Thursday, February 07, 2008

What I watch

There is a lot written about how the writers' strike is changing TV viewing habits, and I am clearly following the trend, after I filled my empty evenings with marathons of "Friday Night Lights" and "Lost" DVDs. (I still have much of season 3 of "Lost" to watch, but since the fourth season kicked off last week, there is less of an incentive to crank it out. I'm, for all intents and purposes, caught up.) Since I can't bear to watch night time games shows or dancing shows or even "American Idol" (except sometimes, near the end, when the ridiculous are mostly gone), there are only a few new shows on right now that I am bothering with.

And, some choice reruns, including "Mad Men," the AMC series that won critical acclaim and the Golden Globe for Best Drama, even as I barely knew what it was. Well, luckily, it's being repeated at some random late night hour each week (thank god for DVR so I don't have to find it myself), and I've had the luxury of seeing three episodes so far.

And I love it. First of all, it's set in the early 1960's, a time period that has always fascinated me. (Yes, I lived during much of the decade, so maybe it's a familiarity deeper than I even remember. But my family was not one where Dad came home from work and had a cocktail while Mom bustled around in a newly modernized kitchen.) I love movies from the sixties, the crispness of the black and white, the clean lines of the thin ties and shirt dresses and stark angular furniture. (I would love "The Dick Van Dyke Show" for this reason alone; Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore's wonderful comic timing is just gravy.)

"Mad Men" has all of this, with the bonus of 20-20 hindsight, with a bit of snark. We watch as the men of a Madison Avenue ad agency struggle to develop creative for their clients, scoffing at market research and suggestions that consumers could be motivated by anything as Freudian as sex or power. Men strut through the office with clear rules about what the women they pass can or can't do (can: answer phones and bring coffee and sleep with them; can't: expect that they can cross over to become one of the suburban wives and mothers stashed along the Metro North commuter route.) When I watch movies and shows made in the 60's, there isn't, of course, that wink-wink sense of a house of cards about to fall, which "Mad Men" gives in spades. You just know that these guys are going to get theirs, that their bravado will crumble before long.

Then there are moments like when one says: "I know you stole that report out of my trash can; it's not like there is a magic machine that can make an exact copy in minutes," and a whole series of observations on child-rearing. (Somehow I think these are intended to make us feel foolish now for our over cautious environment. For example: a young girl is playing "space man" and comes running to her mother with a plastic dry cleaning bag over her head. The mother gets angry, "Sally, you know you are not supposed to do that." Pause for effect. "If I find the clean clothes all over the closet floor, you are so in trouble." Sally giggles through the plastic, and runs off to continue playing in her death trap costume. In another scene the mother is driving and Sally and her brother are rough-housing in the car; forget car seats or seat belts, they are climbing over the seats, arms and legs in all directions, as their mother stares ahead at the road, uncaring. The inference of both being that, of course, we survived back then.)

Since I'm only on episode 3, I imagine this kind of self-aware commentary could become tiring, but at least there is also good story behind it. Another thing that sets it apart from the stuff filmed at the time is a willingness to show us the dirty side - the swearing, the endless smoking (although that was always there, just didn't seem so sinister), the bad boy behavior. Doris Day may consider sleeping with Cary Grant in "That Touch of Mink," but in "Mad Men," a secretary is sent by another to a gynecologist on her first day of work to get birth control pills, an apparent orientation step as casual as ordering desk supplies.) Men in the old movies never seemed this predatory, but the women also never seemed this complicit.

But I still get wooed into thinking that I'm watching something made forty years ago, due to the realism of the scene design and costume. I caught myself wondering about a particular actress, thinking, "Wonder what else she has done? Was she in anything after this?" and then realizing that no, this isn't a young actress who is now in her 60's, this is a young actress herself born while I was in college.


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