Conservatives and liberals just can’t help but see Mad Men differently: the former with apprehension, the latter with anticipation. The show inspires a certain self-satisfaction in the type of viewers who would observe each instance of sexism, racism, and general prejudice as just more foundation for an interpretation many critics have arrived at: “The show explains why the ’60s had to happen.” Rod Dreher says, “For unreflective liberals, Mad Men is only temporarily tragic. It has a happy ending. Deliverance from all this sexism and repression and cigarette smoke draws nigh.”
Jonah Goldberg refuses to concede.
Mad Men is too self-indulgent, too pleased with itself, too quick to get audiences to look for inside jokes, winks, nods, and allusions…Each character is a type. The show works because we haven’t seen many of these types portrayed so well, but their job too often is to represent a Very Important Trend or stand-in for Something Important that is Lost (for good or ill).
I disagree. Mad Men’s saving grace is that the characters remain essentially human, instead of degenerating into stereotypes. Yes, the show has its politics. Initially, I was concerned they would overwhelm it. But they don’t.
Not surprisingly, Jonah and others at NRO are hesitant to endorse the liberal narrative that presents the 1960s as a liberation from the racism, sexism and homophobia of what came before it. For good reason, conservatives remind us of what was lost and what went wrong in the 1960s — two themes that are basically missing from Mad Men.
Yet I think it is worth dwelling for a moment on just how powerful the liberal narrative of liberation really is. In the 1950s, prevailing attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality were appalling by today’s standards. And their impact is personal. Both my mother and my wife have are professional women whose accomplishments would’ve been impossible a half century ago. And I benefit directly from their success, both materially and intellectually.
Furthermore, the challenge to the indefensible standards of the 1950s came primarily from the left, while opposition came primarily from the right. (For the moment, I’ll ignore the question of where Southern Democrats belonged on the political spectrum.) On a gut level, I think it’s hard for today’s conservatives to accept (or at least to admit in print) that liberalism was right about something this big and this important, while conservatives were wrong.
Conservatism values continuity and tradition, which makes it very hard to accept that conservatives of a previous generation were so compromised. In contrast, liberals can always argue that the flaws of their forbears were simply imperfections that would give way to progress. Sure, the Founding Fathers had slaves. And the abolitionists were profoundly sexist and often racist. And the New Dealers were sexist and homophobic. But these were all flaws that would eventually be washed away by the great tide of progress.
So is Mad Men the best show on television, now that The Sopranos and The Wire have passed into the great beyond? Jonah makes the case for Breaking Bad, and so does Ross Douthat. I’d say that both are superb. Yet my inner historian has been seduced by Mad Men’s lush recreation of a Lost Era in American history. I give Mad Men the nod.
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