What Would Mad Men Be?

The millions of Mad Men viewers see the world of Sterling Cooper through the lens of the historical horizon of the 1960s, however, the article WhatMakes Mad Men Great by Matt Zoller Seitz is based on the premise that the show “Mad Men” is not a historically based drama.  While many may see Mad Men as a period drama, Seitz argues that the show is a sociological study of the characters not a societal study or about how the advertising industry, and the people who drove it, interacted with that era’s forces of change on either a macro or micro level. Although set during one of the greatest periods of political and social upheaval our country has known, Mad Men, he asserts, is not concerned with these events, but merely augment the show’s emphasis on the characters.  Many recent, successful television dramas have been set in historical juxtaposition to significant historical eras like Mad Men such as Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire, and The Playboy Club, but they all stand in direct contrast to Mad Men because they let their temporal history mold the narrative and the characters so that the plot is forced to navigate around the issues of the age.

Mad Men’s “main draw is behavior, observed with such exactness that one can imagine the show’s being transposed to the forties or eighties, with different clothes, slang, and inebriants, while still delivering the same basic satisfactions” [Seitz].  The show, Seitz maintains, is about the “mystery of personality” and characters that are “random, inscrutable, and mysterious,” who do things the viewers will never fully understand, much like people in our own lives.  In the show, as in reality, Seitz seems to believe, life moves on, people act, history continues, and another work day of accomplishing seemingly nothing begins.  Mad Men, to him, is about “human behavior observed in the moment. It doesn’t explain. It observes. It’s not about the period, it’s about the question mark.” (Seitz)

Mad Men of the 1980s 

The theme of the Seitz article applies modestly to Mad Men, the show does not allow popular history to overwhelm its story. However, Mad Men in any other time period than the 1960s, would simply not be Mad Men. There is no other American era that changed so comprehensively so quickly. Instead of internalizing Mad Men’s universal psychological themes such as the character’s basis for self-worth and satisfaction, viewers simply see this other world of the 1960s, unwilling to internalize the idea that the characters, and our own, existential problems do not disappear. The culture of change that permeated life in the 1960s and forms the background of the drama is what makes the show work in a way no other time period could. 

  Image credit: http://blogs.amctv.com/mad_men_season_2_publicity_photos/main_cast.jpg

Image credit: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01485/Cast_1485693c.jpg

It is preposterous to assume that Mad Men, taken out of context, would be intrinsically the same because the show is just about the characters, as Seitz argues. In Mad Men, our first impression is the world of the 1960s, and how strikingly different it seems from our own more modern society, and it is the time period visuals themselves that allow viewers to be transported into that uniquely different era. We see on the surface the Neanderthal sexual politics, primitive advertising, people smoking in the workplace that dominate the workplace and the cult of the perfect homemaker and the dominance of cold war politics that are vestiges of the past at which we laugh, because we are told, repeatedly, or for some they’ve experienced, that society has come so much further than that. It is this perfect storm of social and political change that, together with its seemingly authentic characters, gives Mad Men it’s unique position of hindsight that makes the show so great Mad Men’s status as a costume drama set in the 1960s is what makes the show special, special enough to have a class about it.

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