Unless you've been living under a rock or have had more productive things to do, the interwebs have been agog about the AMC series "Mad Men." I admit to being sucked in as much as anyone else. I tore through the 1st 2 seasons on DVD in a couple of weeks and now am fully engrossed.
What I find most interesting, however, is the current cultural reaction to the show. Much like The Sopranos, the show particularly excites the comments of cultural critics (these are just 2 that I particularly like), while at the same time seeming to engender a longing for the unmitigated cool of the late 50s & early 60s. Hilton and Banana Republic, among many others, are 2 companies actively promoting tie-ins to the show, playing explicitly off that cool factor. You can even "Mad Men" yourself. Yes, that's (kind-of) me up in the corner... Anyway, this seems to be borne out by the demographics of the viewership - relatively young (majority under 50) and quite wealthy (many making more than $100k/ year).
That's what interests me.
What excites me about the show is how you have to pay attention to really get it. It shows you how cool Don Draper is, how neat martini lunches were, how wholesome family life in the late 1950s and early 1960s was, and how simple life seemed. It takes you in, makes you inhabit those memories, evokes nostalgia for this simpler time, and then (pardon my language) poops all over those thoughts. This is a society on the cusp of something transformational. The Civil Rights movement and Vietnam particularly stalk this seasons' shows. The thing is, the main characters are all on the wrong side of that transformation. They're standing in the way of progress. If you're paying attention, if you think about what they're doing and why they're doing it, you're not supposed to like any of these characters. You may well be able to understand them but it's hard to really like them.
I write here quite a bit about nostalgia, how we today are as guilty of it as our predecessors ever were. I try to warn about the dangers of nostalgia. It leads us to ridiculous positions, like lionizing certain periods and peoples by fossilzing them by only 1 of their many characteristics. Nostalgia makes you say dumb things like calling one group of people "the greatest generation," thereby eliminating their many foibles and utterly negating the contributions of others.
I don't think "Mad Men" is playing into that (even if others, like Hilton and Banana, are trying to profit off of it anyway) but I began to worry that people aren't paying attention -- much like many viewers who don't understand that "The Colbert Report" is satire. But, then I took another look at those demographics of "Mad Men's" viewers. If the majority of the viewership is under 54 (or even under 49), they would likely only hazily remember this period. Most of these viewers wouldn't remember this period at all. But if they did, they were Don and Betty's kids -- Sally, Bobby, and Gene -- who are little more than window-decoration for the adults (not a surprise then that the actors who play the kids aren't even listed on the "Mad Men" website). Sally's emotions when her grandfather died are ignored. Bobby's little more than a nuisance to his parents. We haven't seen Gene in a number of episodes now. The parents do anything and everything but spend time with them or show any interest in them at all. Certainly, this isn't to say that all parents from this period ignored their children but it complicates the picture.
And the show overall does this well, stripping off the superficial veneer that nostalgia paints the past with, forcing you -- if you're paying attention -- to ask some tough questions about people, behavior, and events that we might not otherwise question. And doing that, I think, can only be a good thing.