March 28, 2012 Leave a comment
The highly hyped return of “Madmen” led to the inevitable reviews that link the show’s popularity in part to audience fascination with drinking and smoking behaviors that can be depicted in a 1960’s period piece but are too politically incorrect to make it into scripts today.
But it’s really not simple. The series is actually a complex look at contemporary America through the tinted lens of a different era, a fascinating blend of character studies that remind viewers that the calendar may change but people do not. And in some characters, including adman Don Draper, the series provides a detailed look at the bewildering descent into alcoholism that no reality TV show could ever capture.
The days of office liquor bars and three martini lunches are largely gone but one in six Americans admit to “binge drinking” even as they tend, the Centers for Disease Control says, to under report how much they drink and why. The Draper character is seen doing much the same thing during a scene involving an insurance physical even while his life spins out of control.
If only heavy drinking was really just a vestige of the “good old days.” But the latest research indicates otherwise. And researchers know they are only capturing about 30 per cent of alcohol consumption based on sales. Illinois ranks among the states with the highest reported incidence of binge drinking. Nearly one in four drinkers here has at least five or more drinks at a time. They are not all alcoholics, of course, but many will wait until they are before they confront what is all too often obvious to those around them.
What is not always so obvious is the collateral damage. But that is part of what separates “Madmen” from a host of TV shows and movies that try to tackle a subject no one really wants to discuss. Every character in the cast must deal with drinking and its consequences just as many Americans must today. In the 1960’s, as it is now, the course of least resistance creates more problems than it avoids. The CDC says 80,000 Americans will die this year from alcohol related deaths, more people than have lost their lives in combat in the four wars this country has fought over the last fifty years.
But what the writers in “Madmen” capture so masterfully is the cultural context that makes all of this possible and sometimes inevitable. The scripts don’t preach but masterfully depict the fine lines in our society that are so often invisible to those who move effortlessly from use to abuse. Don Draper has already crossed that line but has done it with the trappings of success. His family and co-workers know he has a problem and so does the audience. We know this will not end well but we don’t know how. In the meantime, we can’t help but watch a prime time icon battling alcoholism with varying degrees of empathy or fascination.
The context “Madmen” cannot provide, because it would not be historically accurate in a show so fastidiously devoted to detail, is that there is so much we have learned about addiction since the Kennedy and Johnson years. There are a myriad of treatments available now that simply did not exist in the 1960’s or even the 1990’s. Don appears destined to end up alone with a bottle but for millions of Americans struggling with alcohol and drug addiction there are options from medication to therapy and treatment.
“Madmen” is not a morality play but it brilliantly underlines the fact that addiction is not a moral issue.