In many ways Mad Men is commonsensical. Its projection of a world that is largely free of “stifling political correctness, hypersensitivity and nanny state regulation is an artful rebuke of these nonsensical post-modern predilections”. (Anderson, 2010, p.7) At the same time Mad Men exhibits conservatism too, in that, it identifies flaws inherent in human personality and as a consequence treats the characters, their failures, weaknesses and double standards with affection and empathy. Mad Men also critiques the social mores of the period, but mostly does not find them wanting; rather, it finds wanting the characters, but this too it accepts as their nature. But above all, the show is an adult drama, in that it unreservedly exhorts us to treat children as children, and grown-ups as adults. In the current era of state-mandated infantilisation (in the garb of protection), this message is urgent, necessary and resounding. In other words, “having regulated citizens like errant children, relieving them of the responsibilities of adulthood, we should not be surprised that our governments have become equally immature. We live, after all, in representative democracies.” (Phillips, 2010, p.17)
There is also an element of surrealism about the characters and situations permeating Mad Men. The stylish, slick and smooth animated credits (which appear in the opening of an episode) set the tone for the surrealism that would follow. The free-falling ad executive (modeled on the features of Don Draper) captures the feeling of vertigo that the viewer witnesses. The soundtrack too compliments this effect to the tee. For example,
“While the soundtrack reiterates a keening, descending cadence, a pale gray office dissolves, and its male occupant (vaguely reminiscent of the animated figures in James Bond credits sequences) tumbles past skyscrapers and advertising banners, as if he were plummeting down a rabbit hole…The Alice in Wonderland quality in the Mad Men aesthetic lends richness and mystery to the narrative, with its absorbing melange of professional crises and domestic soap opera. Real history figures into the mix, too, sometimes adding an element of bittersweet irony.” (Wren, 2008, p.17)
Mad Men is also a great visual repository for sociological study. One particular aspect of family life clearly evident from the series is the distinct treatment of adults and children that contrasts sharply with the more liberal /permissive parenting styles of today. For example, today’s children are treated as adults-to-be in that they are expected to show responsibility for their behavior in return for a set of rights granted them. The parent-child relationship of Mad Men is different though, wherein children are shown love and care, but still controlled and expected to show obedience. For example in the episode Marriage of Figaro, when a guest slaps a boy across the face (for spilling a glass while running around the house), the boy’s father moves in to ask ‘What is going on here?’ His interest is not to protect his son, but to find out the nature of his son’s mischief, so that he could punish more. In some ways it reminds us that today’s kids are a pampered lot – the significant rise in youth crime over the recent decades is a testimony to this view.
There are a lot of factors contributing to the success of Mad Men. The fact that it is about a crucial phase in the history of the United States is one such factor. That the series also deals with perennial interpersonal and social relations is another factor, especially its showcasing of the “yawning gap between how we think about our lives and what we actually make of them in practice.” (Phillips, 2010, p.17) While the steamy storylines and the star power of the cast can be forwarded as superficial reasons for its success, there are other enduring reasons which has made it a hit across the world. The stylistic elements and faithful adherence to the details of the Sixties is another merit of the show – “all cinched-waisted dresses, Bakelite radios and Brylcreem; it also looks fantastic. Stylish and glamorous, it is a feast for eyes which have become jaded by the squalor, sloppiness and sheer ugliness of so much of modern life.” (Phillips, 2010, p.17)