Is that all there is?

By James Charisma

It’s 7:30 p.m. on Easter Sunday, and I’m sitting at Bar 35 in Chinatown. The crowd inside and I are watching the midseason premiere of Mad Men, projected up on the back wall for a party celebrating the series’ final seven episodes.

Suddenly, Peggy Lee sings Is That All There Is? in the background of the episode, and I’m transported 13 years into the past, to the newly opened The ARTS at Marks Garage, where I’m in a play, dangling from a suspended metal bar while a drag queen puts a cigarette out on my chest to the same song, in front of a live audience.

More than 10 years, just two blocks away.

I first started watching Mad Men in 2010. Seasons one and two were streaming on Netflix, and I had heard good things about the series, although I had no clue what it was about, other than advertising and the 1960s. I watched the pilot and enjoyed it enough to watch another episode, and then another. It was a portrait of American life 50 years ago, and the characters were flawed, but fascinating.

Back then, I was going to college and working 60 hours a week. What little time I had for television, I split between two cable shows that no one I knew had heard of at the time, Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad. Recently, a friend asked about TV shows I like, and I dated myself with these examples; she was watching Gotham, Empire, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I was living in the past, she laughed.

Seems strange to memorialize and feel nostalgic for a television show (of all things), but it’s taken time to sink in. Consider that when Mad Men debuted in 2007, Netflix was still just mailing out DVDs, not yet streaming programs online. The technology that allowed me to watch Mad Men in the first place didn’t exist when it originally debuted.

And since then, eight years have passed. Whereas a novel or film may come out once, or with limited sequels, television shows travel with us through time. The process takes years, and although TV often is dismissed as disposable, it’s the only artistic medium that truly ages as we do. You may revisit The Lord of the Rings as an older, wiser reader, but the trilogy is suspended in three books. The X-Files, on the other hand, literally spanned nine years, both for viewers and the characters.

Mad Men‘s most distinctive function is that it’s a time-lapse machine … (it) has covered a decade of its time in about a decade of our own,” James Poniewozik writes in an epic series overview piece for TIME. “It’s a potent effect: Just like in life, you don’t notice the gradual changes until you look back and — holy cow — how far have they come? How far have we?”

Can our lives be measured by the stories we tell? Or by the stories that are told alongside our lives? I am not the same person who dangled on stage at Marks Garage more than a decade ago and yet I am — or was. And just as I can look back to those times, you’ll be reading this story a few weeks from today. Even in Mad Men, a story about the ‘60s, characters are carrying the weight of their own past lives.

And maybe that’s the point: that their history is our history, too. And although we each struggle with our own conflicts, we share the same story. One great epic — perhaps that’s all there is.

James Charisma is the director of Charisma Industries, a creative design agency in Honolulu.

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