Since the summer of 2007, when Mad Men premiered on the cable station AMC, the world it purports to depict—a lushly reimagined Madison Avenue in the 1960s, where sleekly suited, chain-smoking, hard-drinking advertising executives dream up ingeniously intuitive campaigns for cigarettes and bras and airlines while effortlessly bedding beautiful young women or whisking their Grace Kelly–lookalike wives off to business trips in Rome—has itself become the object of a kind of madness. I’m not even referring to the critical reception both in the US and abroad, which has been delirious: a recent and not atypical reference in the Times of London called it “one of the…best television series of all time,” and the show has repeatedly won the Emmy, the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild Award, the Writers Guild of America Award, and the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Series. (A number of its cast members have been nominated in the various acting categories as well.) Rather, the way in which Mad Men has seemingly percolated into every corner of the popular culture—the children’s show Sesame Street has introduced a Mad Men parody, toned down, naturally, for its tender viewers—suggests that its appeal goes far beyond what dramatic satisfactions it might afford.
At first glance, this appeal seems to have a lot to do with the show’s much-discussed visual style—the crisp midcentury coolness of dress and decor. The clothing retailer Banana Republic, in partnership with the show’s creators, devised a nationwide window display campaign evoking the show’s distinctive 1960s look, and now offers a style guide to help consumers look more like the show’s characters. A nail polish company now offers a Mad Men–inspired line of colors; the toy maker Mattel has released dolls based on some of the show’s characters. Most intriguingly, to my mind, Brooks Brothers has partnered with the series’s costume designer to produce a limited edition Mad Men suit—which is, in turn, based on a Brooks Brothers design of the 1960s.
Many popular entertainments, of course, capitalize on their appeal by means of marketing tie-ins, but the yearning for Mad Men style seems different from the way in which, say, children who are hooked on the Star Wars series yearn to own Darth Vader action dolls. The people who watch Mad Men are, after all, adults—most of them between the ages of nineteen and forty-nine. This is to say that most of the people who are so addicted to the show are either younger adults, to whom its world represents, perhaps, an alluring historical fantasy of a time before the present era’s seemingly endless prohibitions against pleasures once taken for granted (casual sex, careless eating, excessive drinking, and incessant smoking); or younger baby boomers—people in their forties and early fifties who remember, barely, the show’s 1960s setting, attitudes, and look. For either audience, then, the show’s style is, essentially, symbolic: it represents fantasies, or memories, of significant potency.
I am dwelling on the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’s appeal—to which I shall return later, and to which I am not at all immune, having been a child in the 1960s—because after watching all fifty-two episodes of Mad Men, I find little else to justify it. We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before: as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.
With these standouts (and there are many more), Mad Men shares virtually no significant qualities except its design. The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.
Worst of all—in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues”—the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.
That a soap opera decked out in high-end clothes (and concepts) should have received so much acclaim and is taken so seriously reminds you that fads depend as much on the willingness of the public to believe as on the cleverness of the people who invent them; as with many fads that take the form of infatuations with certain moments in the past, the Mad Men craze tells us far more about today than it does about yesterday. But just what in the world of the show do we want to possess? The clothes and furniture? The wicked behavior? The unpunished crassness? To my mind, it’s something else entirely, something unexpected and, in a way, almost touching.
Mad Men—the term, according to the show, was coined by ad men in the 1950s—centers on the men and women who work at Sterling Cooper, a medium-sized ad agency with dreams of getting bigger; when the action begins, in the early 1960s, the men are all either partners or rising young executives, and the women are secretaries and office managers. At the center of this constellation stands the drama’s antihero, Don Draper, the firm’s brilliantly talented creative director: a man, we learn, who not only sells lies, but is one. A flashback that comes at the end of the first season reveals that Don is, in fact, a midwestern hick called Dick Whitman who profited from a moment of wartime confusion in Korea in order to start a new life. After he is wounded and a comrade—the real Don Draper—is killed, Dick switches their dog tags: the real Don’s body goes home to Dick’s grieving and not very nice family, while Dick reinvents himself as Don Draper. (In the kind of cultural winking in which the show’s creators like to indulge, the small town in which Dick Whitman’s family await his body is called “Bunbury”—the term that the male leads in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest use for their double lives.)
