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…
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