Vanity Fair takes on Mad Men

We’re less than a week away from the season three premiere of AMC’s Mad Men.  An expression that has invariable stuck with me, was something my middle school music teacher told me.  He said, of a particularly difficult ragtime piece, “Music is not the notes played but of the silences in between them.”  I never quite understood how that expression specifically applied to music, but it always seemed apropos of life in general. 


Vanity Fair‘s cover story on Mad Men echoes that notion — that the show excells in the quiet moments before and after huge events. 

But while the show, like its subject, has many surface pleasures—period design, period bad behavior (if you like high modernism, narrow lapels, bullet bras, smoking, heavy drinking at lunch, good hotel sex, and bad office sex, this is the series for you)—at its core Mad Men is a moving and sometimes profound meditation on the deceptive allure of surface, and on the deeper mysteries of identity. The dialogue is almost invariably witty, but the silences, of which there are many, speak loudest: Mad Men is a series in which an episode’s most memorable scene can be a single shot of a woman at the end of her day, rubbing the sore shoulder where a bra strap has been digging in. There’s really nothing else like it on television.

But also just as interesting, was learning that the women dominate the writing of the show — “the core five of whom are all women, unusual in television,” as the story’s author Bruce Handy notes.

It is easy to assume that this show is about men behaving badly; advertising executives smoking, drinking and engaging in infidelity in excess.  But the true strength of the show is that it is about female empowerment.  Long after the men become forgettable archtypes, it it Peggy, Joan and Betty that are memorable. 

A WSJ story picks up the same theme, expanding the numbers a bit: “Seven of the nine members of the writing team are women.”  Many of the story lines are drawn from personal experience or even familial anecdotes. 

Also, interesting, is show creator, Matthew Weiner’s slavish devotion to detail.  It’s actually a bit unnerving.

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