TV for your wallet

By , 10 September, 2008, No Comment

Had a fascinating “aha” moment the other day about my new favorite TV show, AMC’s Mad Men. It’s all about sleezy ad guys in the early ’60s, at the moment when the old black-and-white print ads are about to be turned inside out by edgier copy and the rise of TV. The characters on the show work for an old agency and as they struggle to say afloat in a changing media world, they resort to the dirty and the deceitful.

Wonder why I find it so relevant today…

Compare the show to the last generation of workplace dramas and you’ll notice one key difference. In the 1990s, on shows like ER or West Wing (both of which I loved), there was a ton of misbehavior, BUT the top dog (Drs Carter and Ross at different times, President Bartlet) were good guys we could look up to. Everyone clawed their way to get up there, but the ones who really make it in America, the shows suggested, deserve it.

On Mad Men, the most notable feature is that the guys on top are often the worst of the batch. The head creative, and the protagonist, Don Draper, is guilty of identity theft, cheats on his wife and sexually assaults his mistress, Bobbie. If Mad Men had been made in 1998 instead of 2008, I’m convinced Draper would have been a nicer guy. The key is the state of the American economy:

In the 1990s, when the economy was doing well, workplace shows made the boss look good because people wanted to absolve any guilt about their greed or their success. Go back to the late ‘70s/1980s, however, when the economy was in a crunch, and shows like Dallas were all about sleezy power players, because people in economic distress want to feel justified in resenting those at the top.

Media like television are entertainment and big business, but they are also about tapping into a broader emotional zeitgeist, about turning what we believe into something aspirational, allowing us to reaffirm the values we already have. Advertisers do the same thing, which means Mad Men’s content and storyline function as an interesting commentary on the role played by the show itself. That kind of meta-narrative, the rich opportunities for analysis and debate, are my favorite part of the show. For a taste, check out the opening episode of Season 2, here.

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