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It has become commonplace recently to compare certain television dramas to great literature – and with such brooding, character-driven and thematically rich shows as Breaking Bad, The Americans, and Mad Men, I get it.
So suffice to say I watch many of these shows and feel literary doing so, even if watching sometimes keeps me away from reading actual books.
One reason I am particularly fond of Mad Men, the 1960s advertising-world show created by Matthew Weiner (who was also the creative force behind The Sopranos, another widely critically-acclaimed show-like-literature), is that books and reading are a consistent motif, acting to illuminate character, plot, and theme.
A recent book featured in the season premiere of the sixth season of Mad Men (spoiler alert!) was The Inferno, one of the books of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The dashing ad man Don Draper, given to extramarital affairs in his first marriage, is reading it on a Hawaiian beach next to his beautiful young second wife, and as the show opens, we hear his voiceover: “Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” …which is about as cogent a description of where he is, both psychologically and psychically.
At the end of the premiere, we discover that Don is back to his cheating ways, carrying on an affair with a neighbor’s wife – and we know this, in part, because she lent him The Inferno.
Related – in more recent times – is that there is a new translation of The Divine Comedy by Clive James that is getting attention and love, especially from NPR Weekend Edition. Scott Simon introduces the radio show’s story by describing it this way: “Dante Alighieri’s great work tells the tale of the author’s trail through hell – each and every circle of it – purgatory and heaven. It has become perhaps the world’s most cited allegorical epic about life, death, goodness, evil, damnation, and reward.”
Interestingly, a good description of what Mad Men is about as well.