Why do we watch ‘Mad Men’?
by Christina Campodonico
Clear and colored liquors swirl in martinis glasses. Threads of smoke lift from stiff and thin cigarettes. Men and women flirt and chatter in a crowded bar, as Don Draper (Jon Hamm), scribbles notes on a napkin. Mad Men, like everything it has done since premiering in 2007, opens with a cool ease and a calm subtlety. Its opening was not gripping, but it did take us back to a seemingly distant, yet not-so-distant era, when smoking in public was okay and advertising was king.
Since debuting on the AMC Channel in 2007, Mad Men has not shaken up the TV viewing landscape much. Its season premieres have never topped over 4 million. Yet the show has insinuated itself into many aspects of contemporary pop culture — from fashion to graphic design to digital marketing.
In the years since the show began, Banana Republic released a line of Mad Men-inspired clothes and accessories. The name “Betty” became popular again. There was an upsurge in Saul Bass-style, cinematic poster iconography. You could even create your own Mad Men-themed avatar online and learn how to mix a classic drink, using AMC’s “Mad Men Cocktail Culture” app.
Yet the question lingers over why Mad Men — with so few viewers, as compared to other major television series — has had such a cultural impact, becoming not only an influencer of the 2000s, but also an iconic symbol of the ‘60s? (Or rather, what we think the ’60s were like.)
The answer, I believe, has something to do with nostalgia.
Reflecting on Mad Men’s influence right before the premiere of season 7, Todd Leopold of CNN wrote that Mad Men had become “synonymous with the idea of Kennedy-era America.”
“The show quickly became a shorthand for a different kind of America – one remembered for its hard-drinking men, subordinate women and cigarettes everywhere — than the one we live in now. It was a different America than the one that existed in the late ’60s, for that matter,” wrote Leopold.
Yet, why would a generation of viewers, the “summer of love” children of the “Don and Betty Drapers” and their children — Millennials — who pride themselves on diversity and tolerance, watch a show entrenched in old boy politics?
Maybe it has more to do with our parents, or our grandparents’ generation, rather than our selves. When I watch Don Draper pour some whiskey into his gold-rimmed, glass, I can’t help but think of my grandparents’ swishing scotch and soda on their porch during their religiously practiced cocktail hour. When I hear hints of Bossa nova in the background on Mad Men, I’m transported to my childhood — my grandparents’ playing Gilberto’s “Girl from Ipanema” in their living room.
Weiner has hinted in the past that, “the series is in some sense a tribute to his parents, an attempt in part at reconstructing their world,” according to Vanity Fair’s Bruce Handy.
Watching the show, that sense can be felt. From its to-the-tee accurate period production design, to its impeccably stylized wardrobe and spare, sophisticated writing, a dreamy haze of “what once was” hangs over Mad Men, like the smoky lounge in which we first encounter Don Draper.
It may not be possible to visit the ‘60s now, but Mad Men is perhaps the closest thing to time travel.Tags: Christina Campodonico, Hollywood, Life in the 1960s, Mad Men (TV show), Mad Men's cultural influence, Television, Television time travel