The 21st century's incarnation of the 19th century novel is the ensemble drama, which had its beginnings in Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and--dare I invoke the sacred?--Star Trek. Audiences could access the present, the future, even the past (Roots, Lonesome Dove) -- but usually the remote past.
Reality check for Yours Truly: Mad Men is the remote past to most of its viewers. But it's the world I grew up in, came to consciousness in: the transition from the 50s to the 60s, JFK's election to his assassination. In those thousand days, the rough beast that is these United States suddenly broke loose and lurched into its long, slow slouch towards . . .well, we're not there yet, so I don't really know where we're headed. I just hope it isn't Bethlehem this time. We already figured out that wasn't a good destination for government (cf. Henry VIII, separation of church and state, etc.).
Anyway, I've just recently become aware (via Netflix) of Mad Men, AMC's hit series that debuted last season then ran away with all the big 2008 Emmys. Mad Men is the best kind of fascinating--I can barely stand to look at it, and I can't look away. (This reviewer http://www.metacritic.com/tv/shows/madmen nails the reasons--or most of them.) Everything I see and hear--dialogue, set dressing, wardrobe, characters--is so true to my painful memories of that time. If TV could broadcast scent, Mad Men would get that right, also: wet wool, stale cigarette smoke, body odor, Sea 'n' Ski, Tame creme rinse, Old Spice. When a woman character on Mad Men mentioned Shalimar perfume, I instantly saw the bottle on my mother's dressing table, sniffed the stopper all over again, remembered an emerald-green dress she made for me, remembered her letting me wear just a dab of her perfume with it to 8th-grade cotillion. That was 1961, also the year our history class went to see the newly elected, not yet sworn in President Kennedy speak at the Charter Day ceremonies at UC Berkeley. I remember his hair, being surprised by how reddish it was, by his glowing visibility despite the squad of Secret Servicemen surrounding him, moving him through the crowd to the podium. The first season of Mad Men ends with JFK's election, when I was in 8th grade.
The series also depicts the working world as I first knew it--initially, by visits to my dad's office, where everybody looked like everybody on Mad Men. Then by the working world I entered at 18, before pantyhose, when I squished my teenaged behind into a girdle and stockings, then squirmed all day because the garters bit into my thighs. Wore spike heels with no platforms, no support, just whanged away all day on the balls of my feet, on the concrete of Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Wore missile-launcher bras in an effort to look like I had mammary glands to speak of. Spent an hour or more each morning, getting my hair and makeup Just Right. Including false eyelashes, sometimes more than one pair at a time.
Those overgrown fratboys in Mad Men are the men in the offices I worked in, the men who could say anything to me, look at me any way they wanted, even swat me on the butt if they felt like it--and call their behavior "a compliment." I knew it was supposed to be. I knew they wanted me to believe it was. I tried to believe it. I felt like--no, I was--a non-person. I did a lot of stupid things. I had no idea I could stand up for myself, and survive. By the time I saw a woman do so, I was in graduate school. Bigshot Famous Professor came on to one of my friends, who instantly froze him with a look and said, with perfect aplomb (though she wasn't feeling it), that she wasn't interested in the type of friendship he proposed. He was floored. So was I.
So it's very cringe-making for me, watching Mad Men, because I remember what those women are feeling even though I don't feel it any more. I wear a T-shirt and shorts and sandals to work nearly year-round. I bring my dog to the office with me every day. Nobody touches me in ways that give me the creeps. Nobody calls me "the girl" (or "the old broad," more accurately now). Admittedly, all the men in the office are gay (which some of the Mad Men are, too, but they don't know it or are closeted). My coworkers are still men, and they can still be inappropriate--a word that didn't exist in 1961--so they still have to watch it, and they do, mostly. "Do you mind if I tell you a slightly off-color joke?" one or another of them will ask occasionally, and I feel perfectly comfortable replying, "Sure, as long as you come in here and shut the door!"--good sport that I am--which he does, and the joke is very slightly off-color but reasonably funny, and we laugh, and that's that. Nobody gets hurt. Being a good sport doesn't cost anything now. It used to cost women our lives.
So maybe the rough beast is slouching in the right direction, after all! What if that's the case? What if it's actually going to be OK? What if the beast slouches right over Caribou Barbie and Grampy McSame on its way to wherever it's going? I have the audacity to hope so. I hope it grinds them to bits.