1:02 pm Jul. 16, 2010
It’s Peggy’s first day at Sterling Cooper, and Joan leads the new girl to her desk. Between drags of a cigarette, she unveils a clunky old typewriter.
This—along with a rotary phone and an intercom—will be the tool of Peggy’s trade.
“Now try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology,” Joan explains. “It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”
That’s one of the first scenes in the AMC serial drama, “Mad Men.” Now at the beginning of season four, the characters in the show are at a narrative crossroads, carefully plotted by the writers and producers. But they are also at a historical crossroads.
The action of the series begins in 1960, a time between the dramatically overexposed 1950’s and the sexual revolution: understudied, and not so much misunderstood as ignored by the popular culture until "Mad Men."
Last season, the Drapers’ marriage disintegrated. The familial drama typical of what would follow and atypical of what preceded it: the Drapers became early adopters of the Sexual Revolution, whether they liked it or not. With a season that built up to the looming Kennedy assassination, and with the advantage of cultural and historical hindsight, the writers have the suspense almost written for them. In both story arcs, we all knew it was coming, it was only a matter of how.
“Mad Men” works because it avoids facile generalizations about familiar events. Now that the show is moving into the “real” '60s, it’s enticing to imagine how the sexual revolution and antiwar movement might affect the characters—and their wardrobes. For fans, it’s also a little nerve-wracking. At this point, is it even possible to portray the '60s in a way that’s not trite? Can “Mad Men” be the same with longer sideburns and “The Byrds” on the soundtrack? Can it possibly be as good?
“Mad Men” thrives on a sort of anti-nostalgia, a reluctance to reduce the past to an easy cliché.
Hence, perhaps, the reason the Draper character is already so frequently drafted to serve contemporary agendas. Or that he was voted the most influential man of 2010 on askmen.com, a result that is both unexpected and quite possibly true.
But now, actually, is the time for the character of Don Draper to resonate. And why?
“Mad Men” is engineered for a very particular type of viewer: the urban cultural omnivore. Our Bloomberg-era city-dwellers know just enough about art, fashion, politics, music, film and design to catch most of the references on the show.
Our taste is studiously high-low, and we devour Perez Hilton, Pitchfork and Politico with the flat affect of a Google Reader. We might even recollect the philosophers and urban planners we learned about back in college.
Bravo, in its ad campaigns against its own programming, wishfully targeted at this urban elite, calls us “affluencers,” and Sarah Palin calls us elitists.
No doubt, some of us are rich: roughly half of Mad Men’s viewers make over $100,000 a year. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that Obama is an enthusiastic fan of the show, and has even written fan letters to Matthew Weiner. (Letters: talk about retro.)
And, it should not surprise anyone that though the people who do follow “Mad Men” are intensely devoted to it, the show gets modest ratings. Its most recent season finale attracted 2.3 million viewers; compare that to 4.8 million for Snooki and The Situation on “Jersey Shore” and 15 or so million for “Two and a Half Men.”
IN THAT OPENING SCENE BETWEEN PEGGY and Joan, we laugh at two things: the idea that anyone might be overwhelmed by this technology, and Joan’s casual acceptance of the sexism of her time. The props are a joke, but at the same time, there’s a real, almost fetishistic with their authenticity, just as there is a real fetish for understanding how anyone could have viewed the world as Joan did. It’s just familiar enough for sympathy, just distant enough for canniness. It’s time travel, or as close as we will come.
Why is Mad Men popular now? For one thing, the ready availability of obscure information about an era not yet spoiled by Norman Lear cant or the sentimenal fuzz of a Daniel Stern voiceover encourages instant expertise. Who will be the first to find the Kodak Carousel campaign the show’s writers licensed into the plot? Which subplots are real, and which are writerly inventions? These proclivities are, smartly, egged on by the show’s creative team.
When we want to know what lesser-known Roy Orbison song was playing while Betty was flying to Reno—and we do—all we need to do is hold up our iPhones and wait a few seconds while Shazam figures it out. (By the way, it was “Shahdaroba,” but you probably knew that already.)
And in the era of remix and pastiche, the obscure-familiar is king. Alex Williams said it recently in The New York Times: curating has become a word for what we do with our own records and shoe collections, something web editors do for our idle amusement, and not just something done by fusty museum employees with a “show” to mount. This is the age of the self-appointed expert.
But of course, this burrowing into narrow wells of deep knowledge results in many experts on a million obscure things. The DJ who knows all of the French coldwave bands of the late 1970’s is, finally, more valuable in our set than the one who checks the Top 40 lists to play crowd-pleasers. The urban elite has disparate tastes, and it will be served—at least for the time being. In a few years, the Coldwave DJ will be on to something new, and so will we. Either that, or we'll move upstate.
Cable TV shoulders the artistic, and therefore the business burden of reaching this fickle group, and so airs risky shows—anything that’s perceived as too smart, too slow or too specialized for a network audience. As Weiner recently told the Times, “You’re talking to somebody here who grew up on network television and loves television. And I always look at it and say, ‘L.A. Law’? That would be on FX now.”
Three decades ago, tens of millions of Americans watched “M*A*S*H” because there weren’t that many other options; they continued to watch because it was a good show. Now, the success of a network show can be a result of viewer inertia rather than artistic quality.
The success of Jay Leno in his 11:35 time slot now seems comprehensible. Like a Hummel figure in a curio, untouched for a decade, Jay’s move to the 10 p.m. timeslot showed how much dusting was to be done. Better just to put him back exactly where he was, close the curio door and Windex the glass.
Viewers of “Mad Men,” and shows like it, don’t require television. Television must require us. Ideally in sensible, 13-episode seasons, each episode perfect.
Yet this perfect pairing of show and audience has its drawbacks. Being one of the 100 million people to watch the finale of “M*A*S*H” gave the feeling of being part of a massive phenomenon; watching “Mad Men,” often at the insistence of friends, and often through a digital streaming device, can make you feel like a blip in a demographic. If you like “understated, dark, emotional” shows like “Mad Men,” you might also like “Dexter,” Netflix says.
But with “Mad Men,” a show whose topic is, after all, the unstated subconscious of the United States, we’re happy to be hooked.