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The Beautiful People

Even God rested on the seventh day.  Therefore it is well within reason for hard working OMT members to take time off on Sunday nights at 10:00PM EST to sit in front of their TVs and watch Mad Men on AMC.  Mad Men is a one hour drama series crafted by Matthew Weiner of Sopranos fame.  The show is set in the 1960's and follow the lives of Madison Ave  ad men working at advertising agency Sterling Cooper later Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  Recently Mad Men took home it's third straight Prime Time Emmy for outstanding drama series.

Mad Men centers around the life of Don Draper, creative director at Sterling Cooper.  Through the lens of Don Draper, Mad Men provides a meticulous, nuanced, and authentic view of life in the 1960s, especially its depiction of social mores around gender, smoking, and drinking.  Finally, if this is not enough, there is, as Sekou says, "Loads of beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes."

To further extol the virtues of Mad Men we have gathered an esteemed panel of OMT members to talk about why they find Mad Men so intoxicated.  We have Emily Amanatullah and Sekou Bermiss  from the McComb School of Business, Mukti Khaire from HBS, and Mark Kennedy from USC Marshall School of Business.  We thank them greatly for taking the time to write about Mad Men.  We hope some of you will watch as well and continue the conversation.

Emily Amanatulla

As a woman and a scholar of gender dynamics in the business world, Mad Men offers a dramatic reminder of just how far women have come in the workplace. The current research on gender and discrimination focuses on the subtle nuances of implicit subconscious stereotyping, in other words the unintentional disparate treatment that women incur due to the taken for granted institutions of how work is done. However, Mad Men reminds us of how not long ago, mere decades, overt discrimination, job segregation and sexual harassment dominated the workplace for women. Though we still have a long way to go toward complete equality in the workplace, Mad Men shows us how laughable gender dynamics used to be and gives hope that mere decades into the future our current gender struggles will appear just as backward.

Sekou Bermiss

There are many reasons why I like the show Mad Men.  The foremost reason being that since I study the advertising industry, I can guiltlessly claim to watch the show for research purposes!  On the surface, I appreciate the show because it is well acted and superbly written.  I am particularly fond of the show’s economy of dialogue.  The characters say very little and yet are able to convey tremendously complex sentiments.  Every word matters.  Every movement counts.  Because of this style, the show has intermittent pregnant silences that draw me in and force me to pay attention.  More broadly, the organizational sociologist in me appreciates the show because it depicts American society on the precipice of the post capitalist transformation.  The beginning of the end for the manufacturing sector coupled with the launch of the modern service economy and creative class that fuel its growth. In a way, I see Don Draper as the symbolic figure of this transition.  He grew up on a farm working with his hands creating tangible “things”. He went to fight in World War II and literally came back as a different man.  With a new lease on life, Draper became an executive making tons of money creating only ideas for a living.  It is a very honest depiction of a much celebrated period in 20th century US economic history. Draper appears to have the perfect life - a beautiful wife, 2.5 children, house in suburbs, etc. – and yet the show is largely about his struggle to find happiness.  And if all that doesn’t pull you in, there are also loads of beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes (or so my wife tells me…).

Mukti Khaire

I like the show Mad Men for three reasons. First, it uses an elegant device to provide historically-grounded social commentary: advertising by itself is social commentary, and a show set in an ad agency consequently digs a level deeper than any show merely set in 1960s New York. It is incredible to see how different life was just a few decades ago, and what conventions were taken for granted and unquestioningly accepted. Especially intriguing is the contradiction between recklessness when it comes to personal habits (the early drinking, incessant smoking, the parenting styles) and the excessive conformity to broader social norms and fear of sanctions (the depiction of homosexuality, the class-related dialog, the determination to marry among the women on the show). I would say that the situation is reversed now – we take obsessively good care of ourselves and our families and the individual has become paramount so that there is much more leeway for people to chart their own path. Second, it is an exceedingly well-made show that feels like an authentic depiction of life in that social and economic context. The exceeding care with which the show is made has become legendary, so this is not a revelation by any means, but I must say this is the first and only show I have seen where I believe that people like the characters in the show really did exist, and must have behaved as seen on the show. It’s a show in which I care about what happens to even Don Draper, who is not the most sympathetic character on TV, and that’s largely because the characters feel more flesh-and-blood than two-dimensional. And finally, the show is gripping because of its gray moral fiber. Nobody in the show is unequivocally good and it’s also hard for me to find clear evil either. It constantly forces us viewers to rethink our moral compass, especially when we see that so much of what we believe is right (or wrong) is determined by the prevailing social and cultural norms. And, the moral grayness does not let us take sides, which is a lazy way of engaging with any creative product, forcing us instead to constantly update our beliefs and evaluations of the people we see every week.

Mark T. Kennedy

Mad Men is to television drama what slow food is to cuisine. Like slow food, it is rich in art, meant to be savored unhurriedly. About the art, taking in the extraordinary attention to detail that goes into dressing the sets and actors is like going to a video museum. Why does this matter? By sweating the details on everything from furnishings to wardrobe and hair to common manners and mannerisms of speech and movement, the show grounds dramatic contrasts between then and now in practice, not just in abstract commentary. This helps take the audience to a different time and place. (The time slot also helps with this.) Once transported there, Mad Men’s slow pace allows you to soak in what it’s like. That viewers are not asked to track intricate plot lines creating space to reflect on the contrasts between then and now. It’s like the quiet of an art museum or library. Although the world of Mad Men is presented as a simpler time than ours, the show is no celebration of a by-gone golden era. Neither, however, is it a straightforward critique of times many see as less enlightened. Organizations, careers, families, gender and race are all constructed according to logics that are surprisingly foreign given that less than fifty years separate Mad Men’s world from ours. Together, the show’s vivid style and spare stories beg the audience not just to taste that world, but to savor it. Since the world of Mad Men has many features that are decidedly unsavory to today’s palettes, this effect is unsettling, but compelling. Overall, the show provokes the audience to an all-but vanished art that I would personally love to see make a roaring comeback: reflection that leads to public discourse that is rich, not shrill. Enjoy, a vive la slow TV!

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