Mad Men is one of the most acclaimed television series to have emerged in recent years. Produced by Matthew Weiner (who was earlier the executive producer of The Sopranos), this richly made drama series depicts the New York advertising world of the early 1960s. The punning title can be taken to mean Madison Avenue which was the epicenter of PR firms during this period. Most of the action unravels in the posh and busy offices of the fictitious firm Sterling Cooper, which employs a troop of “secretary-ogling, martini-guzzling WASPs, including the laconic, philandering creative director, Don Draper (Jon Hamm).” (Wren, 2008, p.17) An interesting aspect of the TV show is the “behind-the-scenes glimpses of hucksterism in the making, as Draper and his colleagues sculpt PR blitzes for a vibrator, a lipstick brand, an airline with a bad crash history, and other products in search of love.” (Wren, 2008, p.17) This essay will analyze various salient features of the show. To illustrate the points, instances from a particular episode of the show are perused – the third episode of the first season titled ‘Marriage of Figaro’.
One of the main attractions of the show is the exoticism that it portrays. The characteristic features of the 1960s can surprise or shock a contemporary viewer with its political incorrectness and other crass tendencies. It was also a time when feminism has not yet taken root and divorce rates were extremely low. Even cigarette smoking was romanticized greatly – something that is difficult to fathom in current times with mounting statistics implicating tobacco for various health disorders. Indeed the characters smoke incessantly and they even drink during work hours. The episode titled the Marriage of Figaro too contains several scenes of carefree smoking and drinking – a far cry from the corporate and social decorum of today. The height of the hippie influence can be learnt from the following act: When Don Draper returns home after a long day at office, he doesn’t think twice before instructing his young children to prepare him a strong drink. (Atkinson, 2011, p.30)
There are many reasons that could be forwarded to explain the popularity and success of Mad Men. The actors casted in the show are clearly a plus point. The attention to detail, style and aesthetic in the sets is another major reason. The cultural upheavals witnessed by the 1960s America provide a colorful backdrop for the unfolding professional and personal drama. To the modern viewer Mad Men may be like a visit to some distant exotic country where normal rules of civil societies don’t fully apply. The role of government in personal matters is clearly absent. But the creators of Mad Men are careful not to sound didactic about the dangers of freedom. Amid this setting of high individualism, there are also conformist behaviors like attending church and country club. As Alan Anderson notes in his review of the show,
“The conservative social mores, almost comical today, underpin a public relationship between the sexes that cannot fail to appall any progressive thinkers among us who can bring themselves to watch the show. Yet watch it we do, not in horrified fascination, but with affection, tinged with disquiet. For the America of Mad Men, while flawed, throws into stark relief the unique idiocies of our own age.” (Anderson, 2010, p.6)
The widespread misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace would shock a modern viewer. For example, during one of the episodes in the first season, a male worker “blithely pulls up a secretary’s skirt to settle a bet over what color undergarments she is wearing.” (Wren, 2008, p.17) Just as flabbergasting is Sterling Cooper’s male executives’ tendency to make “lascivious quips with impunity as secretaries dutifully fetch coffee, type memos, and answer the phone.” (Cooke, 2009, p.46) The casual promiscuity of the men in Sterling Cooper is a blatant example of this. Even in the episode Marriage of Figaro, we see the character of Peter Campbell tell curly to the new secretary Peggy that their brief affair cannot continue for he is now married. Such asymmetry of power between the genders is impossible in today’s times.