What Is The Secret To The Success Of The Mad Men TV Show?

By Mickey Jhonny

As a rule, popular culture can be described as a kind common dream that says something about times in which we live. It resonate in the minds of many of us simultaneously. To borrow a lofty German term, it captures the zeitgeist - the spirit of the time. This is always true of popular culture, especially when it reaches the status of genuine fad. In the parlance of the time, when it goes viral.

For all that, the particulars are missing in this explanation. How in fact do we explain the specific popularity of a TV set a half century earlier than the zeitgeist that it captures, as in the case of the Mad Men TV show? This is another matter.

Well, I don't claim to have the credentials of social psychologist or modern anthropologist -- that one might claim necessary to provide a definitive explanation. I will share a few thughts with you, though.

Strangely, some people suggest that Mad Men captures a simpler time. Fooled me. That's not what I see each episode on my TV. We're not talking about Leave It to Beaver or Ozzie and Harriet, here. What we see on Mad Men is a 1950s and even early 1960s often unacknowledged by our contemporary mass media: it's rife with adultery, narcotics and loneliness. Also, it doesn't gloss over the uglier parts of the era: tragic political assassinations, the difficulties in race relations, sexual discrimination nor the mounting fiasco of U.S. intervention in Vietnam. If anything, perhaps one of the show's charms is precisely its far more realistic presentation of the period.

If it's just period accuracy you want, though, you can stop your dial at PBS. There is a whole other dynamic at work in the recipe for success of the Mad Men TV show. The production qualities can be itemized: yes, the writing is enthralling, full of profound character development and depicts real life adult conflict; the acting is superb; and the show is a constant delight visually, with meticulously accurate art work in settings and costumes and the luscious cinematography. That is of course perfectly true. There remains though something further, not accounted for in such descriptions.

That something I've called I've called elsewhere the old school cool of Mad Men. The charm of lives lived with intention and absent cloying navel gazing. It subtle. Initially it can slip in under the radar. But it's there; the most compelling tidbit of authenticity in Mad Men's notorious inventory of 60s accuracy is the depiction of an era before the swamping of our society in the grim therapeutic ethos.

However great may be their daily challenges, the characters of Mad Men are not found whining over the unfairness of life; they don't wallow in self pity that father show them affection or that mother was bitter and cruel (though that may have been precisely so in some cases). They confront the obstacles of life unfettered by the present-day obsessions with communicating, expressiveness, finding ourselves and hand-wringing over one's emotional IQ. Mad Men offers us a window upon that last time in American life when our sense of self had not been corrupted by professional navel gazers: before the feelings tyrants, thought police and relationship regulators captured the culture.

Yes, it's true that the therapeutization of the culture by these self anointed "experts" had already begun at this time. This fact is hinted at in the story line of Betty's breakdown. The insinuating psychologists, the prying school counselors, the know-it-all therapists, talk show mental health hucksters and big brother for-your-own-good social planners, even at this time, were rearing their ugly heads. Mad Men preserves for us a time before these insidious PC do-gooders had yet pulled off their hijacking of our society. They hadn't yetreduced it to the current state of therapeutic culture and rampant, claustrophobic paternalism.

It was a time before men were feminized, women were androgynized and children were pathologized. No one would say their life was perfect, that's not the point. The problems they did have, though, they dealt with on their own terms, free from the peeping toms and patronizing nannies poking noses into their lives. They didn't make their choices constantly inundated with judgments and accusations about the legitimacy of their feelings, ridiculing their choices and regulating their hopes and desires.

The Don Drapers and Peggy Olsons of their world were the last of a unique generation, freed of having theirs emotions, feelings and actions relentlessly monitored, judged and administered by the therapeutic class. They were free in a way strangely foreign to us. And I suspect that that's part of our fascinated with their world. So close to ours, but oh so far away. That is what we're talking about, in the end, when talking about Mad Men's secret success: old school cool.

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