Maybe it’s a coincidence, but three of the best dramatic series of 2015 (“Mad Men,” “The Americans” and “Fargo”) were not only set in the recent past, but pivoted around that strange ‘70s and ‘80s phenomenon some called the encounter group.
In the pop psychology history of the world, American culture entered the 1960s buttoned up and conformist, with the women frigid and unfulfilled, and the men out of touch with their feelings and repressed. Then along came the pot, free sex and rock ‘n roll of the ‘60s — and the next thing you know, we had disco, divorce and self-actualization.
This is the narrative refrain we see time and again when TV looks back at those tumultuous decades. And as a symbol of how American society radically changed, nothing quite beats the encounter session, where people sat in groups and bared their souls to complete strangers.
Consider these great dramas from 2015 (some spoilers, so proceed with caution):
— In the“Mad Men” finale, set in 1970, ad man Don Draper is at the end of his rope when he attends a week-long retreat at The Esalen Institute at Big Sur. While there, he gets his head on straight and is inspired to create Coke’s famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” ad.
— In “Fargo,” set in 1979, Peggy Blumquist, a trapped Minnesota housewife and hair stylist, uses the family’s savings to fund a weekend at Lifespring, thereby denying her husband the money he needs to buy his boss’ butcher shop.
— In “The Americans,” set in 1983, Sandra Beeman, the wife of FBI Counter-Intelligence agent Stan Beeman, gains the strength to leave her husband after attending an est seminar.
In all three shows, the est, Esalon and Lifespring sessions are sought out by desperately unhappy women to the befuddlement of the men in their lives. The men are either emotionally blocked (Don Draper and Stan Beeman) or just plain dim (Ed Blomquist). Both sexes need some jolt to begin communicating, but it’s an open question whether encounter groups are enough.
The way these shows treat the encounter group industry ranges from bemusement to grudging respect. In “Mad Men,” the Esalen Institute, with its constant refrain of “How did that make you feel?” seems vaguely absurd and mildly comical, especially since the participants range from self-indulgent to judgmental. On “The Americans,” est’s promise to help people become the people they were born to be, not the role they were assigned, is no joke, especially to the show’s protagonist, the undercover Soviet spy Philip Jennings, whose whole life is about playing a role.
As for Peggy Blumquist in “Fargo,” she never does make it to the Lifespring session — but it eventually becomes clear that going on the lam from the cops and stabbing a vicious criminal is actualization enough. Like Jack Kerouac and Bonnie and Clyde before her, being on the road, fleeing from her humdrum life, is what she really needs.
Television shows set in the past work best when they help us understand what we’ve become by showing us what we used to be. To succeed as works of art, they need to have characters who not only dress differently from us but think differently. This is what makes “Mad Men,” “Fargo” and “The Americans” so successful. Their characters are both familiar and strange. As we watch these people come to grips with changing mores and values, we can see the past evolving into the present before our eyes.
Only a small percentage of the population attended encounter sessions in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but their impact on the culture at large was huge. Prior to the self-encounter movement, if you wanted to confess your sins you went to church. Then all of a sudden you could go to a hotel conference room and confess to people you’d never met before.
Today there’s no need for encounter groups because we have television. First there were confessional talk shows like “The Phil Donahue Show” and “Oprah,” and now there is reality TV, where people are prodded into committing and then confessing to sins they might not have come up with on their own. The idea that you might want to keep your feelings to yourself is laughable these days. It even seems dangerous — as if bottled-up emotions are a recipe for an explosion.
But in the end, “Mad Men,” “The Americans” and “Fargo” seem to argue that the true heroes are not the ones who feel the need to articulate their feelings, but the ones who actually do the right thing. This is especially true on “Fargo,” where the Solversons, the moral core of the series, go out of their way NOT to verbalize their love for each other. Externally they seem repressed — but love is doing, not saying, and all the encounter sessions, reality shows and confessional talk shows will not change that.