The Success (and Failure) of Reality in 5 Seasons of Mad Men

(Previously posted on my blog, The Last Cleveland)

When we were kids, our worlds centered on fairy tales.  We were told stories about a time and place either too long ago for us to know, or places and people we could only envision in our minds.  Cinderella, Snow White.  Damsels in distress; white knights on whiter horses.  Stories about true love and happy endings.  We knew, from our stories, that happy endings would always happen to those that were good, who were just.  Those who deserved it the most; those who believed in love.  As long as we were good at heart, good things would happen to even the most desperate of us.

As we grew older, we came to understand the truth about our fairy tales.  We learned that these stories were not always true; in fact, most of them were either factually skewed or never happened at all.  As we grew we came to understand the nature, reasoning, and purpose of these stories.  We knew that we were too young to learn about the real world, how bad things happen to good people.  The cutthroat nature of our society.  The racism, the bigotry, the sexism, the violence.  Nothing is good, nothing is just.  Everything is, and everything is how we have made it.  
However we have made it to this point in our lives, as adults we have learned, one way or another, of the arbitrary, contrary, often times shocking, and altogether unfairness of reality.
Once we understood this world, we decided that the stories we grew up on were too unbelievable.  We couldn’t accept the fairy tales.  We demanded reality.  We demanded high drama.  We demanded fair, exceptional storytelling.  Of course we enjoy the occasional summer movie, one that we watch with an understanding of its impossibility, but those movies aren’t the ones that win our awards.  They do take our money though.  It is another discussion altogether to decide which of those two is more valuable.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time analyzing the fifth season of Mad Men that recently completed.  I don’t want to spend a lot of time analyzing episodes from it, or characters.  I read enough of those separately online, and though I have ideas about The Other Woman, I will let them go for now, and let someone else tackle that.
I wanted to make a brief inspection into one of the aspects of Mad Men’s success, and it has to do with its reality.  Aside from the well-established success of the story and its characters, I wanted to focus on how its reality has been perhaps the most essential quality of the show, especially in comparison to other shows that have tried (and failed) to follow in its wake.
Since Mad Men has come out, period pieces like Pan-Am, the Playboy Club, and even shows like Smash, which relish in fantasies like Marilyn Monroe, have aired with nowhere near the amount of praise that Mad Men has receive, and rightly so.  
Among many other reasons why, one of the faults I have noticed with each of these shows is their rejection of their settings; one thing Mad Men has always been attentive to.  I know these shows came as a result of Mad Men’s success, but their premises were misguided.  People who watch Mad Men were not watching the show to enjoy some antiquity, some nostalgic return to a greater, bygone era in American history.  They know the world of Mad Men is a world that is as real as it can be on television.  Nothing is good, nothing is just.  Advantages and disadvantages, like life, is what the show balances on.  In The Playboy Club, the glamour of being a bunny was great (we can’t believe that was true; we know it wasn’t).  In Pan-Am, the stewardesses were the real mavericks, not the plane.  They ruled the skies, and told the pilots who or what they could or couldn’t do.  In Smash, only the beauty and sexuality of Marilyn Monroe are spoken of (not a whisper of the tortures she personally had to endure to become that).
It is an all too common occurrence, and a fault, that people reminisce about times in their past with a fonder view of what actually happened.  Such was the case in Pan-Am and The Playboy Club.  In those shows, there was no recognition of sexism or racism, and if there was, it was beaten back with a rah-rah sentimentality by a strong female lead.  These shows were afraid to show what Mad Men shows because either being on network television made it less possible to do so, or they misunderstood the target audience.  
These shows came to being seemingly as a response to the fashionable trend Mad Men became.  The show was an inspiration for a clothing line at Banana Republic.  People fawned over the style of the characters in the show, and some thought that was enough to spin off into other series.  Of course, however, when you watch the show, the style is a cover-up.  The sexiness of the characters is constantly undermined by the reality of the ’60s, and no character can escape it.  I always found it ironic that Kurt from Glee was a fan of the Mad Men clothing line, when the leading gay character in Mad Men spent his entire span of the show hiding from his own sexuality, and was removed from the show as only a man at that time could have been removed from an office at the time.
The ultimate point against Kurt and the clothing line is not to exacerbate the negativity of the ’60s.  What I am trying to point out is that Mad Men, as a separate entity, is successful for many reasons, one of them being its unsympathetic, realistic portrayal of life in the ’60s for all people.  The problem that arises from this in our public is the incorrect perceptions that generate such hypocrisies as the one on Glee, and the other shows created in order to feed off the trend of success of Mad Men.  Ultimately, it was a trend the attempting trendsetters misunderstood.
Some people miss the point.  I believe, most often, people avoid the point rather than miss it altogether.  The truth is:  Mad Men’s successes and failures land squarely on its adult obsession of staying realistic.  
So do ours.
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