June 1, 2012

What's in a name?

When people find out I write about television, especially from the era of the 50s and 60s, I’m inevitably asked whether or not I’ve ever seen Mad Men.The truth of it is: I haven’t. I’m not really sure why; I did see an episode early on, but for whatever reason I decided I wasn’t going to make it appointment television, the way I have, say, Top Gear.

There was another reason as well: I’ve always been apprehensive about programs (or books or movies) that attempt to recreate a period from the past while applying the conventions or mores of the present. From what I’ve read, this does happen from time to time, which may or may not affect your enjoyment of the program, depending on your perspective.

I’ve always thought that if you wanted to see how things were in the 50s, the best way to do it was from the media of the time. A television show, or magazine article, or newspaper advertisement, from that era, is as likely to tell you something significant about the time as anything we can contribute now. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for historical analysis, as it were – often, we can’t gain perspective on a given period until we’ve had a certain passage of time. But, and I think this is crucial, we need to apply our modern sensibilities to our understanding of it, not our portrayal.

In other words, we know that society’s treatment of women and minorities was often lacking in this time period.We know this because of a certain enlightenment, a deeper understanding of human rights, the examples set by others.But if the writer is to accurately portray these events, he cannot allow that knowledge to inhabit the minds of his characters.Otherwise, he runs the risk of allowing the portrayal to become not insightful, but ironic. And you often wind up with not a snapshot of a moment in time, but an allegory. Nevertheless, I can appreciate what I’ve heard and read about the quality of Mad Men, and I’ve kept up with the talk about it enough to have a somewhat good idea what it’s about and where the various storylines go, so I’ll probably rent the DVDs at some point and watch it from beginning to end.

But I have to admit that my appetite has been whetted a bit by this wonderful post from the always-interesting Stephen Bowie, who speculates on how one would cast Mad Men if it were being produced in the same time period in which it takes place.It’s great fun looking at the names that Stephen and his readers come up with (be sure and read the combox!) – some of them major stars, others character actors who pop up in small but crucial roles in so many of the series of that time – and by imagining how they’d play a role, it gives us a pretty good idea of what these Mad Men characters are like, even if we haven’t seen the show.

We can, and should, do this with other shows as well, but in reverse: imagine who would play Lucy and Desi, or Colonel Hogan in Hogan’s Heroes today, or Lewis Erskine in The FBI, or Mike Nelson in Sea Hunt. The list, and the fun, is endless.e sure and check Stephen out, and then be prepared to check out Mad Men as well – maybe you, too, will find yourself doing it earlier than you’d planned. TV  

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