured it was time I got off my ass.
The first episode leans a little too heavily on “Gee, men sure were jerks to women back then, and boy did everybody smoke!” at times. It’s essential to the themes of the show to set up this dynamic, but sometimes it just felt like we’re being hit over the head with it. Maybe that’s the point, the plunging in to the cold water rather than easing our way in, but in any case that feeling goes away as the rest of the episode plays out and we get to what the show is really about.
And much to the disappointment of the cocktail swilling wannabes who think Don Draper is the epitome of cool, it’s not about downing drinks at work and being a ladies man. Because Draper is more than a bit of a jerk. He’s cheating on his wife, he’s running away from some kind of mysterious past, and he makes his living essentially fooling people. And that’s why that fairy tale vision of NYC is so important, because we’re being told that, even as the city is entering a new decade (the show takes place in 1960), people are entering a new world where divorce isn’t a socially crippling stigma, where it might not be okay to circle the new girl at work like a bunch of sharks, and where that oh-so-cool cigarette might be fitting you for an early coffin. Mad Men isn’t about how cool things were back then, but how much things changed in so short a time.
I was reminded a lot of GoodFellas through the first few episodes. Both can be seen as a sort of a lament for a golden age of things that really weren’t all that golden; they’ve just been made that way through the veneer of nostalgia.
I’m five episodes in, so I can’t speak too intelligently on how things play out. But damn I want Netflix to send that second disc right this very second.