Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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The "Mad Men" Files: Introduction

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , ,

"That story was good enough for The New Yorker. And don't act like those magazines do everything on merit."

—Pete Campbell, Mad Men, season 1, episode 5 ("5G")

As is often the case with really good TV shows, that line only improves with context.

I'm watching Season 1 of Mad Men, enjoying it very much. I take little notes as I watch ("Volkswagen Lemon ad, year?"), minor matters I can look up on Wikipedia and, more to the point, The Complete New Yorker.

Doesn't it seem likely that Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, owns a copy of The Complete New Yorker? I bet he's worn Disc 5 (1957-1964) down to the nub. I expect to do the same.

It's difficult to think of a show that better lends itself to CNY supplement. Based on a few preliminary searches, the CNY yield on terms like "advertising" for that era is too rich to be covered in a single post, so I'll add occasional posts over the next few weeks. The ad man really does appear to have been an object of especial interest at that time, and the CNY reflects that. I hope you'll ... tune in.

Here's a starter, a Dana Fradon cartoon from the October 1, 1960, issue, a commentary on the literary ambitions of the gang at Sterling Cooper (an alternate title for the episode quoted above might have been "All the Sad Young Literary Men"). Enjoy.



I look forward to your posts, Martin. I’m only up to episode 4 of Mad Men, but I can definitely see what you mean. I wondered about the Volkswagen ad, too.

I’m really enjoying the show, but good as it is, I find it insists a bit too much on making jokes at the expense of its characters, jokes based on how much the culture has changed. I’m thinking of the kids riding around in the back seat of the station wagon without seatbelts, cracks about the Volkswagen (“last time I saw one of those, I was throwing a grenade into it”), and my favorite: when the main character’s little girl is playing Astronaut with her brother and has climbed inside a plastic dry cleaning bag, and her mother seeing this, calls her back … to reprimand her about messing up the dry cleaning.

It’s not that the culture hasn’t changed, but the show seems determined to beat us over the head with it, since characters regularly make declarations that are obviously aimed at making contemporary viewers laugh, rather than more subtly pointing out the change. A slightly better way this is handled, for example, is when the main character calls his wife’s psychiatrist, who blithely spills the beans about her treatment. Presumably, this will become dramatically important, rather than a cheap shot at our parents’ naiveté .

Then again, maybe all this is necessary, since it’s hard to believe that such a comparatively recent period could be so different from ours. By our standards, the overt sexism of the men and women seems so unlikely as to be garish … and, for those young women of today who don’t want to be seen as feminists but have only the dimmest idea of how things were and how much they have benefited from feminism, as fantastic as, say life in the court of the Sun King. I suspect that the sexism is overdrawn for effect — not in its particulars, but in that all of the worst excesses of the time are compacted to get the point across— but maybe it will be a useful history lesson.

It’s tricky, in effect every single moment is potentially conveying three things: the basic plot and things related to that, make genuine and legitimate points about the mores of that time, and also make the occasional joke or nod. I think without those moments, the show would verge on being dull, you can’t really do what Weiner’s trying to do without little wry nods at this or that, Salvatore’s gayness or whatnot.

And this kind of second-recognition creeps in even when they’re playing it straight. Like I was watching an early scene where Betty was driving with one of the children in the front passenger seat (I think just before she cracks up briefly), and she didn’t move to put on his seatbelt or remind him or her to do same, because why would she? And yet the scene is not scoring a point at all, it’s just there, the same way that everything else available for scrutiny might be making a point about something.

Keep my alternate title in mind for ep5, I think you’ll find it amusing.

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