When “Mad Men” came to its conclusion earlier this year, it struck me that one of the series’ primary accomplishments had been to challenge the prevailing view of the 1960s and 1970s.
Instead of portraying the era as a moment of tremendous social change that left no lives untouched, Matthew Weiner made an important counter-argument: Change came slowly, and few people reaped immediate benefits from new ideas about race, class, or corporate culture, much less uprooted their entire lives to pursue a different way of living.
This fall, it’s joined by two handsome period shows that make similar arguments. The second season of FX’s anthology crime series, “Fargo,” which premieres on Monday, and “The Man In The High Castle,” which arrives on Amazon on Nov. 20, both portray versions of the 1960s and 1970s in which social norms shift slowly, and require astonishingly, sometimes violent, force to be accomplished.
“The Midwest in the ’70s hasn’t really been explored that much,” “Fargo” showrunner Noah Hawley explained of the second installment of his anthology series, which takes places in Minnesota in 1979. “And it’s a different cultural … you know, disco didn’t sweep the nation in the same way as it did on the coasts, I don’t think, and that sort of mentality, still very hardworking people who, you know, just happen to be living in the ’70s.”
For Hawley, that pace of cultural change presented an opportunity to tell a story that was explicitly rooted in what happened when people in Middle America saw change happening on the coasts and became eager for new dynamics and new opportunities to reach them, too.
“There’s definitely an element of the, sort of, death of the family business and the rise of corporate America that plays into the series,” Hawley said. “And, then, there’s another element, I think, which should be acknowledged about this tumultuous period in the ’70s, which there’s a lot of, coming out of the ’60s, this, sort of, air of revolution and radicalism in the sense that, finally, you know, people who weren’t just white men were going to get a seat at the table.”
“And that seemed interesting to me, you know, to try to find a way to tell that as a crime story,” Hawley continued. “We establish in this first hour that Otto Gerhardt, the patriarch of the Gerhardt family, has a stroke. And then there becomes this power struggle between Jeffrey Donovan’s character, who is the oldest son, and Jean Smart, who plays the matriarch. And she says, ‘Why can’t a woman be boss?’ you know, and a similar dynamic as Bokeem Woodbine’s character. You know, he’s coming up from Kansas City, which is a much more corporate crime syndicate, and he’s trying to climb the ladder to get to the top and believes he has just as much of a right to be there as anyone. … So I felt like, by making it not just about flared pants and wide collars, that we could really get to something that really spoke to the American experience.”
If this season of “Fargo” explores the experiences of people who are slow to benefit from social change, “The Man In The High Castle” is about some of the first people to realize that change might be possible at all. In this adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic alternate history, America lost World War II and is divided between German and Japanese occupation. But fascist control of the East and West coasts is threatened by movies that begin circulating about a world in which America won the war – it’s an alternate history within an alternate history. (Standard disclosure: Amazon co-founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“These characters, especially Juliana (a young woman who encounters one of the movies, played by Alexa Davalos) and Joe [played by Luke Kleintank], have only known this history,” producer David Zucker explained when I spoke to him about the series in August. “And that, I think, is part of the other genius of the book. This isn’t just after the cease-fire or such has been signed. This is how America has existed for 17 years now, and so it’s very interesting to be able to draw those further distinctions between those who knew it previously, and those who didn’t.”
“The Man In The High Castle” is set in 1962, but in its version of American history, some of the cultural sparks that would come to define the era have never happened. There’s no Elvis Presley, no nascent Beatlemania and no impending teenage sexual revolution inspired by that music.
Instead of the narrative of inevitable change that defines our contemporary understanding of the 1960s and 1970s, shows like “Mad Men,” “The Man In The High Castle” and “Fargo” remind us that the most radical transformations of that age happened at the margins – and that the advances of the period shouldn’t be taken for granted, much less considered secure and consolidated today.
Rosenberg writes The Post’s Act Four blog, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/