Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Television Review: Mad Men

Recently I watched the first three episodes of Mad Men. It was highly recommended, it seems to be important culturally, and I was curious.

The main thing I noticed was that the producers of Mad Men went out of their way to portray 1960's America as a toxic and brutal place. Many of the scenes seemed specifically designed to shock the sensibilities of a modern viewer. Everyone, including a pregnant woman, is constantly smoking and drinking. There is rampant sexism and racism. Authority figures and doctors constantly behave in disturbing and unethical ways.

These things might have been necessary to be an accurate portrayal of the era. But then there are vindictive little flourishes like showing a child playing with a dry cleaning bag on her head. The mother responds to this by saying "if the clothes in that bag are on the floor, you will be in trouble." Mad Men is full of things like that, scenes that serve no purpose but to scream that the world is different, and worse, than the one we live in today.

Despair and alienation are the major plot themes in Mad Men. The title theme clearly invokes breakdown and suicide. Everybody is shown as miserable and unhappy. The better characters characters suffer nervous breakdowns, develop psychoses, or cope by weeping openly. The worse ones cope with alcohol, adultery, and inflecting petty cruelties on other people. It is clear that everyone is suffocating in a world that is a virulent stew of idle decadence and primitive savagery.

It seemed obvious to me that Mad Men was a deliberate exercise in smug superiority, a way of saying "Look at how horrible things were in your parents' and grandparents' time. We are so much better than that today. Your life might be bad, but there is no way that it is this bad."

And then I go on Wikipedia and read that Mad Men evokes nostalgia, and that people think of the setting and characters as attractive.

It is Gone With The Wind all over again. A moving picture depicts a nasty brutish world with nasty brutish people and the viewers fall in love with the characters and setting. It seems that all you have to do to make people nostalgic for a time period is to put rich, powerful, and/or physically attractive people in reasonably accurate costumes and settings from that period.

It really amazes me how people are hypnotized by superficial things like beauty and power, and how they form positive associations with anything that seems connected to beautiful and powerful people, no matter how rotten it is at the core.

One of the people who recommended Mad Men was my cousin, a very good, high-quality human being. I find it hard to believe that he would like the show. Maybe he likes it because he sees the rot in it and it makes him feel better about his life. But an incident from my past makes me fear that this is not the case.

This cousin's family brought The Matrix to Thanksgiving for everyone to watch, and they all talked about how much they liked the movie and how good it was.

I watched, and was impressed at first. But then the movie got to the bank lobby scene. The movie had already established that everyone they encounter is a real human being, who will die in real life if they die in the simulated world. It has already established that these people have the ability to jump high and climb walls, and that they have access to advanced technology. Their leader is being held captive in the upper stories of a building. Clearly the best thing to do would be to sneak in as covertly as possible to attempt a rescue.

But instead, they gleefully and remorselessly murder dozens of innocent security guards. This action had no tactical benefit. It wasted valuable time and senselessly alerted everyone to their presence. It would have been trivial to bypass the lobby completely, but they felt a need to instigate an act of wanton carnage.

Sometime later, perhaps after seeing all of the shells raining down from the helicopter, I realized that the The Matrix was doing everything it could to make violence appear beautiful. Even at the age of seventeen, I found this disturbing and abhorrent.

Maybe this is a confabulation. My thoughts on the movie probably took a while to crystallize, and are probably influenced by my current beliefs. Memory is a tricky and unreliable thing. but I know that I did not like the movie, that watching it made me feel uneasy and caused me to question the morality and character of my family members who had recommended it.

All of these three cousins are deeply religious, and have jobs or volunteer positions in churches. They are all very good people. And yet they consistently seem enthralled by entertainment with thoroughly anti-Christian moral messages. It is as if they see no connection between their moral beliefs and their entertainment choices. They see no contradiction in consuming and recommending things that are actively hostile to the values they hold dear.

Maybe such things have no effect on them. Maybe I am just being paranoid about the effects of media exposure on attitudes and actions. But I have seen a lot of research showing that these kinds of things do matter, that people's memories and mental associations are changed by the vivid lies of television and movies. It worries me that so many people are so quick to love rotten things for superficial reasons.

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