Thursday, June 21, 2012

"The Fifties I Remember"

I really should have written this earlier in Mad Men’s illustrious run.  But I choose not to allow my tardiness to disqualify me from writing what I should have written earlier, now.  So there.

Let me also reveal that, during its five-season run, I have watched only a handful of Mad Men episodes.  Which, according to my daughter Anna, a rabid Mad Men-iac, invalidates my observations, her exact words, delivered in a withering inflection, being,

“You don’t know, Dad.”

She’s right.  I don’t.  And yet, here it comes.

Mad Men is smartly written, highly imaginative, and exquisitely produced.  But the show’s prevailing emotional ambience reminds me in no way of the Fifties I grew in. 

(Note:  Culturally, at least, the Fifties did not sign off promptly at the end of 1959. It ended, instead – employing Beatles guidelines – somewhere between “She Love Me, yeah, yeah, yeah,” and “Eleanor Rigby.”   Mad Men, currently chronicling 1966, still qualifies as the Fifties, and will, until the ad men’s narrow ties become wide, and paisley.  And the agency goes after the Nike account.    

Okay, first,

My Standard Acknowledgment:  You should not criticize a show for lacking what it was never its intention to provide.

Done.  Now…

What I miss in Mad Men are elements its creator, Matthew Weiner, had apparently no interest in including.  This is an observation, not a criticism. 


Mad Men is famous for its obsessive faithfulness to the period.  It seems contradictory, therefore, for Mr. Weiner to have overlooked a tonal predominance that the Fifties, as I remember it, powerfully projected.

The Mad Men episodes I watched reflected an aching sense of meaninglessness and regret, the main characters seeming unfulfilled, corrupted and sad.  I recall the Fifties as being a fundamentally happy time.  I suspect Garry Marshall felt the same.  That’s why he called his hit sitcom about the Fifties Happy Days.  

“They were happy days.  The people were happy.  They were smiling.  They were having a good time,” I hear him proclaiming, with a bubbly Bronx chuckle.

What I get from Mad Men is a writer’s representation of “Backstage Fifties.”   Everything’s great in front of the curtain.  But draw the curtain aside, and there’s maggots. 

Fair enough.  The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit.  The constricting choke chain of conformity.  I get the message.  The Fifties had a shadowy underbelly.  Not everything was as it appeared to be.

Also, I am in no way sweeping aside the racial and gender inequalities that took the Sixties and Seventies to finally address.  I will, however, argue that the camp songs we sang in 1958, like, “I’m proud to be me, but I also see, you’re just as proud to be you…”, sewed the seeds of the revolution that would tumultuously erupt a decade or so down the line.

That having been said – and acknowledging it’s a bigger “having been said” than anything I am about to talk about – The Fifties were, in my memory, a reverberatingly upbeat era.  (And revolutionary in its own right.)

Consider the music.  The Fifties, where the term “Rock ‘n Roll” was coined (also the term “teenager”), moved from the suppressed sappiness of Patti Page and the Tennessee Waltz to Elvis Presley and his suggestive hip movements, and the insinuating rhythms of Chuck Berry and James Brown.  Beyond the can’t-keep-it- down sensuality, the Fifties also showcased the subversive foolishness of The Coasters, asking the musical, but also the cultural question, “Why is everybody always pickin’ on me?”

I will not presume to cover an entire decade in a single blog post.  My interest is in contrasting the anomic moodiness of Mad Men with the general buoyancy in the Fifties I remember.  Maybe I remember it that way, because I’m an upbeat kind of a guy. 

No, I don’t think so.

Okay, here we go. 

Mad Men is marinated in irony.  I do not recall a lot of irony in the Fifties.  With the exception of the “…’much’ formulation, which plays out like this:

An absent-minded pedestrian bumps into a fire hydrant.  You pass by and tongue-in-cheekily inquire, “Walk much?”

Pretty tame stuff.  “…much” and “hardly” – you say “hardly” when you mean a lot – and that’s about it.
The primary reason for Fifties optimism is that, more than any other decade, the Fifties was constantly bringing us spanking new inventions for our convenience, amazement and amusement. 

Yes, I know about today’s computers and i-everythings.  But those are basically variations on communication devices.  (And by the way, how much communication do we actually need?”)

