Confronting the Future Through the Past

Over the past several weeks I caught up on season three of Downton Abbey and season five of Mad Men. Both seasons are excellent, especially the Mad Men, a show that hit its stride a couple seasons ago and hasn’t let up since. That said, I wasn’t sure I had much to say about them in a full season review. Impressed as I am, both shows are at this point delivering more of the same — quite well, but basically the same excellent, serial period drama. Outside of execution, the odd new character, and certain surprising, spoiler-y plot developments, there didn’t seem to be much to comment on.

But then I started thinking about the shows together, and why they resonate so strongly with a certain subset of modern TV viewers. Although quite different in approach, era, and tone, they’re strikingly similar thematically. Both shows feature entrenched social systems gradually being reshaped by changing socio-political conditions. Both feature entitled male characters facing the erosion of their power, and traditionally subservient female characters taking steps to improve their lot. Both are profoundly interested in class, gender, and to a lesser degree, political ideology. And neither quite has a handle on race, although they’re both taking late steps to redress that.¬†They are, in other words, highly reflective of the current political landscape.

It got me thinking about their devoted cult followings. Am I right in assuming these shows appeal largely to modern progressive viewers? Even so, they revel in depicting more conservative, “simpler” times. For a while, it seemed to me that both shows (especially Mad Men) had a mission to show contemporary audiences how far we’d come: how much more unfair and unreasonable things used to be, and how much improved things generally are now. That obsevation used to annoy me, probably because it’s a false conclusion, suggesting we’ve fixed everything. I don’t think anyone reading this would agree that everything has been fixed.

But as the shows continue to develop, I got away from that simple assessment. Instead, I think in both cases it’s simply a matter of the well crafted thematic slow build, commenting on Now through Then. The problems of Downton Abbey are the problems of Mad Men, which are the problems of modern life. There are differences in degree, and in specific focus, but ultimately change is inexorable, and that’s a reassuring message for progressives. We enjoy watching Lord Grantham and Don Draper — systemically empowered and unwittingly entitled — struggle with the swirling change around them, even as Lady Sybil and Peggy Olsen embrace their new opportunities. It reinforces our viewpoint, and rewards our sense of social justice. (The Fox News anchor who suggested that Downton Abbey is tricking left-leaning “sheeple” into identifying with the wealthy is missing the point entirely.)

Does this entirely explain the critical acclaim and cult appeal of these shows? Not entirely, but it certainly speaks to my interest in them. Curiously, got me thinking about my growing lack of interest in shows like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. (I no longer watch the former, and often take issue with the latter.) I know, weird comparison leap, but aren’t both of these megahit shows presenting — superficially, anyway — as shows that are “confronting the other” (nerds, gays, immigrants, smart people) without really being at all sympathetic to them? Where Downton and Mad Men deliver progressive messages through conservative lenses, Big Bang and Modern Family do exactly the opposite.

Anyway…stray thoughts on thought-provoking TV shows. The upshot: if you’re not following Downton Abbey and Mad Men, get started. They’re intelligent, compelling, thoughtful, often hilarious, and unusual shows that raise interesting questions. I particularly recommend Mad Men, which in my view is every bit as good as the wild acclaim it has received over the years.


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