Mad Men I Have Known
By Kathy Worthington -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/5/2008 8:00:00 PM
I have been bitten by the Mad Men bug, for which there is no cure. I'm completely besotted by the show—and not only by the character of Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, who was nominated for an Emmy as Best Actor in a Drama Series. It's appalling to me that the show was watched by fewer than one million viewers its first season. Mad Men won six statues at this year's Primetime Emmy Awards. Somebody should be watching.
Market researchers say today's audiences are fragmented. I would hate the job of a TV programmer for that reason. In the midst of so much mediocrity, I'm grateful for the few shows that are worthy of my time. I'm not interested in the rest of them right now; only Mad Men, and I can't get enough of it.
Mad Men takes place during the Baby Boomer years, in the early '60s, when I was a young girl. The characters depict our parents, grandparents and neighbors. Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers should be fascinated, too—if for no other reason than to get a glimpse of the era leading into the time of senseless assassinations, the burgeoning Vietnam War, flower power and feminism.
When I was growing up on Chicago's North Shore, our next door neighbors were like the Drapers. The husband, Dick, was a handsome, well-dressed ad man who worked on Michigan Avenue. His wife, Janet, was a Grace Kelly-type blonde housewife with perfectly coiffed hair who usually wore high heels, dresses and crinolines. Dick and Janet chain-smoked. There was always a lighted cigarette dangling from their fingers. (Their house, which looked very similar to the Drapers' TV home, was spotless, but smelled badly of cigarettes.) I babysat for their children. When I saw the show for the first time, my jaw dropped. The writing, sets, clothes, music, hair and makeup are so authentic.
The writing is witty without being overtly so. Conversations seem real, the way people talk. Head honcho Mr. Cooper (of Sterling and Cooper fame) isn't around very much, but when he is, he drops the perfect bon mot every time. Sometimes his comments have a not-so-hidden message, such as, “We didn't make you the head of television just to shorten your attention span.” It is generally believed among those who work in the industry that broadcasting power-brokers have the attention span of a gnat.
There are scenes that depict blatant discrimination—when the men talk to, or about, the women. I assume the writers, both men and women, are familiar with the territory. The characters are not exaggerated, as you find in simple-minded sitcoms such as Two and a Half Men.
I know the depictions of discrimination are authentic because I've been there. I left a lucrative Chicago radio broadcasting job because of the very real glass ceiling and sexual discrimination directed my way. (Discrimination lawsuits had yet to become commonplace.) I took the elevator to the 11th floor of a famous Chicago high-rise to tell my tale of woe to the station's legal minds. They told me they would “go after” me if I sought legal representation. Rather than burn bridges in the industry, I decided to turn tail and run. I'm not sorry. I didn't then—and don't now—have the stomach for the battle that would have ensued. Two of the offenders were eventually fired. Two others have died. (Not that I wished that would happen, of course.)
Some may think reliving bad experiences through Mad Men is masochistic. Not at all. The show gives validation to what I and other women endured; it lets me know that I wasn't crazy and shouldn't have been treated that way by male co-workers and bosses.
The show's portrayal of suburban life is the way I remember it, right down to the adults drinking Old Fashioneds before dinner—often made by the young daughter. Right or wrong, it was an innocent, naive time for a young girl who was about to reach puberty. Perhaps we can never go home again, but we can go back, in the form of Mad Men. It is an accurate depiction of a lifestyle that no longer exists.
Kathy Worthington is a former Chicago news anchor/reporter who left the business in 2006. She now works as a senior creative writer for a private company in Glenview, Ill.
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