Mad Men – Laughing at our parents’ parents

Last night saw the season premiere of Mad Men, and if my Twitter and Facebook feed are any indication, pretty much everyone everywhere was watching – and that’s great, because it continues to be a tremendously smart, well-executed and watchable show with incredibly detailed characters. But what continues to strike me about it ever since I first did the math a few years back is the generation being depicted by (most of) the cast: They’re my grandparents.

Of course, Don Draper & Co., with their Manhattan apartments and martini lunches couldn’t be more different from my grandparents, who were blue collar on one side and rural on the other, but in terms of the generational anxiety they must have experienced, with the entire world changing under their feet, quicker than it ever had before, there must remain some similarities. Not to get grim, but all my grandparents died before the first season of Mad Men, so this isn’t something I’ve talked to them about, but it still gives me pause, and a different kind of appreciation for the show when I remind myself that while all this was going on, my grandfather was fixing a cigarette-rolling machine at a Phillip-Morris factory in Richmond, Virginia. Yes, Lucky Strike would have made for a better touchpoint, but them’s the breaks.

Generally, this has had the effect (maybe unintended, maybe not) of causing me to pause before laughing too hard at what the wacky, clueless people in the 1960s used to do. Yes, they didn’t make their kids wear seatbelts, they smoked in front of babies and even the open-minded ones were hella, hella bigoted, but all those things are cheap laughs, and I like to think at least, that they aren’t included in the show for simple comic relief, but instead reveal some greater truths about the characters – your mileage may vary of course. And yes, a certain part of me finds it disrespectful to guffaw at the ignorance of my grandparents’ generation, as I’m sure 50 years from now, people we’ll be laughing their cybernetically enhanced heads off at the way us savages used to hold cellphones right up against our stupid brains, or the way they wantonly devoured other sentient species with little-to-no regard for the ethical implications.

All that said, one of the things that struck me about this week’s Mad Men was just how damn funny it was. The show has always had its share of wry moments, but this week actually seemed to be intentionally going for laughs. Is it indicative of the country loosening up during the late 1960s? An intentional tonal choice in order to contrast with the already foreshadowed grimness of the Vietnam War? An effort to reach out to a larger audience? Who knows. But whatever the reason, I really enjoyed the humor and the fun that a lot of the characters appeared be be having on screen.

That sense of fun is one of the things that sets Mad Men apart from other high-brow, “smart” television, like Luck for example. As much as I’ve enjoyed the first season of that Milch/Mann jam, it’s in no way easy or fun to watch. Challenging and rewarding, sure, but in order to “get it,” I have to pay a lot of attention, and sometimes even just sit confused for a scene or two until things come together in a clearer fashion. I enjoy it, but also find it exhausting, and I could never make it through two hours of that kind of television with the ease I did with Mad Men last night. I appreciate the humor in Mad Men, and it’s indicative of the skill of Matthew Weiner and his team that they can inject that level of larfs into the proceedings without kneecapping or hindering any of the considerable drama or weight of the serious themes in play.

All of which is to say, Mad Men is a pretty great show. You should watch it.

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