Why we love Mad Men


I just finished watching the second season of Mad Men, and I’m left with a familiar bittersweet feeling. The same one you get when you finish a great book. I don’t often get this feeling from a TV show, so I’ve begun to reflect a little on what it is that makes the show so good. One thing, of course, is the place and time.

1960 in America

Setting a show in 1960 was a stroke of pure genius. America, having recovered from World War II hit it’s stride in the 1950s. The country was enjoying an unprecedented era of era of prosperity. The big companies that created the machinery of modern warfare reinvented themselves as purveyors of household magic. Plastic revolutionized packaging and changed the whole concept of disposable goods. Chemicals emerged to ensure everything from green lawns to wrinkle-free clothing. A proliferation of new gadgets promised to erase every inconvenience from our lives. This is when Modern America was born. We were seduced by technology, and we never looked back.

At the same time, there was so much about America in 1960 that seems so quaint and primitive now. Often comically so. There’s a voyeuristic joy in watching kids play spacemen in front of their parents by putting plastic bags over their heads. Seatbelts didn’t even exist yet. Pregnant women smoked and drank. Everyone, for that matter, smoked and drank constantly – even at work. Every executive had “a girl” to take care of all the minutiae of meetings and phone calls (plus coffee, dry-cleaning and sometimes other “perks”). “Homos” were perverts, and “negroes” were only fit for household help and operating elevators.

Looking back on this era is to witness the fascinating disconnect between what Americans in 1960 believed about themselves – and their culture and their country – and what we now understand to be the reality. This makes for many gasp-producing, head-shaking moments. But I believe there’s also something much more personal going on. I suspect that in 2009 there is a similar disconnect at play in America.

1960 as a mirror

The Internet has resurrected our reverence for technology and our faith in technology’s ability to solve our problems (if it ever went away). We constantly crave the next new thing – then we adopt it, adapt to it, become disillusioned by it and discard it. This whole cycle can happen over a few months or even weeks.

Today, for example, everyone seems to be excited about Twitter’s third anniversary. At the same time they’re wondering if Facebook’s home page redesign is a harbinger of impending decline.

Women and minorities have come a long way of course. There are whole categories of things we consider unjust today that were acceptable in 1960, but there is still plenty of injustice in the world. And for the most part we still coast through our lives, blissfully untouched by it.

So partly, we love Mad Men for the same reason we love most great stories – because we recognize ourselves in the characters, and we see our world in the one they inhabit.