So last night, well past 11:00 p.m., my wife and I finished watching the final episode of Mad Men -- meaning that in the past several months, we watched all 92 episodes of this masterful series. No, I’m not braggin’, just sayin’.
When all is said and done, I can’t stop thinking about the series’ final set of images – a real Coke commercial that aired in 1971. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VM2eLhvsSM The creator of Mad Men would like us to believe that it was the product of the show’s central (fictional) character, Don Draper. But like every other Baby Boomer, I remember the ad as one of the greatest TV commercials of all time – even greater than that other classic Coke commercial with Mean Joe Green that featured the phrase, “Have a Coke and a Smile”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xffOCZYX6F8
Like Don Draper, I too, would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. This afternoon at my house, a group of us will be getting together to plan the next set of activities for the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS). Like Mad Men, our meeting will likely end on a note of hopefulness, and we will be able to take stock of our accomplishments during the 6 ½ years that our organization has been in existence. But we won’t kid ourselves about creating anything close to perfect harmony. The problem with interfaith organizations like mine is that we always seem to be preaching to a relatively limited choir. For every person who is attracted to our events, there are a dozen others who either are completely apathetic about anything that remotely involves religion or who are way too parochial to reach out beyond the confines of their own limited religious spheres. I might be able to find a group of shiny, happy people to sing on a hilltop about peace, love and understanding, but it wouldn’t be “the world.” It would just be a single hilltop. At JIDS, we’re about to embark on a mission to expand beyond that single hilltop. Somehow, we must reach into mainstream mosques and synagogues and bring into the fold Jews who are turned off by the Muslim religion and Muslims who are turned off by the idea of Jewish peoplehood. That’s what it really takes to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. It’s a lot more difficult than making a commercial.
Speaking of difficult, it’s not easy creating a TV drama involving 92 episodes that generally hold together and keep the audience’s interest. Mad Men did that and, for my money, ended on a high note. Take a bow, Matthew Weiner! First the Sopranos, then Mad Men. If that doesn’t put Weiner in the Rushmore of television, he’s certainly close. I love the symbolism of starting the series talking about advertising cigarettes, and ending it with images about advertising Coke. You could say that in roughly a decade, the characters went from promoting lung cancer to promoting diabetes. But the truth is that we didn’t think much about the scourge of diabetes back then, so we were able to enjoy that hilltop to the fullest. We sure know about Coke’s connection to diabetes now, however. Every Baby Boomer either has diabetes or knows a number of folks our age who struggle with it. As a result, watching a bunch of beautiful young people calling Coke “The Real Thing” and “What the World Wants Today” doesn’t quite ring true anymore. We’ve grown up. We’ve realized that in this Eden that Madison Avenue has helped to create, some of the tastiest apples can be poisonous.
The characters in Mad Men struggle with the fact that money and power can’t buy excellence of character. They can’t even buy happiness or love. The problem is that money and power present temptations, and once we give in to these temptations, we fall down one slippery slope after another. This is the path to infidelity, disloyalty, amorality, dishonesty, depression, even insanity. In those 92 episodes, we’ve seen so much of that path, and so little about moral virtue. But enough about the characters of the show; what about us, the audience? What is the central lesson for us?
It’s simple. In real life, no less than in the world of TV drama, there are temptations, and then there’s the path of virtue. Among our greatest temptations is to get home from work every day thirsting to sit in front of the tube and watch other people live dramatic or comedic lives. That way, we can keep ourselves entertained from one scintillating series after another, reveling in the creations of imaginative souls like Matthew Weiner and learning more and more about the human condition in the process. It can be relaxing, exciting, and even a bit enlightening. What can be more tempting than that?
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? The life of TV addiction is worthy of the Garden of Eden, but the path of virtue involves leaving that garden and heading into the world. We need to get off our butts and actually DO something (other than just toil away at the office and relaxing when we get home). There is only so much an adult can accomplish from a life devoted to watching stuff happen and cogitating about it. At some point, if you want the world to live in perfect harmony, you have to BE the change. You have to make the TV show, staff the homeless shelter, work on that political campaign, or … perhaps even gather together with a group of Jews and Muslims and try to figure out a way to knock some sense into our xenophobes and apathetes.
My main takeaway from Mad Men is that I can’t afford to watch too many more seven-season TV series. My time is far too precious to go through that experience again. But I tip my hat to Matt Weiner and the brilliant cast of Mad Men for a job well done. And as long as I can keep this TV-watching thing to a moderate amount, I’ll consider myself better off for the experience.