Mad Men is one of the most acclaimed television series to have emerged in recent years. Produced by Matthew Weiner (who was earlier the executive producer of The Sopranos), this richly made drama series depicts the New York advertising world of the early 1960s. The punning title can be taken to mean Madison Avenue which was the epicenter of PR firms during this period. Most of the action unravels in the posh and busy offices of the fictitious firm Sterling Cooper, which employs a troop of “secretary-ogling, martini-guzzling WASPs, including the laconic, philandering creative director, Don Draper (Jon Hamm).” (Wren, 2008, p.17) An interesting aspect of the TV show is the “behind-the-scenes glimpses of hucksterism in the making, as Draper and his colleagues sculpt PR blitzes for a vibrator, a lipstick brand, an airline with a bad crash history, and other products in search of love.” (Wren, 2008, p.17) This essay will analyze various salient features of the show. To illustrate the points, instances from a particular episode of the show are perused – the third episode of the first season titled ‘Marriage of Figaro’.
One of the main attractions of the show is the exoticism that it portrays. The characteristic features of the 1960s can surprise or shock a contemporary viewer with its political incorrectness and other crass tendencies. It was also a time when feminism has not yet taken root and divorce rates were extremely low. Even cigarette smoking was romanticized greatly – something that is difficult to fathom in current times with mounting statistics implicating tobacco for various health disorders. Indeed the characters smoke incessantly and they even drink during work hours. The episode titled the Marriage of Figaro too contains several scenes of carefree smoking and drinking – a far cry from the corporate and social decorum of today. The height of the hippie influence can be learnt from the following act: When Don Draper returns home after a long day at office, he doesn’t think twice before instructing his young children to prepare him a strong drink. (Atkinson, 2011, p.30)
There are many reasons that could be forwarded to explain the popularity and success of Mad Men. The actors casted in the show are clearly a plus point. The attention to detail, style and aesthetic in the sets is another major reason. The cultural upheavals witnessed by the 1960s America provide a colorful backdrop for the unfolding professional and personal drama. To the modern viewer Mad Men may be like a visit to some distant exotic country where normal rules of civil societies don’t fully apply. The role of government in personal matters is clearly absent. But the creators of Mad Men are careful not to sound didactic about the dangers of freedom. Amid this setting of high individualism, there are also conformist behaviors like attending church and country club. As Alan Anderson notes in his review of the show,
“The conservative social mores, almost comical today, underpin a public relationship between the sexes that cannot fail to appall any progressive thinkers among us who can bring themselves to watch the show. Yet watch it we do, not in horrified fascination, but with affection, tinged with disquiet. For the America of Mad Men, while flawed, throws into stark relief the unique idiocies of our own age.” (Anderson, 2010, p.6)
The widespread misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace would shock a modern viewer. For example, during one of the episodes in the first season, a male worker “blithely pulls up a secretary’s skirt to settle a bet over what color undergarments she is wearing.” (Wren, 2008, p.17) Just as flabbergasting is Sterling Cooper’s male executives’ tendency to make “lascivious quips with impunity as secretaries dutifully fetch coffee, type memos, and answer the phone.” (Cooke, 2009, p.46) The casual promiscuity of the men in Sterling Cooper is a blatant example of this. Even in the episode Marriage of Figaro, we see the character of Peter Campbell tell curly to the new secretary Peggy that their brief affair cannot continue for he is now married. Such asymmetry of power between the genders is impossible in today’s times.
In many ways Mad Men is commonsensical. Its projection of a world that is largely free of “stifling political correctness, hypersensitivity and nanny state regulation is an artful rebuke of these nonsensical post-modern predilections”. (Anderson, 2010, p.7) At the same time Mad Men exhibits conservatism too, in that, it identifies flaws inherent in human personality and as a consequence treats the characters, their failures, weaknesses and double standards with affection and empathy. Mad Men also critiques the social mores of the period, but mostly does not find them wanting; rather, it finds wanting the characters, but this too it accepts as their nature. But above all, the show is an adult drama, in that it unreservedly exhorts us to treat children as children, and grown-ups as adults. In the current era of state-mandated infantilisation (in the garb of protection), this message is urgent, necessary and resounding. In other words, “having regulated citizens like errant children, relieving them of the responsibilities of adulthood, we should not be surprised that our governments have become equally immature. We live, after all, in representative democracies.” (Phillips, 2010, p.17)
There is also an element of surrealism about the characters and situations permeating Mad Men. The stylish, slick and smooth animated credits (which appear in the opening of an episode) set the tone for the surrealism that would follow. The free-falling ad executive (modeled on the features of Don Draper) captures the feeling of vertigo that the viewer witnesses. The soundtrack too compliments this effect to the tee. For example,
“While the soundtrack reiterates a keening, descending cadence, a pale gray office dissolves, and its male occupant (vaguely reminiscent of the animated figures in James Bond credits sequences) tumbles past skyscrapers and advertising banners, as if he were plummeting down a rabbit hole…The Alice in Wonderland quality in the Mad Men aesthetic lends richness and mystery to the narrative, with its absorbing melange of professional crises and domestic soap opera. Real history figures into the mix, too, sometimes adding an element of bittersweet irony.” (Wren, 2008, p.17)
Mad Men is also a great visual repository for sociological study. One particular aspect of family life clearly evident from the series is the distinct treatment of adults and children that contrasts sharply with the more liberal /permissive parenting styles of today. For example, today’s children are treated as adults-to-be in that they are expected to show responsibility for their behavior in return for a set of rights granted them. The parent-child relationship of Mad Men is different though, wherein children are shown love and care, but still controlled and expected to show obedience. For example in the episode Marriage of Figaro, when a guest slaps a boy across the face (for spilling a glass while running around the house), the boy’s father moves in to ask ‘What is going on here?’ His interest is not to protect his son, but to find out the nature of his son’s mischief, so that he could punish more. In some ways it reminds us that today’s kids are a pampered lot – the significant rise in youth crime over the recent decades is a testimony to this view.
There are a lot of factors contributing to the success of Mad Men. The fact that it is about a crucial phase in the history of the United States is one such factor. That the series also deals with perennial interpersonal and social relations is another factor, especially its showcasing of the “yawning gap between how we think about our lives and what we actually make of them in practice.” (Phillips, 2010, p.17) While the steamy storylines and the star power of the cast can be forwarded as superficial reasons for its success, there are other enduring reasons which has made it a hit across the world. The stylistic elements and faithful adherence to the details of the Sixties is another merit of the show – “all cinched-waisted dresses, Bakelite radios and Brylcreem; it also looks fantastic. Stylish and glamorous, it is a feast for eyes which have become jaded by the squalor, sloppiness and sheer ugliness of so much of modern life.” (Phillips, 2010, p.17)