Friday, October 31, 2014

Why I Love "Mad Men."

For reasons that won't become apparent until after my novel is published, and I can speak more freely, I will confess here, that I don't watch much television.  I wish I could say that I am immersed in reading lots of books, but that's not the case because I've been working on this novel forever and ever.  In the last ten years, I have slogged through watching really bad reality television; when I tired of that, I "elevated" my viewing habits to political news shows of revolving talking-head pundits. Finally, I stopped watching television altogether.

There is one exception.

Don Draper: The Great White Hope
I always watched "Mad Men." Live. Meaning, when it aired on Sundays, I was there, sitting. Transfixed. Not via DVR, or TIVO, or whatever television playback devices people use nowadays.

For the television ignoranti reading this, Mad Men is an American Movie Classics (AMC) television series about advertising executives in the United States in the 1950s. The protagonist is a handsome, womanizing advertising executive with the Midas touch. He's able to almost single-handedly keep a whole company afloat with his winning jingles, creative ads, and cool demeanor. He's the Muhammad Ali of advertising.  Not quite. Ali is Black American. I should say, the Joe DiMaggio of advertising. Oops. He's Italian-American. Let's try again:  he's the Clark Gable of Advertising (Oops. Gable apparently was part Black and Indian.)

Don Draper is, for the purposes of the series, only White.

I am not so biased and "racially-centric" as to not recognize beauty in so-called "white" characters.  Good looks are good looks, and handsome and beautiful people come in all shapes and sizes. Don Draper cuts a nice figure, alright, but what I like about his character is that with all his debonair and sophisticated dress (he looks quite ravishing in a suit), our man has a secret: he's a total fake.  I am giving away no spoilers here, however, as it becomes apparent in the first couple of episodes that Don Draper is not whom he claims to be.

I like this character because he is a metaphor for how I believe White men have been taught to behave in this country.  They are in charge.  And society and Hollywood (which shapes our country's ethos) has told them as much. Who argues with Hollywood? Hollywood has spawned
Presidents, Governors, Mayors, Ambassadors, Congressmen, and even a Senator who liked Hollywood so much better than reality that he defected from being a public servant, preferring to feed his super ego.

Mad Men shows what it's like when a man is by himself in the dark, with nobody looking, as he tries to hold onto his charade. He is the American equivalent of Marcello Mastroianni, in  La Dolce Vita, reincarnated with an American twist.
Marcello: Italy's original Draper
The series is actually tragic, for lack of a better word. Draper is human, vulnerable, lost, searching. He's looking for a place to call home even while he lives in one with a beautiful wife and White picture-perfect kids.

His secret that he's assuming someone else's identity is a big burden that he wants to unload. It weighs on him, heavily, making him pick up the bottle too much (although he does make being an alcoholic look pretty sexy because he's always in a shirt and tie, if not suit). When he wakes up, however, in whatever woman's bed, with his beard stubble and hangover, and displays anxiety at having to leave the comfort of a woman's arms, he's his most pathetic.

What is redeeming about Don Draper is that in all of his vainglory he is also empathic. He is, deep down, a mensch.  Where he has many opportunities to play a "role" created by the post-World War II macho know-it-all-ness and White male testosterone greatness, he is tested over and over again in episodes that require him to finagle his way through a post-war society in transition. America's winning the war and fighting the good fight made white men heroes to, seemingly, everyone, except critics in their own land who harangued against their superiority over Black men who were second-class citizens with menial jobs and segregated lives (where a Black man didn't have the luxury of being considered his equal).

The irony about my liking this show so much is that there are very few Black Americans or other ethnic groups in the series, and, as a writer, I've been haranguing Hollywood for decades about this phenomenon in my own screen and television writing.  What is fascinating about Mad Men is that, in a sense, the series is all about race relations without ever having to say so: because there are no Blacks in it. America likes to live the myth that it built America, and it did, but only with the contributions of both Black ingenuity and Black labor. Too often, Blacks are pilloried when we exclaim our contributions are overlooked. Well, they are--as we're still learning who kept their race hidden, or who acquired wealth from which Black originator or creator. And we are told to be Americans, not Black Americans, as if identity and history don't matter. It doesn't matter to those in power, but identity is essential on the way up toward power. You must know where you're from -- facts which have been intentionally kept from us for centuries.

In my own novel I write about race, but this blog is much more topical than the novel will be. My characters will navigate through their days, dealing with race without ever confronting it, as that's how it is here in the U.S. Race is uppermost in most of our minds when Whites and non-Whites interact with each other - as we dance around, sizing each other up as to whether or not the other can be trusted, spoken to, served, hugged, kissed, and loved.

Mad Men will resume in Spring 2015. I encourage everyone to watch the series before it begins again--and ends. It is one of the best television series ever on television, and there may never be another like it.

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