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“To the show's credit, whether as a minority or just a relatively young person trying to figure out how to make a career in the world of digital underemployment, the series has given me an appreciation for how both personal and professional relationships are forged, and the role of perception and language in shaping those dynamics, especially within a white collar/white ethnic context. These are object lessons that I've internalized through the show in ways my many years of working in an office never quite afforded me.”
Vadim Rizov, yet another film critic who was at the “Mad Men” party, believes that race is an afterthought for the show’s creator.
“I'd say that there are things about the '60s [“Mad Men” creator] Matthew Weiner's interested in, and that none of them involve race; he's much smarter and more attuned to gender dynamics,” he wrote in an email. “But then he's like OH SHIT WHAT ABOUT RACE RELATIONS. Results: a token secretary character, as Kevin mentioned, There's a scene where she spends the night at Peggy's apartment and Peggy looks down and her purse is on the coffee table and she's obviously thinking, ‘Should I snatch this and take it to my bedroom or can I trust her and leave it here?’ She does the latter, so good for Peggy, but this is a moment demonstrating, once again, that she's one of the show's most forward-thinking characters.
“The other big deal, I guess, is Roger Sterling, who's quite the casual quippy racist. There's a scene where he and Joan are walking through Harlem and get mugged, confirming all of Roger's worst suspicions; that's how casual racism gets confirmed, so fair enough. Still, if this is the best the show can do, it'd be better just to admit they don't care. It's not like a show about an all-white upper-middle-class ad agency in the mid '60s would be coloring (heh) the truth that way.’”
“Mad Men” has definitely drawn stronger praise for its insight into smart women like Peggy than for its token minorities. Keith, who I gather hosts these viewing parties more because of the show’s crowd-pleasing soap-operatic twists and turns than its reputation as a new classic, says he initially had to get past its “gay” problem:
“I found ‘Mad Men’ annoying in many degrees when I first started watching it (binged on the first two seasons in prep for the third). Most of this had to do with the character of Sal, now departed—a closeted gay ad agency employee who the writers made every effort to signal was closeted gay. I.E.: Likes Joan Crawford, says on-the-nose, nudge-nudge lines of dialogue about men who aren't men. Very arch and with an air of "Remember those homophobic 1960s? Ho! Aren't we all better now?
“That's my biggest complaint about ‘Mad Men,’ that at worst it seems to be looking back from an enlightened time rather than yet another messy, unclassifiable moment in human history.”
But for him the whiffs of cluelessness are secondary; he sees "Mad Men" as a rare example of bold filmmaking on basic cable: “As the show has gone on I've adjusted to its rhythms and flaws. It's a very stylized series in terms of dialogue, production design, etc., and I think as the show has approached the '70s, you can sense the vapid veneer breaking down. It's kind of taking on a Euro-art film existentialism. There was an image of an empty elevator shaft this season that was as perfect a representation of facing the void as I've seen.”
That should have been my surest way into “Mad Men,” the filmmaking. It’s a handsome show, as has been noted and dissected in thousands of ways since it debuted in 2007. The props and light fixtures know just what to say; the camera knows just when to sidle up to a suffering character and offer a hug, or to recoil from a toxic one. Even a scene that seemed right out of Farrelly Brothers slapstick, in which Fat Betty sprays a can of whip cream down her mouth in a fit of sad desperation, is captured in sorrowfully faint light, like something out of “Paris, Texas.”
But if this was “'Roots' for white people,” was I watching the equivalent of the scene where slave girl Kizzy gets sold off from her parents? Was I supposed to cry?
I shrugged like Snotboogie’s witness, oblivious to the poetry.