Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cue the Falling-Man Music

Jeff Daniels spouting off at the mouth, the collar and breast of his neatly pressed oxford peeking out from under his stereotypical, stodgy-journalist sport coat, telling a room of intent college students – at a distinctly Sorkian pace that belies reality – just how far America has fallen in oh-so-many ways, rattling off a myriad of statistics and observations that ostensibly prove the incompetence of this generation compared to the splendor and grandeur of an America gone but not forgotten, of his America and his father’s America.

That’s how Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama The Newsroom begins: a middle-aged white guy telling an assembly hall full of 20-something jack-offs just how detrimental the Kardashians and iPhones have been to this (once) great nation, how much better things used to be back in “his” day. The speech, while well delivered by Mr. Daniels, would have been much more efficient had he merely screamed “Get off my lawn!!!” and stomped off the stage.

My personal jury is still out on how I feel about The Newsroom overall, but that moment represents something endemic of people today, many of whom believe that their personal generation was the greatest, that their formative years were the strongest this country – nay, planet – has ever seen, that the passage of time has been anything but beneficial. Sorkin isn’t doing a satire of this, either. He genuinely seems to believe it, and he’s certainly not alone.

Sometimes, television can be important. What we learn from television, what it tells us about ourselves and each other and our society, at times, can actually be worthwhile. But this isn’t about The Newsroom.

Mad Men is not the greatest show to ever grace our TV screens (that would be Seinfeld, obvi), but it could very well be the most significant. The program, which recently wrapped up its fifth season, shows us that America’s widespread belief in the basis of the “Jeff Daniels generational narcissism” rant is inherently and patently wrong – or at the very least, only half right – warning against the potholes and pitfalls that await us should we continue down this road. Everything wasn’t better in your generation or his generation or her generation or mine. Sure, some things were. But some were terrible, too. Some were na├»ve and intolerant and offensive and antiquated (even at the time). Some were oblivious and short-sighted and are favorable only in the light of one’s personal and selective memory.

Mad Men makes it easy to see the things about the past that are appealing, the things we have seemingly lost over time. The chivalry of a man removing his hat when a woman walks in a room (not to mention the mere ubiquity of those awesome hats to begin with). The freedom and wistfulness of graphite-gray smoke, slowly curling from the end of a cigarette. The way that ice-chilled glass of whiskey looks more appetizing than a milkshake. The dapper suits and slicked back hair of a strong-jawed Don Draper. The simplicity and slower pace of life. The thoughtful consideration people showed one another. The lack of cynicism and snark and privacy invasion and anonymous abuse that now seems so constant and rampant as more and more time has passed. Things were so much more promising, the outlook so much brighter.

But the show also illustrates how those same women who got the hat-removal courtesy were also treated as a submissive and grossly inferior gender. Or how that cigarette smoke will also breed addiction, cancer and birth defects. Or how that thirst-quenching whiskey will lead to alcoholism and divorce and defunct livers. Or how much of a stubborn, womanizing, manipulative and vindictive man Don Draper can actually be, just as often as he is brilliant and understanding and loving and profound, if not more so. Or just how noticeably white and male all those Draper types were at the time. The ignorance, bigotry and prejudice that people displayed or held in their hearts. The self-righteousness and narrow mindedness employed by far too many. The notion that even then, too many powerful and important people were incapable or uninterested in forgetting or moving on from the past.

The Beatles and Woodstock accompanied by Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs. The greatness and potential of JFK and MLK a precursor to their eventual assassinations. True, Mad Men has looked exclusively (thus far) at the 1960s, but the same could be done and exemplified during any time period. The ‘60s work well because of how much cultural significance they held and the seminal moments and changes that took place, but every decade and epoch had its impacts and legacies. There is so much good, so much influence that came from every previous generation, so much that has helped to preserve our freedom and give us opportunities we never dreamed imaginable. But there was also so much bad, so much that we strive to forget, that at the very best serves only as evidence of what not to do moving forward. It doesn’t make one time period better or worse or more important. Each and every moment of each and every era was completely necessary for the one that proceeded it, just as today will one day be necessary for that which is yet to come. The events and inhabitants were obligatory, for better or worse. If anything, it’s all more parallel than we give it credit for.

The genius of Mad Men is borne by the idea of examining (essentially) one decade, at (essentially) one New York City ad agency, from the perspective of (essentially) one man, and showing how it all predates and relates to today, how the past and present blend together. The things that were good and arguably better stand out just as the much as the contrary does. We simultaneously see just how different and similar things truly are. We see how human interaction has evolved or failed to do so, how technology has both unleashed and crippled us, how time has mutually softened and hardened us. The progress is obvious, as are equally all the ways we’ve gone astray.

The specific incidents that take place in the Mad Men world are vital to the show’s plot, but also serve as a representation of life and existence. The point of view from Don Draper gives us an anchor to the story and a main character to build upon and around, while also providing us a symbol of human interaction with change and transition, a microcosm of promising moments of growth and the impending flashes of ultimate doom.

The title sequence at the beginning of every episode depicts the animated image of a man falling out the window of his New York skyscraper office building – accompanied by calm, understated, haunting music – hurtling through the void of air and sky to an assured death. This has long been assumed as the inevitable destiny of Don Draper, the unavoidable culmination for the message the show strives to communicate. It’s all angling toward something bad – a man (or a generation) stuck in his ways, unable and unwilling to change or adapt, incapable of carrying on with the good while leaving behind all that is bad. Convinced that the way things were done in his day is the way things should always be done. Powerless to his own vices and the transitioning times. Perpetually falling into demise and despair.

Whether this implicit conclusion is – for us, the audience, the consumer – a cautionary warning or an inescapable guarantee remains to be seen. It’s also evidence that sometimes, television can be important. What we learn from it, what it tells us about ourselves and each other and our society can actually be worthwhile. Mad Men most of all.

Thanks for reading

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