I bet I know what many of you will be doing this Sunday night: tuning into the season 5 premiere of “Mad Men,” AMC’s pop cultural (if not exactly popular) hit about the advertising world of the 1960s. Anticipation for this delayed season has been running high; I know at least one person who has been re-watching the previous season’s episodes to ‘get ready.”
That level of dedication astounds me. I count myself as a “Mad Men” devotee, but personally I couldn’t justify spending another thirteen hours of my life simply studying up on it. But, hey, more power to those who can afford the time.
It’s still not exactly clear to me why this show, whose ratings are modest, exerts such a strong pull on our collective imagination. I tried to unpack some possible reasons for this last year when I wrote that “Mad Men” was really about furniture, and suggested that it taps into the interior decorator fantasies that many of its fans hold. I still think that’s true, but I think the larger point may be that the series is not really a daydream that all of its fans share, but rather it’s a daydream of old media. In this age when the old brands that once ruled American commerce are now diminished, and with so much of the coming century feeling unsettled and uncentered, “Mad Men” is a kind of bedtime story that media tells itself about how powerful it used to be. It’s something like the inflated tales of lost motherlands that immigrants tell their children; we’re in an age now when the landscape of “Mad Men” seems like a grand old folktale of kings and queens. This is what happens when old ways die; we start telling nostalgic fairy tales about what they used to be.