“Mad Men,” the hit television series about Madison Avenue’s high-living advertising execs circa 1960 (AMC, Sundays at 10), has won critical acclaim and is now in its fourth season.
But at the risk of stirring up a hornet’s nest, let’s consider this question: Is entertainment this good bad for us? To put it another way: Does a well-crafted portrait of sustained moral decline teach us something we need to know — or does it lead us to feast voyeuristically on depravity?
A meticulous recreation of the social dynamics, lingo, apparel and gender roles of the early 1960s, “Mad Men” inspires an army of bloggers debating the office politics, familial struggles and extramarital flings of the generally amoral employees of one ad agency. Its gifted, self-destructive creative director, Don Draper, serves as the central protagonist.
Don draws our interest and sympathy because he’s a classic “self-made” American success story. The illegitimate son of a prostitute, he later assumed a dead Army officer’s identity while serving in the Korean War. Now he’s a rising star on Madison Avenue, the man with his finger on the pulse of a seismic shift in American culture.
His agency is in the business of seduction: priming a newly prosperous nation to develop an insatiable appetite for consumer goods and shifting “lifestyle” options. Even our democracy is being transformed: The first season depicts the impact of JFK’s superior campaign ads on the outcome of the presidential election.
Don possesses a gift for spin, not industry. He coaxes skeptical clients to sign lucrative contracts and weak-willed women to relax their morals. For a while, he performs the same magic on his spouse, Betty. She’s the suburban wife who greets him with a cocktail and a hot dinner after work and cares for their two offspring with the maternal love he never experienced. Miraculously, she doesn’t seem curious about the nights he stays in town (or so he initially believes).
Of course, Don isn’t the only American man to embrace the modern conceit that a person can maintain two identities — devoted family man and after-hours swinger — and sidestep the contradiction.
Many fans are mesmerized by the antics of Don and his like precisely because their circumstances help explain how some buttoned-down grown-ups, like their parents, ended up in divorce court.
The show’s creators are upfront about Don’s internal contradiction. He wants the stable family life he never had, but he can’t or won’t sacrifice much to secure it. The visuals accompanying the opening credits depict a man falling past Manhattan skyscrapers into an abyss below. The rest of the ad agency’s employees aren’t far behind, including the secretaries that are straight out of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl.
“Mad Men” offers complex storytelling. In one episode, Don conducts a hotel tryst with a stewardess and her signature TWA-wings pin ends up in his suitcase. His daughter finds the wings, and Betty pins them onto the girl’s blouse. The sequence suggests that Don’s in serious denial: He can’t protect his family from the consequences of his infidelity.
The show’s audience, then, has been primed for the ongoing debacle that defines Don Draper’s existence. The historically authentic characters are props for the notion that we’re witnessing a tipping point in American culture and maybe there’s no turning back. Every significant character seems morally compromised.
As I watched my first season of “Mad Men,” I thought about Michael Corleone, the tragic protagonist of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel. Michael is the war-hero son of a Mafia boss who loses his way after killing his father’s enemies.
The Godfather reveals the power of a family’s legacy on one man’s conscience. But Michael’s fall from grace occurs within a deeply spiritual framework. The sacraments are available, but Michael has placed himself above the moral law. In one memorable sequence, the camera cuts between Michael performing his duties as godfather during the baptism of his infant nephew and Corleone henchmen carrying out multiple assassinations of the family’s enemies.
In “Mad Men,” Don and the rest of the office are on their own. God doesn’t surface during the fast-paced banter. Meanwhile, out in the suburbs, Betty Draper drifts through an antiseptic existence that deprives her own spousal and maternal commitments of any real moral significance.
No doubt, “the Sixties” marked the dawn of a more secular era that encouraged moral disorder. American social institutions — families and churches included — were in need of renewal after the strain of two world wars. Betty Draper hopes that therapy will soothe her soul.
Meanwhile, “Mad Men” discounts the power of love and hope, divine and human. The ensuing vacuum lets everyone off the hook, the audience included.
A real tragedy, of course, hinges on a catharsis. But a complete resolution to Don’s hellish plight isn’t possible when a television series depends upon a constant cycle of hotel trysts, corrupt career moves and marriage breakups to keep its audience entertained and the blogosphere engaged.
Before continuing along this slouch toward conventional TV titillation, Matthew Weiner, the creator behind “Mad Men,” would do well to meditate on Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists.
“Society needs artists,” the Holy Father wrote. “The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labor without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.”
For their part, rapt Catholic fans of this show — and they are many — have to consider whether the “Mad Men” habit loosens our grip on reality rather than helping us, as John Paul put it, make of our life “a work of art, a masterpiece.”
Anybody ready to change the channel?
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.