“Mad Men” just won its third Emmy for “outstanding drama.” If there were a gold statue for “best nostalgic portrayal,” the AMC series would have walked off with that one, too. The allure and success of “Mad Men” is its stylish evocation of a lost era that many older Americans miss and younger ones envy.
Here is a New York advertising agency of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time of guiltless smoking and drinking. Spouses cheat and nice single women get pregnant, as they do today. But a more orderly culture makes these falls from grace more interesting.
When the bouncing booty and foul-mouthed muscle-heads of other television shows go astray, who cares? The middle-class world of “Mad Men” has rules for comportment that make sin matter. When a man of character like Don Draper shows his weaknesses, we take note.
The scourge of racism bubbles under the show’s pleasant surface. And the period’s sexism may make moderns wince. But this is a show for grownups fascinated by a mannerly America not yet turned to chaos by the social upheavals to come.
Children in “Mad Men” are neatly dressed and taught etiquette. Girls don’t wear nail polish, bare their navels or display cleavage in high school. The division between child and adult is still a valued concept. Eighth-graders don’t have sex lives, and parents think that being mature is a good thing. The family dinner hour survives even marital breakup.
The series shows older people as complex individuals with interesting lives. This was a joy of watching “The Sopranos” — a very diff erent scene to be sure, but one in which we are made to care about characters who are elderly and not gorgeous. Compare this to today’s juvenile TV fare where older people, if they appear at all, come off as comic curmudgeons or shrill mothers-in-law.
In “Mad Men,” suited gentlemen and ladies in cocktail dresses add an air of festivity to the formal dining establishments in which they enjoy a decidedly adult evening. Grownups don’t arrive in overalls, even expensive ones. There are no strollers.
This sense of occasion has almost vanished in today’s culture. Lost is a notion of diff erence between country and city, night and day, workweek and weekend.
Some younger viewers may scoff at the suits, ties and polished shoes required of the male go-getters. But these ambitious workers of the ‘60s generally left their offices after eight hours and didn’t work at all on weekends. So which is the liberated generation?
American life now blends into one undiff erentiated mass. People do texting at fancy restaurants. They wear suburban knockaround clothes to nightclubs. Standards for neat, not to mention modest, dress are all but buried in suburban downtowns and malls.
Divorce and unwed motherhood happens in “Mad Men,” but middle-class society still regards them as shocking events to be kept as private as possible. Broad disapproval of such breakdowns in the social order remain strong, and so they are relatively rare among “respectable” people.
In 1963, Connecticut’s recently retired Sen. Prescott Bush (George H.W.’s father and George W.’s grandfather) announced that New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was unsuited to be president because of his divorce. What would Bush have thought in 2008, when his party’s choice for vice president paraded her unmarried, pregnant teenage daughter before the nation’s cameras — and the presidential pick shook hands on the tarmac with the girl’s boyfriend, as though he were some national hero?
“Mad Men” is about flawed people facing the usual rough patches but for whom codes of behavior simplify the decisionmaking. It’s also about how rules enable them to have more fun, as well.
©2010 The Providence Journal Co.