Unlike most people I know, I won’t be watching Mad Men‘s third-season premiere this Sunday night. Not because I disagree that the show’s writing, acting (and lighting, my God!) are impeccably crafted. Not because I’m one of those uber-fans who can’t stand to wait between episodes, so they seal themselves off from media for months, climaxing with a full-season Netflix orgy of those beautiful, sad ad men. No, I won’t be watching Sunday night because Mad Men is bad for my relationship. While my boyfriend is eagerly anticipating the kick-off of his favorite show, I’m dreading it.
Full admission: I was one of those sensitive kids in grade school and most of high school. Blame female intuition, an artistic temperament, or gym class, but it took me awhile to learn how to build an effective barrier between my own emotions and other people’s. But there are two places where adults are allowed and encouraged to be emotionally open: in relationships, and in front of the big (or small) screen. So I let loose when watching TV and film, and I love it. Or, hate it, if it’s sad: I dehydrated myself crying after Dances with Wolves. (Don’t even get me started on Gorillas in the Mist.) [Warning: The Wire spoiler alert!] I dreamt of Tony Soprano for years; and when Omar was gunned down on the The Wire I went into a week-long period of mourning.
This emotional attachment to fictional characters has served me well, I tell myself, in my writing career. (Empathy, yo!) But when it meets my relationship, problems arise. Though I have only fond memories of seeing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with my boyfriend, he swears I bawled throughout, then somehow accused him — should we ever break up — of wanting to erase memories of me from his mind. With, you know, a fictional memory-deleting machine operated by Mark Ruffalo. He now has a pre-programmed text message in his phone, which he sends me during films and TV shows, when he senses my emotional buildup: That relationship is not analogous to our relationship.
Because he’s a serene bearded Buddha to my histrionic self, his texts or well-placed jokes usually snap me out of my ridiculous funk, and I end up hopefully repaying him by using my passion in other ways. But we’ve hit a wall with Mad Men, which he eagerly awaits while I fidget with dread on the couch.
The Emmy winner follows early-sixties ad man Don Draper, a suave copy-spouting hunk who can make women drop their panties solely by turning his tortured glare in their general direction. He’s got a secret past, a picture-perfect but deeply unhappy wife, and a complicated office full of men and women whose repressed emotions never spill over their cone-shaped bras or into breakfast whiskey. Part of the message of Mad Men is how sadly repressed all these people were in the Tupperware-laden past. Though the show began by focusing on the glamorous lives of male copywriters, seven of the nine show writers are women, and as the series developed, so did the female characters.
Perhaps part of my objection is personal timing: I watched Season One when I first moved in with my boyfriend. We had just gotten engaged when we inhaled the entirety of Season Two on Netflix within a few weeks’ time (akin to emotional waterboarding for me). Mad Men is to marriage as cold water is to morning wood. Actually, it’s anathema to any relationship. There isn’t one happy, fulfilled person on the show. Don’s crumbling from the inside-out; his gorgeous wife Betty is the epitome of ice princess, so hardened and sad she can’t admit to herself, much less her husband, that she’s miserable. Ambitious ad exec Pete Campbell is locked in a loveless marriage, pining for Peggy Olson, the industrious and sole-female copywriter at Sterling-Cooper, who’s sacrificed her past and much of her femininity at the altar of her career. And curvaceous diva Joan Holloway neatly goes to dinner after her doctor-fiancé rapes her on the office floor.
You might argue that the show is set in the sixties, and the focus on emotional repression, blatant sexism and unrealized dreams just shows us how far we’ve come. But I just can’t believe that everyone, everyday was so damn miserable forty years ago. Mad Men looks at the past through the opposite of rose-colored glasses. Its skillful editing has cut out all joy. I’m sure much of my reaction is a knee-jerk protection of my heart and future, some part of me ranting, “I don’t want to end up like Betty! Nor Peggy, nor Joan!” (Though I wouldn’t mind her wardrobe.) But in the series that showrunner Matt Weiner worked on previously — The Sopranos — there were moments of joy amidst the ruin. The Wire had highs (literal and figurative) along with its lows. In Season Three, I’d like to see more of the human spectrum.
When I watch Don in the act of seducing a celebrity’s wife or a shopping-mall heiress, or running away from his job and family to a debauched California retreat, I actually somewhat enjoy the fantasy — until I glance over and see my guy grinning. Perhaps he’s innocently enjoying the pure fantasy (as Jon Hamm joked on SNL, not just any man can be Don Draper). But there’s always that secret fear: would he do the same? These ’60s fantasies are wildly different for men and women, but the emotional repercussions stay squarely in the here and now.
A girlfriend of mine said she had the same reaction when she first watched Mad Men with her boyfriend: he loved it, she was thrown by it. “I hated the first three episodes. They were depressing and awful,” she said. “But then I became a misogynist, and now I love it!” (She’s kidding, of course; she’s always been a misogynist.)
Of course, despite all my objections, I’ll still watch Season Three — but not with my man. Even though I know no relationship on TV is analogous to my own, sometimes the hoopla over Mad Men makes me feel like the only sad person in the room. And I don’t want to let that spill over into real life.