Friday, October 26, 2007

Why I Like the TV Series Madmen

I'd been meaning to write on that topic, and this morning I stumbled across a post of mine from years ago that pretty well explains why.

Or, If You Prefer, Our Lady of the Hydrogen Fusion

My wife was ten minutes late for work this morning because she started reading the story in today's Chronicle about the takeover by SBC of AT&T and, as she read, we talked about the breakup of Ma Bell in the eighties and -- going further back -- of Bell labs and, of course, the labs' contribution to junior high school life in the fifties, "Our Mr. Sun."

I must have seen it a half dozen times in one class or another. It was wonderful. So wonderful. Such a classy way for a teacher -- science class, homeroom, home economics, probably even traffic school -- to get a chance to draw a deep breath and go outside for a cigarette. It was a perfectly riveting film. I remember the huge pagan burning sun filling the screen. I remember a mixture of scientists and animations that made me want more than anything to become a scientist and wear a long white lab coat and understand the world in simple declarative sentences.

Of course, in the end it was tales in books about hearts and minds that finally got me -- call it the earthbound astronomy of the imagination -- and I became a watcher rather than a toucher. I ended up just another book rat, filled with sadness when also in the Chronicle this morning the comic strip artist Stephan Pastis wrote "discretely" when he meant "discreetly."

A scientist says things like "discrete particles" and knows what he means. (Or as Harvard President Larry Summers would add: "And I do mean 'he.' You there honey. Get me some coffee. )

He or she. She or he. Or better even: "Scientists say ...... and know what they mean." There. Wordboy pulls his weight.

So: "Our Mr. Sun" didn't pull me into its orbit but pull it did. A quick google provides a surprise. Frank Capra directed it and wrote the script! It is a wonderful sun! Of course, someday it will go nova, but it will have had a wonderful life. Every time it stimulates photosynthesis, an angel gets a coffee break.

And look at the cast:

Eddie Albert is The Fiction Writer -- soon Green Acres would exert its pull. Frank Baxter is Dr. Research, a characterization quite distinct from his later role as Mr. Scientist in "Hemo the Magnificent." Richard Carlson is ... somebody. But who can forget Richard Carlson in "It Came from Outer Space" or as the undercover Commie in "I Led Three Lives"?

The brilliantly raspy-voiced Sterling Holloway is "Chloro Phyll." And Marvin Miller, who as Michael Anthony gave away the checks on "The Millionaire," is the voice of "Mr. Sun." (Today that million-dollar check would be worth a cool $6.5 mil. Okay!)

Wordsworth said it best, though to be fair he was describing Revolutionary France and not Eisenhower America:

Bliss it was to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.

Bliss. In the fifties you figured you would get a job with a big corporation like AT&T and spend the rest of your life there and then retire with a nice pension. In fact, in the December 29, 2004, Economist there's an article describing how we are losing our social mobility here in the U.S., about how our "meritocracy" is failing to deliver. According to the Economist, the experts say those long careers at huge companies provided talented people without fancy degrees and family connections -- those with no degrees, no connections -- a chance to work their way up from the mailroom to the boardroom.

Good good days in many ways. Or so it seemed at the time.

Editor's note: This has been slightly revised because in the original I wrote something that don't quite understand. I think it had something to do with Jerry Falwell and the Teletubbies. And if you were a woman back then all bets were off, which Madmen quite brilliantly shows. Does that need to be said?

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