I’m about to sound like a geeky professor, but I’d like us to compare and contrast two television programs, one currently airing, the other a vintage classic.
Here are two American television shows portraying early-to-mid 1960s families, featuring a husband who commutes from Long Island to Manhattan every day to a job doing creative, well-compensated work, a beautiful work-at-home housewife, and adorable children.
We’re basically talking about the same programs, several decades apart, right?
First there’s “Mad Men,” AMC’s one-hour drama about the lives of Manhattan advertising executives in the 1960s, currently one of the most talked-about shows on the small screen.
In “Mad Men” you have the tortured, manipulative Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) and his troubled, ice princess wife, Betty Draper (January Jones).
In the world of Madison Avenue advertising, Don Draper and his colleagues create ad campaigns, compete with other agencies for accounts, and spend a lot of time drinking, smoking, and carousing.
The Dick Van Dyke Show
And then there’s the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” a classic sitcom from the 1960s centered on the lives of writers for a television comedy/variety hour, “The Alan Brady Show.”
In the “Dick Van Dyke Show” you have the boyish and klutzy Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and his wholesome beauty of a wife, Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore).
In the world of producing a network television show, Rob Petrie and his colleagues write comedy sketches, spend time with each other’s families, and sometimes perform at the boss’s parties.
Representations of work and society
Is there an objective truth about the worlds of high-stakes creative work at that time and place, and if so, does either television program accurately reflect it?
“Mad Men” is dark and brooding, both at work and at home. It can be fairly brutal in portraying the experiences of women and other “minorities” (racial, religious, and sexual) in that world of advertising.
The “Dick Van Dyke Show” presents an idyllic world of fun at work and almost picture-perfect suburban bliss at home. Occasionally the show delved into issues of difference, especially the changing roles of women and religious diversity (mainly through the Jewish faith of fellow comedy writer Buddy Sorrell, played by Maury Amsterdam), but almost always with a light touch.
My verdict? Both are brilliant, entertaining shows. But while the world of the “Dick Van Dyke Show” is a happy, fun place to be, the world of “Mad Men” is a lot closer to the truth.
You can watch both television shows via cable networks, DVD sets, and Netflix subscriptions. For “Mad Men” especially, I recommend starting from the beginning of the series to understand all the story arcs.