The Fifties innovations were all over the map.  And, man, were there a lot of them!  It seemed like a new product, gadget or gizmo came out every couple of weeks. 

Here is a necessarily partial list of advances that put smiles on our Baby Boomer faces.  Many of them may have been devised earlier, but they came of age during the Fifties.

Are you ready for an impressive list of products?  Okay, here we go.


Toaster ovens.

Long-playing records.

The Osterizer Blender

Hula Hoops.


Commercial jet travel.

T.V. dinners.

“Automatic”-transmission cars, with still unsurpassed imaginative designing  (Read: fins).

Pop Tarts.

Wrinkle-free clothing.

Frozen Orange Juice.

Air conditioning.

Clip-on ties.

Transistor Radios.

(Perhaps, if you are of the age, you could remind me of others.)

When you live in a time when a barrage of new and fun stuff keeps coming at you – with the promise of much, much more on the way - it seems like a good time to be alive.  (As opposed to our current time, and, come to think of it, virtually any era since the Fifties, when anxiety and grumpiness seem to prevail.  Do you recall saying on any recent New Year’s Eve,  “It’s too bad this year is over.  It was really sensational.”  It’s more like, “Let’s hope next year is better”, isn’t it?)

It is mainly Mad Men’s insistent not-as-I-remember-the-Fifties moodiness that prevents me from being a regular viewer.  Having said that, I was totally enchanted by the last scene from a recent Mad Men episode, in which Don Draper allows an embittered twelve year-old in need of a treat to drive.  

That one made me really happy.

It is possible that I'm missing something.  I'd be happy if you straightened me out.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; as the show is viewed from the vantage of now, is it not up the creators to show us the things they think are important? Of course you are right to point out the ways in which they get things wrong; boy do they get language wrong (see the link). I suspect that your success at writing was your ear for dialog. I bet you're hearing the wrong notes that younger people miss. Might you have perfect pitch for this period?



angel said...

Basically your observations remind me of a Donald Fagen tune, "IGY". Written about the very period you are discussing. I believe they lyrics and upbeat sound, mirror your feeling for the decade.

I don't expect to hear the song on Mad Men.

Ron Rizzs said...

I enjoyed the first few episodes of Mad Men, but I attribute that to the sets and the time in which the show took place. After that wore off, there was only the sad soap opera and a cast that was w/out appeal. Not only were 'we' a product of the boom generation, but the term applied to the economics of post-war America, as well. Things were going so well for the country, certainly for the magnets on Madison Avenue, it's amazing that this show is w/out any boom beyond the sexcapades of Don Draper and his minions.

Here's a web site that lists some the prominent inventions of the 60s:

Baseball trivia: earlier this week, R.A. Dickey of the Mets threw his 2nd consecutive one hitter. The last major leaguer to do that? Dave Stieb, 1988. Go Jays!

Marty Fufkin said...

The 50s actually ended when Kennedy was shot (63), when America lost that 50s innocence and the horrors of Vietnam were taking hold, not around Eleanor Rigby (66).

And just because most of our pop culture remembers the 50s/60s with enchanted nostalgia, it doesn't mean that it was like that for all. We could take three shows from the 80s for instance -- Cheers, Hill Street Blues, Twin Peaks -- all accurate products of the era, but how would you say they sum up the times? Happy? Sad? Violent? Surreal?

Mad Men and Happy Days approach the 50s/60s from distinctly different classes and cultures. Both valid.

You're right that Mad Men is dripping in irony, but I found that was only through the first season or so. The characters and stories themselves took prominence fairly quickly.

I think if you followed the series through every episode rather than caught glances here and there, you'd notice the stories more than the irony of all the drinking and smoking. For me, somewhere around Season 3 the show stopped being "about the 60s" and just became this gorgeous serialized story that just happens to have the 60s as its canvas.

Oh, and the 60s ended with Altamont.

PG said...

Don't forget the greatest invention, according to the Two-Thousand Year Old Man, "Saran Wrap"!!!
I'd add my personal one.....TV Time Popcorn

Maybe the reason you remember the 50's with so much warmth is because you were so young and hopeful yourself.
There were lots of terrible things going on to trouble the grownups, but we were too busy spinning our yo-yos and hula hoops to notice.
strontium 90
Atomic testing
Spread of Communism
Korean war
Hurricane Hazel
Just to name a few....