Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Slight Rebellion Off Madison: Booze, Dames, and My MAD MEN Years

In my 38 years on this earth, I’ve smoked exactly two cigarettes.  And I wouldn’t even count those two as being smoked; I lit them up for comedic effect amongst friends, blew on them, but to quote that sage wit/ladies’ man from Arkansas, I did not inhale.  I’ve been legitimately drunk four, maybe five times.  All over a woman.  Or women, for that matter.  Such a classic and clichéd male response.  I didn’t drink at all until I was 22, and then only on very rare occasions.  Four years ago, I returned to my teetotaling ways, possibly due to the long shadow that my late father (who was an alcoholic, and smoked for 40 plus years…but a great dad and human being as well) cast, but mostly because I never much liked imbibing and I wanted to rededicate myself to outliving my friends.  Okay, in all honesty, the rise to world fame of pro wrestler CM Punk (who espouses the straight edge lifestyle both in his career and regular life) served as my main impetus.  But that’s another story for another day.

Yet for someone who takes such little interest in the classic vices, I’ve devoted a good chunk of the last six years of my life to a television show that has done more to portray the seductive and destructive glamor of these accoutrements than any other work of modern mass media.

In many ways, Mad Men has been the unlikeliest of cultural institutions of this so-called new Golden Age of Television.  Pitch the show’s premise (advertising executives struggle to stay relevant as the ‘60s progress, vintage bad behavior is indulged) without any of the finer details and you have what sounds like a fairly plodding story arc.  It’s built around a sub-sociopath of a main character who’s not a cancer-riddle meth cook, or a mob boss in therapy, or an alcoholic cop chasing a deadly drug gang.  He chain smokes (a somewhat radical concept in the modern tobacco-phobic media environment), drinks himself to oblivion on a regular basis, cheats on his wife, and lives a generally reprehensible and self-serving existence.  His wife begins as a victim, but is then revealed to possess the stunted psyche of a little girl; she becomes a cold enigma as the show progresses.  The second-billed character is a neophyte secretary who serves as audience proxy, but she too becomes a much colder, pragmatic, and distant character as the show goes on.  Her romantic interest is an Ivy League weasel who makes the show’s lead look downright wholesome.  The comic relief bosses are a pair of Ayn Rand worshipping, rabid capitalists who really only care about the bottom line.  And the younger supporting characters are generally feckless drones in a cutthroat environment.  A death happens here and there, but the most radically dramatic moments usually involve an office argument.

As more than one of my friends has said to me “Mad Men is so depressing.”  Or “I made it through Season 1, but by the time I got halfway through Season 2, I hated everyone except for one of the secretaries.”  Or “Boy, it looks great, but does anything actually happen?”  The West Wing this ain’t.  But Matthew Weiner’s fin de siècle epic has never been too concerned with likeable protagonists and satisfying audience expectations (a lesson he learned well in the writers’ room of the final few seasons of The Sopranos.)  And it’s been this dedication to the purity of his storytelling pursuit (along with singlehandedly reviving mid-century fashion and that distinct strain of Rat Pack-style cool) that has propelled the show into the pantheon of great filmed entertainment…and I’d argue into the pantheon of great art.

My connection to Mad Men began partway through its run.  And much like Don Draper’s best ad pitches (which are carefully cloaked bit of self-analysis), it came out of desperation.  In my former life as a high school English teacher, I made my bones for quite some time teaching elective courses at the Junior and Senior level.  The workload was often challenging, but I could also rest assured that, more often than not, I was getting the cream of the crop enrolling in my courses…or the students who actually liked me.  It was all generally fun, but then the day came, early in 2009, when the department decided to reorganize teaching assignments.  Up to that point, I had successfully (or stubbornly, depending on your viewpoint) avoided dipping below the Junior level, but I was left with little choice but to take on a section of Sophomores in the next year.  I was none too pleased, and in my imagination I pictured this as the final straw.  Because, you know, I could never debase my brilliance by teaching Sophomores.  Ah, the stories we tell ourselves.

Faced with this new challenge, I took solace in the fact that Sophomore year focused on American Literature, which I had taught when that subject was settled in a year-long Junior class several years hence.  So I could drag out some of the old warhorses that I still knew and loved.  But how to mix things up?  My answer came when I finally broke down that spring and watched the first season of Mad Men on DVD.  And then it all clicked. 

