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The Sopranos is credited with ushering in a new “Golden Age of Television”. Its complex family dynamics, black-and-gray morality, and introspective bent were trademarks that set the show apart from its contemporaries. In its wake, a number of other shows emerged that embraced that approach and focused on antiheroes who, to one degree or another, were attempting to balance a double life. Two of these shows, Mad Men and Dexter, can draw a straight line from The Sopranos to their place in the television pantheon. In “College”, an episode from the groundbreaking drama’s first season, The Sopranos planted seeds that those two spiritual successors would have a hand in harvesting.
Mad Men has never shied away from exploring double standards. It traced the challenges Peggy Olson faced while rising up the ranks in the advertising industry, obstacles that men in her position never even considered, let alone encountered. It contrasted the cult of domesticity that Betty Draper was expected to maintain with the casual womanizing that had become the norm for her husband. It showed how Joan Harris had become an expert at navigating the intricate rules for a woman in the workplace in the 1960s and how the men in the office could drift along without any of the same concerns.
But the final season of Mad Men sketched the contours of one of the most persistent double standards that American society still struggles with today — the different expectations of men and women in their role as parents. Mad Men’s Season 7 presents five mothers who have each, in one sense or another, left their children behind. These women struggle with the choices that they’ve made and deal with a level of societal scorn and personal guilt that their male counterparts never have to face.
Salon’s Matthew Brandon Wolfson recently criticized Mad Men for its commercial appeal. He accused the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, of “selling…an image of a glowing past — a prettier, simpler time when people knew their social roles and played them perfectly.” And he insinuated both that the show’s commercial-friendly nature sits uneasily with its art and that Weiner wants the viewer to “find [the show] twisted and layered and dark, but [he] also wants you to buy it.” But in describing Mad Men as an “exquisite empty shell,” Wolfson mistakes the packaging for the package, and misses the subtly brilliant way the series has its cake and eats it too.
Parodies are often a gamble. You have to hope that the audience understands the reference, and enjoys the in-jokes and homages to other works. If not, you have to hope that the story or characters you’re referencing are solid enough to provide the backbone of an episode on their own, otherwise you are asking for a call-and-response that the audience doesn’t know how to answer.
This was the biggest problem with tonight’s episode of The Simpsons, “The Man in the Blue Flannel Pants.” The episode is essentially one long reference to AMC’s Mad Men, the award-winning drama about advertising executives in the 60’s. In this episode, Homer becomes the accounts manager for the power plant, wearing under the daily grind of glad-handing and schmoozing with the plant’s clients. The homage is replete with a guest appearance from Mad Men’s John Slattery as the outgoing account manager. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it has been on my list for some time, I have never seen Mad Men, and it made the episode feel a little threadbare to me.