Monday, November 05, 2007

Mad About You

I rarely do reviews of television shows, because I am well aware that my taste isn’t for everyone. For example, virtually no-one but me wanted to see a documentary on the deleterious effects of bringing the cane toad into Australia, and that is their loss. I accept that a show which pleases me usually sends others frantically scanning up and down the channels, looking for re-runs of Dynasty or the Bass-Fishing Network. But, I must sing the praises of Mad Men.

Oh, how I love this show about advertising men in Manhattan in 1960. The writing is terrific and haunting, and the characters are flawed in totally satisfying ways. According to my mother, who wasn’t far from that world, the writers have gotten the whole mélange of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and white-guy entitlement exactly right. I get to squeal is horrified delight when the eight months’-pregnant character is having a cocktail and a Virginia Slims. And over in the shallower end of the pool, it just looks so freaking good; all I want to do is tug my hair into a French twist and put on pointy-toed pumps. And that’s even remembering how my mother had to have bunion surgery in the 1980’s to repair the effects of pointy-toed 1959 shoes. And then there’s Jon Hamm, and he’s very nice, too.

But there was something else, something I couldn’t exactly define, which kept drawing me back to the show, leaving me in a near-opiatic state of contentment. What was it? On Halloween night, I was happy to find that friend Veronica felt much the same way. Well-drawn characters, blahblahblah, fabulous look, blahblahblah, Jon Hamm, blahblahblahblahblahblahblah(SIGH) blahblahblahblahblahblahblah.

“And don’t you just love it when he goes to work?” Veronica sighed, serving pizza to her daughter and mine, creating a base-layer of carbohydrates off of which the forthcoming candy could bounce.

I yelped, “That’s IT!”. Veronica’s children, unused to mothers who yelp, looked at me in confusion. Daughter, benumbed to me, gnawed away at her dinner. Veronica waited.

“You and I are fascinated by this show because the male characters go to work at the same time every day, come home at the same time every day, and wear grown men’s clothing all the time.”

She thought, and nodded. “You have to admit, it looks really good.”

We both love wonderful men who are terrific fathers to their kids. You would consider yourself lucky to have either as a friend. But the fact remains, they have weird careers. Veronica’s husband works in the entertainment industry on the production side; part of the reason he chose the job he did was so he could wear shorts to work for up to nine months a year. When he works, his hours are brutal and days frequently blur into one another. When he doesn’t work, he’s totally available to Veronica and the kids, but there’s also this undercurrent of “This was the very last job I will ever get. I will never work again.” This minor note becomes louder with each passing week until he gets hired and then he slips off to the dark side of the moon again.

Consort doesn’t work in the entertainment industry, a fact which relieves me this week when everyone else in Los Angeles is sweating about the writers’ strike. This doesn’t mean, however, that his job is the paragon of stability. Companies rent Consort’s brain. It’s a very nice brain, and I understand renting it, but it doesn’t lead to a life of great predictability. This is usually how a job contingent on brain-renting works:

1. In the first week, there are several meetings with the company at random times. This is the week I’ll see in him a suit, but I’ll also have no use of the big computer, because he’ll be printing out seemingly endless articles on something like “YouTube on the Space Station? How inter-planetary travel will affect advertising rates”. He mumbles a lot in the first week.

2. The company rents his brain and the Excel spreadsheet program springs into action. I don’t care what he’s doing; it’s improved by a spreadsheet showing the depreciation rate. The depreciation rate of what, you might ask? I asked for a few years, and now I don’t, because the answer was always very long and made me start eating my hair. It’s enough for all of us not renting his brain to know that things depreciate. Also, the phrase “Net Present Value” comes up; I’m not sure brain-renters feel they have gotten their money’s worth without that phrase splashed about. This is the time where our family relationship settles into 1) Quinn saying to Daughter, “Shh, Daddy is working”; 2) Daughter looking puzzled, because Daddy appears to be dressed like it’s a Saturday and is staring at the computer screen, and 3) Consort staring at the computer screen, mumbling. Sometimes during this week, he suddenly darts off to a meeting. These meetings inevitably take place across town and are called for rush-hour. Therefore, this is also the time where Consort is found at eleven p.m. sitting at the kitchen table, eating dinner and doing the crossword puzzle. If he sees me, he says things like “So, how are you two?” and “Has your hair always been that color?”

3. As we close in on the delivery date, Consort mumbles less, but swears more. Mostly, he sits at the computer breathing shallowly and typing. His wardrobe for this stage consists of jeans and t-shirts of such antiquity that they have the fragility of parchment and have all--no matter what color they started off--faded to the color of the water in which you rise off your watercolor brush. This wardrobe says “I am not going outside until this work is done.” Daughter and I kiss him gingerly as we leave for school each morning. Many congealed cups of milky coffee stand guard around the house. One night, he becomes fixated on fonts and margin-widths.

4. Finally, the project leaves, with a maddeningly anticlimactic click of a mouse. Consort makes the ceremonial trip to the dry-cleaners to pick up whatever part of his wardrobe is needed for the next meetings. I notice he’s writing an email with the heading of “Facebook and House Pets: The underserved market?”. Within days, he’s mumbling and Excel-ing again.

Without working up a sweat, I can think of fifteen families where the main breadwinner, be they male or female, works weird hours and rarely needs business clothes. I can only think of three families who have a parent who works from nine to five and wear traditional business clothing. Since we live in Los Angeles, that obviously weights my acquaintances towards the entertainment industry, but more than half of those families have parents who aren’t in the business at all. The greatest leap from Mad Men’s 1959 to now might not be that women aren’t just pointy-breasted objects of desire, or that Jewish and black people might actually be something besides two-thirds of a joke. Because, let’s face it, some men do still behave abysmally towards women in their office, and just because prejudice has become less socially acceptable doesn’t mean it’s gone. The thing which would be the most unrecognizable to those advertising men, those hipsters of their time, would be what we define as work.