The year before, I had created a trimester course in which the class read David Simon’s classic non-fiction tome Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets while watching Seasons 1 and 2 of his HBO masterpiece The Wire.  My aim was to combine the literary chops of an English course with the sociopolitical musings of a history course and the formal and cultural analysis of a good art course.  The regular homework entailed writing weekly two page essays that drew analytical similarities between each week’s episode(s) and the assigned reading.  For a good deal of the term, most of the students were fairly befuddled by this requirement.  But they enjoyed watching McNulty fight crime in a drunken, womanizing haze.  And, as most people do, they loved Omar’s modern day Robin Hood act.  So it all evened out in the end.  Some of that first crew still reminisces fondly about our time together.  One or two probably still want to kill me.  Such is life.

As I watched Mad Men’s maiden run, I realized that this could be fertile ground for reimagining the Homicide/Wire course for the Sophomore level.  I already planned on teaching Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, two books whose themes and tropes overlapped so heavily with those of Mad Men that I figured students would have an easy time seeing the connections (my hopes turned out to be slightly inflated…and some call me a cynic!)  And Matt Weiner’s story, while complex in so many ways, was also highly accessible on a plot level; these Sophomores wouldn’t have to immediately dive into the deep end of the story pool like they would with The Wire.

And so, I designed a winter trimester plan in which the Fitzgerald and O’Brien books took the place of Homicide, and Season 1 of Mad Men served as the main viewing requirement.  We would watch one episode a week (two episodes during a few weeks) and then students would take that week’s reading and draw analytical similarities between it and the episode(s) they viewed.  The dreariness of Ohio winter seemed like the perfect time to change things up a bit, and watching a season of this modern classic of a drama the perfect vehicle.  When we finished each episode, I’d take questions from the students, clear up any confusion about plot points, etc.  We’d discuss character development, the historical relevance of certain plot threads and events, and I’d try to hint at some connections they could draw on for that week’s essay.

I ran this curriculum for that first section of Sophomores, and continued to do so for three more years with the entire Sophomore class.  Some of them probably thought I was a bit crazy.  The true believers among them thrived in such an environment.  Others grew to despise those weekly essays with a white hot fury.  Still others probably thought that my nights were spent in a Clockwork  Orange-style contraption, visually mainlining loops of a soused Don Draper hooking up with unattainable women.  At the very least, many enjoyed the exploits of Don, Betty, Peggy, Pete, Sterling, Cooper, Midge, Midge’s dirty beatnik lover, Rachel, Sally in the plastic bag, and creepy Glen.  And sometimes in education (and in life), you have to take the small victories.  ‘Cause in the grand tally, a victory is still a victory.  Unless you’re a character on The Wire, where all victories are pyrrhic at best.

This coming April 5th marks the beginning of the end for Mad Men, as the final seven episodes start rolling out to the world.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the show and the impact it’s had on my life.  About the young people who might have gained even the smallest insight on life by thinking about the connection between Don Draper and Jay Gatsby.  About the former colleagues whom I clashed with over the supposed pedagogical appropriateness of watching an entire season of a television show in school.  About the deep satisfaction and existential thrill that I always derived from the whole experience.

A month ago, I convinced myself that in the lead up to the final episodes, I would run through the entirety of the show from the beginning, writing a new essay for each episode.  That turned out to be highly improbable.  And the writing would have probably caved in around Season 3, from the tight deadline alone.  But I’m prepared to embark upon this endeavor in compromised form nonetheless.  So in the few weeks before April 5th, I’ll be diving in once more to that first season and penning an essay for each of its 13 episodes.  Some of this literary journey will feature insights into the show itself, examining old happenings anew and reflecting on how they eventually played out in the dramatic arc of this fictional universe.  Some will feature stories from my adventures teaching the show to Sophomores.  Hopefully, all of it will be, at the very least, somewhat entertaining.  Or amusing.  Or as amusing as a show about encroaching dread and obsolescence can be.  After all, in my final run of teaching this curriculum, a small group of students would occasionally serenade me at odd moments with the iconic “Doo doo, doo doo” melody of RJD2’s Mad Men theme.  Something that can produce that type of advanced level goofiness can’t be all bad, right?

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