Late to the Party: A “Mad Men” Confessional

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I became hooked on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” before I ever even considered watching “Mad Men.” I watched “Pretty Little Liars” and “Desperate Housewives,” “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” and too many “Golden Girls” reruns to count…but never “Mad Men.” Sure I had heard about how great it was, and my eyeballs were already on board—it’s hard not to notice that Jon Hamm is one of the hamm-somest men around—but it was something I never envisioned myself embracing. In fact, it was something I figured I’d need to brace myself for. I avoided it the way…well, the way that regular “Mad Men” viewers were probably avoiding the shows I vainly watched in its stead.

“Mad Men” meant one thing to me, and it was something that I didn’t think I could stomach without approaching an unproductive level of anger: misogyny. Sure, it was a knowing misogyny, something carefully crafted by modern day writers to mimic the true experience of the early 60s, all while nodding to our presumably changed attitudes. But that still meant a barrage of cutting remarks about the inferiority of women, the general boys’ club inanity, and—if “Mad Men” jokes on other television shows were to be trusted—a lot of unwarranted ass-slapping. Now, I prefer my ass-slapping in moderation, particularly if it is presented so glamorously that it almost starts to seem appealing. I was pretty sure that “Mad Men” would overstep this boundary, and that I might just be taken along for the ride. I was destined either to be constantly furious or gradually indoctrinated; by the end of the show, I might even be chain-smoking and drinking my way through breakfast. Never mind that most of the other shows I was watching were at least vaguely misogynistic in a different way, often showing women to be harpies, sluts, or oblivious virgins—main characters maybe, but rarely well-rounded people.

When I started watching “Mad Men” this summer, mostly due to its being the most appealing show Netflix offered on streaming (that I hadn’t yet seen), I discovered that I was not, technically, wrong. The ass slaps, thankfully, have been fewer than I imagined, but the bad attitude toward women (and anyone else not privileged, male, and white) is perhaps even more shocking than I was prepared for. There’s something almost giddy about the excessively un-PC dialogue; at times I find myself both cringing and laughing at the absurdity of it all. There’s no doubt that the show is well-made—it is both visually- and intellectually-appealing, with impressive acting and clever writing—but it is also quite troubling. It requires a very delicate dance between historical accuracy (and, I suppose, satire) and pernicious indulgence; it is difficult to determine whether this dance is fastidiously maintained or if there are missteps.

For me, “Mad Men” has been enjoyable but not compulsively watchable. Too many episodes in one sitting is like the majority of the foods featured on the show: impossible to digest. This difficulty stems not only from the often unpalatable attitudes but also the richness of the themes. The morally gray domain of advertising is particularly fruitful, leading to endless questions about human nature at its core. Additionally, each of the characters has a compelling backstory, which is explored with care. There is no detail too minor, nor character too small; the “Mad Men” world is complex and seemingly infinite. I find that these episodes can be savored longer, and ought to be. I feel more comfortable with the characters the more I ruminate on the paths their lives have taken. Still, this is not to say that any of these characters are quite likable; “Mad Men” is not the kind of show that needs to rely on heroes and villains.

Only five episodes into the first season, I can make no definitive judgments on how I feel about the show. Thus far, however, I am impressed by its writing and lush details. I am drawn in, in spite of myself, and eager to discover more. The characters are already real to me, and their struggles are already imperative. In short, I am learning what the rest of the world already knew: “Mad Men” is not just a treat, but a whole satisfying meal.

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