Everything worth saying about what computers have done to our lives has been said, by people much smarter and better-paid than I am. In fact, I believe someone once rented Consort’s brain to talk about just that subject. I will only say this; I read once that Napoleon would have recognized how to command a Roman legion of nearly two thousand years’ earlier, because the weapons wouldn’t have changed all the much, but he wouldn’t have known what to do with tools from the Second World War, less than two hundred years after his life. Among all the other large concepts the computer has redefined (Friend, stranger, privacy), it has upended the idea of the job. The typical employee of the 1950’s might stay late at work, but when he left for the night, the work couldn’t follow him home. Their employees sat outside their office; Consort’s last employees were in the South Korea. No one I know expects to make it to getting the retirement gold watch with their job. Fewer and fewer companies are offering pension funds or even insurance. The average Baby Boomer held almost eleven jobs between the ages of eighteen and forty. The changing definition of work-hours is just the visible part of a fundamental change in the idea of work and our relationship to it.

I know what I make of the Mad Men; what would they have made of us?

11 Comments:

Blogger badrhinogillett said...

I, too, LOVE Mad Men and am anxiously awaiting the next season! Now with a writer's strike that's even farther away.

My husband also works odd hours and doesn't even know how to tie a tie... much less wear one on a regular basis... maybe that's part of the appeal for me as well.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...

this is so good, & makes me want to check out the show.

my husband became a graphic artist specifically, he says, to be able to to wear t-shirts & jeans everyday for the rest of his life. now that he works out of our home, just putting on pants is dressing up.

I can't tell you what seeing a man in a sharp sportscoat does to me. I would love to see gentlemens' dress hats come back into vogue.

5:48 AM  
Blogger Jan said...

I have not heard of Mad Men but now I can't wait to see it. It sounds fantastic.

My husband's job is similar to your husbands except I did talk him into renting a small office for the health of our marriage. I never know if he'll be home at 2:00 or 6:00 or if he'll even leave the house. I often dream of a life with rythm like that of my childhood when daddies left at 7:30 and came home at 5:30, with dinner at 6:00. The predictability was comforting, wasn't it?

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Mad Men, even as I find the blatant sexism infuriating. I love your take on it, but I have one minor quibble. The show is set in 1960, not 1959. Don Draper and et al. were working on Nixon's 1960 campaign and one of the later episodes took place on election night.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Quinn Cummings said...

Anonymous-
Of course, you're absolutely right. Corrected, thanks.

7:20 AM  
Blogger randycoxclemson said...

Interesting comments. Not so much about the show, as I've never even heard of it (don't watch TV), but about the definition of a job.

I'm sure it's due to living in a major metropolitan area (not as much so as it's about being in and around the entertainment business), but rest assured that outside big cities, an awful lot of people still work the way they did in 1960.

I go to work in the morning and come home at 5:30. When I used to drive, I came home for lunch. Sure, I know people who overwork and aren't home until later in the evening, but I can count those on one hand. I know people who allow blackberries and computers to migrate their work into their home, but not a lot. Most everyone I know still does the traditional 8-to-5 (that 9-to-5 concept is another big city notion) and doesn't work in their shorts or tee-shirts.

I'm not griping or ranting, just want to point out that way over here in SC (that's South Carolina, not like the SC in y'all's "USC") a lot of folk still go at work just like these "Mad Men" seem to do.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

Thanks for posting about Mad Men, Quinn. I was on the fence about seeing it but now I must! I, too, am fascinated by that era- the politics, the styles, the family dynamics.

A few weeks ago I rented the first season of Family Affair on DVD. The who is now a little too sweet for me but I was amazed at the home decor and clothing styles (gloves and hats for the women!) We used to dress to travel on a plane or go to school. Today it is jeans all the way.

5:49 AM  
Blogger miss cavendish said...

I have also been thinking about work-appropriate clothing, though from a slightly different perspective: how to dress one's age while keeping a modicum of style. Shorts and t-shirts aren't the solution when you're a professor!

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Quinn,
I always think of you when I hear this song (which I did today on an oldies station!).http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zK2eEiDnBU
Bill

7:03 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I have no idea what Mad Men is but your description of Consort's job was hilarious. Especially the bit about the Excel files. And the Net Present Value.

I work funny hours in ridiculous attire. My job is to translate the type of projects your consort puts together. I do it at home in a combination of my own and my husband's sweats, with my son begging to watch home videos on YouTube on the other computer.

You nailed the progression of a project in this post.

4:32 AM  
Anonymous La BellaDonna said...

Quinn, the Mad Men ARE you, and, more specifically, Consort. How do I know this? Because I grew up in the household of a Mad Man, who worked in that world in the 1950s up until his death in the 1980s. Yes, I remember when he used to wear suits to work; they got that part right. As for his leaving at the same time and coming home at the same time? Never, not within living memory, at least. My Dad was an advertising copywriter - an award-winning copywriter. He traveled all the time; I doubt he was home three months out of the year, and he worked like an animal to provide for us. There were a lot of late nights rewriting, and some shoots that went on for forty-eight hours straight. There was the time he had snow trucked into Fairbanks, Alaska, in the middle of the winter, because the snow stubbornly failed to turn up. He was on the cutting edge of every piece of technology as it came out. He would have loved the broader horizons available to us nowadays. I will say this: My Dad was one of the funniest, smartest, wittiest people I ever met - so they did at least get that right.

2:18 PM  

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