The Mad Men Fairytale

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.

  1. “It’s something like the inflated tales of lost motherlands that immigrants tell their children…”

    YES! I’ve never thought of it that way but those words ring so true.

    Nice one.

  2. Respectfully, only a New Yorker would think this show was about furniture or old media. It’s not a fairytale at all; it’s a myth. A myth about America. It’s not a coincidence it is set at an advertising agency—not because it’s about old media, but because it is about selling. Selling a story of ourselves overtop the reality that is ourselves. This is why there’s Don/Dick for instance. (Coincidence the real Don is a Dick?)

    Like all historical fiction or science fiction, it’s really a commentary on How We Live Now. In many respects, we still live in Don’s World, it’s just been covered up by another story. It shows us truths that would be hard to swallow if it was set in the present. It’s a myth.

  3. Maybe I’ve misunderstood but this is the most bizarre interpretation of the show I’ve seen. For one thing, I’d question that anybody is nostalgic for the world of ‘Mad Men’, which is about the disconnect between the apprearance of these characters’ lives and the wretched way they actually live. Who’d want to be like that?

    Surely the program exerts a pull because it is meticulously written, acted, directed and filmed, and because the slow burn of its narrative is utterly unlike anything else on TV? ‘Mad Men’ benefits from another viewing because significant details are only apparent in the light of later events. It really is a different show second time around.

    To view it through the prism of design fetishism or nostalgia for old media (which is critiqued in ‘Mad Men’) seems a trifle lopsided.

  4. I’ve now re-read your earlier post, which was mostly spot on, but still find the furniture and old media remarks hard to reconcile.

  5. Recently I was listening to an interview of Kim Ki Duk about his movie the Bow. He explained that the Korean tradition evoked in his movie bring warmth to the audience. I think it is the same in Mad Men, it shows us the bounds that link us to the past. The American myth or tradition has been told with times like the westerns. Mad men shows that the 60s is really an important time of the American tradition / myth (I think Coppopla tried to do the same with Boardwalk Empire). I do not agree that everything has changed today, takes for example : aesthetic ;-), spirit of entrepreneurship, women emancipation, artists in the society…
    Otherwise the low pace of the first seasons was really refreshing, it may have awaken some spectators to an other form of cinema, more artistic and contemplative.

  6. I agree with others here that much of Mad Men’s appeal comes from its high-caliber acting, writing, directing, cinematography, and art direction. I don’t have to relate to a subject or topic to enjoy a well-made show about it. Examples of this include “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad” and “Walking Dead,” 3 recent favorites that showcase spies, meth dealers and zombies, respectively, none of which I’ve ever been or known. Well, I may have known a meth dealer or spy and didn’t know it.

    But I do relate to “Mad Men,” having been in the same (or similar) industry as Don & Co. for almost 20 years. From time to time they fulfill fantasies of telling off clients, and who wouldn’t want co-workers as fabulous and fun as Joan and Peggy? But my all-time favorite moment is in the final episode of Season 1 when Don pitches a wheel-shaped slide projector to a client, showing how it tells the story of our lives in a cyclical fashion… a “carousel.” It was the most inspired and romantic I’d ever felt about advertising, even though I’m sure it was all utter bullshit. 🙂

  7. Mad Men’s success can be attributed to all kinds of things, including being a good, well-made show and everything that entails. On the whole I think Dan’s right – fiction largely allows us to identify with personalities like ourselves or people we know, but in a different setting and under different circumstances. It’s kind of like time traveling. In that regard, Mad Men is no different.

    However there are real history lessons which go into Mad Men that people involved in media (advertising in particular) eat right up, and I think this is what Khoi’s talking about. I haven’t watched a lot of the show, but I know in the first season they featured (glorified, even) the classic Bill Bernbach Volkswagen ads which changed the face of advertising. Whereas there’s not a lot of information for “Real Walter White”, looking up “Real Don Draper” or “Real Mad Men” nets a wealth of information about parallels drawn between the show and the real ad heroes of the 1960s.

  8. This week, Newsweek does a retro issue and their ads have gone retro too


    We omitted to talked about the drinking and smoking in the show, which was refreshing too, in the sense we can see on TV what is taboo now 😉

  9. I disagree pretty strongly with your assessment of the show’s appeal. Yes, it’s certainly stylish. The art direction is fantastic. But the thing that I think really brings out the devotion of its fans is the giant gaps in the narrative that are left for its viewers to fill in on their own.

    In some ways it captures the imagination in a similar way to the original Star Wars trilogy. There was almost as much explicated as left completely up to the viewer to create meaning or narratives for (no context for the relationships between dozens of unnammed alien species; oblique references to a “Kessel run”; a big gap in time and action between Empire & Jedi—all this stuff was left to the viewer to wonder about).

    For me, the show’s draw—besides the generally well written soap opera and the art direction—I mean what puts it over the top is the curiosity of what the hell is going on inside these character’s heads. It’s the wonderment around the can’t-look-away horror of people making terrible life decisions and then how they cope.

    Also the shocking misogyny holds my attention.

  10. i enjoyed previous seasons of mad men primarily for the sound design. these are beautiful to listen to. mostly that’s what i did – it was on in the background and i was doing something else, listening.

  11. For me, the draw is the cinematography. The show is just beautiful in a delightfully tacky 50’s – 60’s way. It also gives a peek into what the workplace of our parents might have been like.

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