Mad Men and unhappy women

Published 2:04 pm Friday, April 29, 2011

I’ve always been tardy to television. When the rest of the world was wondering “Who shot JR?,” I was wondering, “Who is JR?”

I never watched a single season of “Dallas” until it had been off prime time four or five years. Then, when reruns appeared on a daily basis on a cable channel and I didn’t have to wait a week between melodramas, I got the “Dallas” habit. In a scary way. I still believe JR Ewing was one of the funniest antiheroes ever to appear on the boob tube, and Sue Ellen Ewing the most appealingly vulnerable beauty.

Same drill with “The Sopranos.” Not until the Arts and Entertainment Channel began showing Tony and his family on a daily basis did I get hit by the mob. It was an unlikely seduction, really, since I normally don’t like gangster shows, not even “The Godfather” movies, which critics heralded.

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But the fine writing impressed me, and pretty soon I was rolling with inappropriate laughter as Tony Soprano’s kith and kin discussed giving rival mobsters “moon roofs” in their heads with guns and pick axes or whatever sundry weapon was available.

It was unseemly how funny I found that violent and profane show. The brilliance was in how close to sympathetic the writers let some of the unsavory characters get — reallllly close — before reminding viewers with an unspeakable criminal act just who you were dealing with.

For my money, only one character out of a cast of hundreds was truly moral or sympathetic, and that was Arnie, the restaurateur. His choice in friends was shaky, but he kept himself busy in the kitchen and avoided the greed and meanness surrounding him.

Now I’m busy trying to catch up with the “Mad Men” craze. The first season, 2007, I heard lots of talk about the show, but, once again, it didn’t sound like my cup of tea. I’ve never been that interested in Manhattan or in the advertising business.

But a long essay in The New York Review of Books earlier this year suckered me into trying it. There’s irony in the fact that the review didn’t like “Mad Men,” saying the acting was bad and the writing banal: “In its glossy, semaphoric style, its tendency to invoke rather than unravel this or that issue, the way it uses a certain visual allure to blind rather than to enlighten, ‘Mad Men’ is much like a successful advertisement itself.”

Not a ringing endorsement.

And there are plenty of broad strokes in this period painting of the 1960s. The women are used in every possible way by their colleagues, husbands, bosses and neighbors. A divorcee is suspect because she walks for pleasure and works out of necessity. The housewives are all bored, smoking chimneys. Mothers-to-be drink and smoke. Working women are husband-hungry hussies.

The men are all chauvinist pigs who drink before noon, lead secret lives, pinch secretaries’ bottoms and stab one another in the back. Office parties are orgies.

Writing and acting are marginal. Yet stereotypes usually have some basis in truth. Today’s career women who don’t consider themselves feminists should watch an episode or two and reconsider.

I’ll get back to you in a couple or three years on “Glee.”

(To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit