Why We Watch “Mad Men”
Adam Cohen has a peculiarly limp piece on “Mad Men” in The New York Times today. Or yesterday. Who the hell knows anymore?
Cohen argues that the AMC show is popular in our troubled times because it offers a view of earlier troubled times—times we don't even think of as troubled. It's Sept. 1963 and things are bad all around: Don Drapper is getting pissier, Betty Draper is getting colder, Salvatore Romano has been fired because a client made a pass at him, and little girls are getting blown up in Birmingham churches. Cohen writes:
To a generation beaten down by skyrocketing unemployment, plunging retirement savings and mounting home foreclosures, “Mad Men” offers the schadenfreude-filled message that their predecessors were equally unhappy — and that the bleakness meter in American life has always been set on high.
First, I'm not sure which generation is receiving “Mad Men”'s message, since it's not a particularly watched program. Has any episode garnered a rating above 3 million? Does it do better than “Monk” or “Army Wives” or “The O'Reilly Factor”? Doesn't look like it.
Second, Cohen ignores the genius of “Mad Men.” It markets itself as nostalgia—remember those finger-snappin', Kennedyesque times when drinks were drinks, dames were dames, and fun was fun?—but presents a reality that can horrify. The women are generally so mistreated, and in such an obtuse, smug way, you can't wait for the Betty Friedans and Gloria Steinems of the world to come along and right things.
Third, do we watch this thing from schadenfreude? To be honest, the show probably hooked me with good reviews, good looks, and the promise of easy sex, and now hooks me for the following reason: I know what's going to happen (in the world) and they don't. And I don't know what's going to happen (to them) and want to find out.
It's Sept. 1963. I know in two months John F. Kennedy will be assassinated. I know in five months the Beatles will arrive. I know the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will all pass, and I know “We Shall Overcome” will become “Hey ho, Whitey's gotta go!,” and I know SNCC will give way to SDS which will gave way to the Weather Underground, and I know short hair will gave way to Beatles hair which will gave way to long hair, and I know pot will give way to LSD, and free love will gave way to assassination. I know we'll land on the moon in 1969.
The ad business is a young man's game and I know it will become a younger man's game, and eventually a younger person's game, and I wonder how Don Draper, so cool and comfortable in 1960, will handle that. How old will he be in 1970? What will he look like? Balding? With muttonchop sideburns and big flowery collars? Trying desperately to fit in? Say it ain't so!
He's already missing the boat. His daughter's teacher wants to hear a replay of MLK's “I have a dream” speech, which surprises him. The big moments are happening and he doesn't see them. Those pot-smoking kids who drugged him, beat him, and took his money are like a visit from later in the decade. The times they are a changin'.
Where will Salvatore be in 1969? How will Joan and her curves handle the Twiggy era? Will Peggy become Don's boss? How will he handle that? How will she?
That's the continued appeal of “Mad Men” to me, and I wouldn't exactly call it schadenfreude. We live in uncertain times (particularly economically) and I don't know what's coming. They're about to live through uncertain times (particularly socially) and I know what's coming. There's a sense of superiority in that knowledge but also a sense of solicitude. You want to warn them because you can't warn yourself.