To pick up on my nominations’ post on Thursday, I want to introduce a trend that’s been coming and going: revisiting bygone times and reinventing the past on TV. Happy Days did it in the 1970s, That 70s Show did it in the late 90s and early 2000s and Mad Man‘s been doing it since 2007, recently joined by Boardwalk Empire and Pan Am. The decades differ, as well as genres and style, but all of these shows have one thing in common: a look back at our past through contemporary eyes.
Mad Man is a popular example for reminding us of the early 60s, a program often praised for its authentic setting and style. Personally, I love the wardrobe, the acting and the music – my personal icing on the cake. I’ve not been all too impressed by the perpetual cynicism however, reflected in every storyline the show presents, nor by the depiction of either men or women. Not only does every character seem to have a fetish with smoking, blown out of proportion by our reversed reality in 2011, they are also easily engaged in sex, something I could live with (because yes, out of wedlock pregnancy rates already escalated in the 1940s) if only the portrayal wouldn’t leave such a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. It is one thing to present the uncomely truth of sexism in 1960 and the challenges for women back in those days, it is another to add to the cliche of the depressed houswife, the floozie secretary or the ever lewd male. Interesting way of pointing to the origins of our presentday societal issues, shortcomings or accomplishments, utterly simplified by ascribing everything to the “evil” influence of consumerism and advertising.
In the pilot, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) says, “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” Which is pop culture nonsense. What we call love today was invented by Jane Austen and her contemporaries. Before, people rarely knew anything beyond arranged marriages. But I forgive him his lapse, it only adds to the way the character treats the women in his life. He probably doesn’t even know who Jane Austen was or that women can spell without having a man showing them how. I’m sorry, but although some men used to be as smallminded as that (and some continue to be today), there were also others like Erle Stanley Gardner for example whose Perry Mason highly appreciated his office gem for both, her brains as well as her nylons. Granted, Della Street entered the scene in the 1930s, a good time for female characters, on screen and off. But the very same girl Friday was popular on TV in 1960 and never treated like dessert after lunch (how Peggy Olson played by Elisabeth Moss so nicely put it on Mad Men). So there you go, that’s what I mean: contemporary perception on new vintage TV.
Gail Patrick Jackson was executive producer of the Perry Mason show by the way, only to comment on influential women in and before 1960. There weren’t many, but they did exist, those ladies of power, some of them developing or producing their own programs. Now that would make a truly intersting show, off the beaten track of cliche flight attendants, secretaries and their male bosses seducing or abusing them.