The Past Is Another Country

I've heard enough people I trust rave about Mad Men to give it at least four or five episodes (I just watched the premiere two nights ago) to grow on me, and I'm happy to accept Matt's judgment that Sacha Zimmerman's review is a bit on the harsh side. But at least in episode one, this particular Zimmerman complaint rings true:

Throughout "Mad Men," corny references to the show's moment in time come thudding down on the viewer, alive with self-consciousness. The head secretary practically winks at the audience before telling the "new girl" not to be intimidated by the "technology" as she reveals a boxy, avocado-green electric typewriter. Draper chastises a subordinate for stealing a report from his trash, which he knows must have been the case because it's not like there's "some magic copying machine" around the office. And after being shown a mock-up of a space-themed advertisement, he riffs on how ridiculous it is to think that we would ever go to space. Then there are so many references to how none of the characters--even pregnant women--seriously believe cigarettes are bad for them (insert annoying "we know better now" coughing fit here), it's maddening. I get it: It's 1960! Now move on.

Part of what makes historical dramas so tough to pull off is that you're constantly walking a tightrope between the lure of this sort of thudding, look-back-in-irony condescension, and the instinct to generate sympathy through anachronism - for instance, by making sure that the hero of your epic Crusades movie talks an awful lot like a modern secular liberal. And I think this tightrope gets harder to walk the closer to the present day your story is set: HBO's Rome (which had many flaws, but largely avoided these particular traps) successfully wallowed in the pastness of the past precisely because its landscape was so alien to most viewers, with none of the connections to contemporary politics or mores that tempt filmmakers to condescension or anachronism. Whereas a show like Mad Men has it tougher: It's hard to separate a portrayal of that not-so-distant era from our own opinions (and memories) of it, and our knowledge of what followed on its heels.

But I'll keep watching ...