There are two approaches to writing about Mad Men. Number one: this is a serious show about America and I am a serious person so I will think about what it all means. As in:
“Maybe it’s not all about work,” Dr. Miller says to Don Draper at the start of “Tomorrowland,” the end of the latest Mad Men season. It’s good advice. Like every other piece of good advice, you suspect Don will hear it, understand it — and ignore it. A man is his work, isn’t he? You can step away tomorrow. Tomorrow you can go to California, to Disneyland.
The second approach:
Did you not just love it when Peggy stomped into Joanie’s office after getting the news about Don and grabbed a cigarette and vented? She’s mad at Don for stealing her limelight again of course, but was that heartbreak in her face when she realized he was in L-O-V-E? And then there was Betsy’s awesome coat at the end when she was in the house with Don alone. She’s always so put together, even when she’s falling apart!
They’re both correct, which explains the show’s appeal. It’s a thoughtful disquisition on the days before the counterculture began its transformation of the post-war order, and also a soap with exquisite production values.
Also a long sodden hymn to drinking. Oh, we see the blackouts, the barfing, the hangovers, but the show still loves its drinking. When Don finds a bottle in the back of a cabinet in a house he hasn’t lived in for a long time, the audience grins: it’s like he’s a magician who can conjure whiskey out of nowhere! No, he just hid bottles. The iTunes version of the show, for example, always encourages the viewer to download the “Mad Men Cocktail Culture” app for your smartphone. It sounds like Dungeons and Dragons for hipsters. A Level Six Client is attacking your presentation! What do you do? You cast the dice, consult the rules, and it says “go to your office and drink straight liquor.” That’s probably the Cocktail Culture answer for everything, right? Drink, smoke, look good in a Brooks Brother suit with a skinny tie or a chic dress, trade repartee, listen to Brubeck on the stereophonic record player. Be one of those people the hippies killed off. Be swank. Be sharp.
This was the appeal of Mad Men when it premiered — unapologetic daytime substance abuse, old-line patriarchal values with a splash of va-va-voom sexiness, Joanie’s hips ringing back and forth like the toll of the Liberty Bell. The rough beast of Betty Friedan was still slouching towards New Rochelle to be born. Kennedy was alive. The jet-age was blending into the space-age. You could not only smoke, but smoke indoors. Hats and girdles. It was everything we were told was horrible about the past — but they all seemed so adult. Not because they had more freedom, but because they had less. They might not have liked what they had to be, but they knew what was expected.
Naturally, this led to dress-up parties. People got together and wore vintage clothing and drank and enjoyed the show with like-minded fans, just as people got together during Twin Peaks and ate donuts and drank damn-good coffee. If Mad Men was just a primetime soap with campy overtones, this might have made more sense. But it’s like dressing up in Louis XVI-era garments to enjoy a show about the days when the monarchy was dissolved. It’s all fun and games until someone loses a client, or a head. In fact it’s not all fun and games at all.