ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Tonight is the season finale of the TV series, "Mad Men." The show won the best drama Emmy this fall. It has a small devoted following, including commentator Jake Halpern. After two seasons, he's finally figured out why.
JAKE HALPERN: My name is Jake Halpern, but it was almost Jake Hall. Back in 1957, as my uncle prepared to enter college, my grandparents called together a little family powwow in their apartment to the Bronx. My grandpa Irving expressed his concerns that the name Halpern sounded too Jewish and that my uncle might not get into the kind of private colleges that snubbed Jews. My father was just 12 years old at the time, but he still recalls the family gathering vividly. It was a very paranoid thing to consider doing, he later told me. But it wasn't all that crazy at the time. At the time.
Sure, I knew the cold, dry history. I understood that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jews, women, African-Americans, and gays were marginalized. By the time I was in college, in this snooty Ive League in early 1990s, the straight WASP man dressed in a Brooks Brothers shirt was practically an endangered species. They I got hooked on the TV show, "Mad Men." The show brings the early 1960s to life in a way that's so fresh it almost feels like you're stepping out of a time machine. The details, right down to the women's underwear with their girdles, are meticulously recreated. And the vision is dark.
For those of you who haven't seen it, the show stars Donald Draper, an ad man who works at a Madison Avenue firm, a real old boys' club, a stronghold of WASP-dom, a place where women typed notes, blacks worked as elevator boys, Jews begged to be taken on as clients, and gays rarely saw the light of day because they were barricaded too deep in the closet. Other artists have depicted the dark side of this era. There are some excellent books like "Revolutionary Road" by Richard Yates, but nothing ever brought this period to life like "Mad Men." And I'm not just talking about the anti-Semitism.
I studied feminism in college, but I don't think I ever really got it until I became engrossed in the lives of the show's women, the housewives and the secretaries. Suddenly, I found myself understanding why my mother was such a zealous Hillary Clinton supporter. My understanding was no longer just factual, it was visceral. In a weird way, the past wasn't real. It didn't live and breathe until I saw a fictional version of it on TV.
I'm reminded of a John Kennedy quote in which she said that art establishes the basic human truth, which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. It maybe considered lowbrow to call a cable TV show art, but that's what precisely what it is. The writing is eloquent, the characters are nuanced, and the stories are deliciously unhurried. And ultimately, the show does what art is supposed to do, it illuminates. In my case, the changing of a name from Halpern to Hall might have made all the difference.
SEABROOK: Jake Halpern wrote the book "Fame Junkies". You can respond to Jake Halpern's essay at the opinion section of our website, npr.org.