This back story, as rusty and unsubtle a device as it may be, helps establish the pervasive theme of falseness and hypocrisy that the writers find not only in the advertising business itself, but in the culture of the Sixties as a whole just before the advent of feminism, the civil rights movement, and the sexual liberation of the 1970s. (In a typical bit of overkill, the writers have made the ingenious adman the son of a prostitute.) The four seasons that have been aired thus far trace the evolution of the larger society even as the secret that lurks behind Don’s private life becomes a burden that’s increasingly hard to bear. Female employees become more assertive: one secretary, Peggy Olson, who’s not as pretty as the others, becomes a copywriter—to the dismay of the office manager, a red-headed bombshell called Joan Holloway, who’s a decade older and can’t understand why anyone would want to do anything but marry the boss. One of the fabulously hard-drinking executives finally goes into AA. The firm considers the buying power of the “Negro” market for the first time.
Meanwhile, Don wanders from career triumph to career triumph and from bed to bed, his preternatural understanding of what motivates consumers grotesquely disproportionate to any understanding of his own motives; and back home, his gorgeous blond wife, Betty, a former model from the Main Line, is starting to chafe at the domestic bit. All this plays out against some of the key historical events of the time: the Nixon–Kennedy race (Sterling Cooper is doing PR for Nixon), the crash of American Airlines Flight 1 in March 1962 (a character’s father is aboard, triggering a crisis of conscience as to whether he should capitalize on his family’s tragedy to help land the American Airlines account), and, inevitably, the Kennedy assassination, which ruins the wedding of a partner’s spoiled daughter.
As I have already mentioned, the actual stuff of Mad Men‘s action is, essentially, the stuff of soap opera: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets; what is supposed to give it its higher cultural resonance is the historical element. When people talk about the show, they talk (if they’re not talking about the clothes and furniture) about the special perspective its historical setting creates—the graphic picture that it is able to paint of the attitudes of an earlier time, attitudes likely to make us uncomfortable or outraged today. An unwanted pregnancy, after all, had different implications in 1960 than it does in 2011.
To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing). It’s not that you don’t know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; it’s just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.
Here, as with Don’s false identity and (literally) meretricious mother, Mad Men keeps telling you what to think instead of letting you think for yourself. As I watched the first season, the characters and their milieu were so unrelentingly repellent that I kept wondering whether the writers had been trying, unsuccessfully, for a kind of camp—for a tartly tongue-in-cheek send-up of Sixties attitudes. (I found myself wishing that the creators of Glee had gotten a stab at this material.) But the creators of Mad Men are in deadly earnest. It’s as if these forty- and thirty-somethings can’t quite believe how bad people were back then, and can’t resist the impulse to keep showing you.
This impulse might be worth indulging (briefly), but the problem with Mad Men is that it suffers from a hypocrisy of its own. As the camera glides over Joan’s gigantic bust and hourglass hips, as it languorously follows the swirls of cigarette smoke toward the ceiling, as the clinking of ice in the glass of someone’s midday Canadian Club is lovingly enhanced, you can’t help thinking that the creators of this show are indulging in a kind of dramatic having your cake and eating it, too: even as it invites us to be shocked by what it’s showing us (a scene people love to talk about is one in which a hugely pregnant Betty lights up a cigarette in a car), it keeps eroticizing what it’s showing us, too. For a drama (or book, or whatever) to invite an audience to feel superior to a less enlightened era even as it teases the regressive urges behind the behaviors associated with that era strikes me as the worst possible offense that can be committed in a creative work set in the past: it’s simultaneously contemptuous and pandering. Here, it cripples the show’s ability to tell us anything of real substance about the world it depicts.