Mad Men, the critically acclaimed AMC period drama that aired its finale last Sunday, has been endlessly analyzed since it became a hit with critics. Everyone has offered a theory about why this drama set in an advertising agency in the ‘60s was both compelling and – in the context of quality cable – popular. But it was only rarely noted that the show’s audience skewed rich, educated – and young.
When the show debuted in July of 2007, it almost immediately kicked off a craze for the clothes and style of the early ‘60s, that sleek curtain call of the postwar economic boom. It’s best understood as the lingering dusk of the too-maligned “long ‘50s” that kicked off within a few months of VJ Day and ended, we’re reliably told, somewhere between the JFK assassination and the onset of the British Invasion.
Critics theorized that while Don Draper, Peggy Olson and the rest of the characters imagined by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner lived more socially constrained lives, they could enjoy themselves – and look better doing it – than we can today, when celebrities lobby governments to legislate our diet while obesity, pious culinary trends like the 100-mile diet and a cornucopia of food allergies are lifestyle journalism staples.
The characters’ guilt-free appetites for smoking, drinking and fatty foods was endlessly remarked on – and politicized. “It strikes me,” wrote Anna McCarthy in The Nation, “that the nostalgia that permeates Mad Men is not, in the end, a nostalgia for a past in which it was possible to smoke, drink and consume large amounts of cholesterol without feeling any guilt.”
“Maybe, and perhaps wholly unconsciously, Mad Men signals a desire to return to a time when advertising, and the consumer culture it helped sustain, represented the vitality of Western democracy and the deeper moral meanings of capitalism. The perception that consumption is patriotic is still around, part of the arsenal of ideas used to gain support for the ‘war on terror,’ but it's becoming increasingly hard to stomach, especially as bankruptcy and foreclosure rates rise.”
Maybe. Or perhaps all those young people holding Mad Men parties - sipping cocktails in their vintage gowns and suits from Banana Republic’s Mad Men collection while watching the latest episode – were simply thrilled to try on an era when grown men didn’t dress like inflated toddlers, cost of living was still a concept unique to economists, and not even the most imaginative satirist could dream up an idea like an “unpaid internship.”
It was only a brief fad, though, and after the cocktail shakers and prom dresses got sold on Kijiji avid viewers became absorbed in watching the show’s characters get buffeted by the social monsoon of the ‘60s, as hemlines rose along with the divorce rate. They cheered on Peggy and Joan’s rise through the white collar sausage party that was Madison Avenue and tweeted encouragement when Pete Campbell raged against Harry Crane’s complacency after Martin Luther King was shot.
And why not? In a time when aggressions are “micro,” why wouldn’t young people marvel at the fortitude it took to abide real institutional sexism or the bravery that inspired an actual fight for civil rights? Online petitions, Twitter shaming, ethical shopping and hashtag activism only yield the briefest half-life of self-righteousness, after all.
The appeal of Mad Men is easier to understand, however, when you apply critical rule #1 (“There is no such thing as a period story”) and realize that the saga of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is a compelling fantasy for anyone born after the curtain falls on Don Draper and his colleagues. It’s been pointed out that almost every major character who survives to the final montage ends up better – more personally fulfilled and certainly a lot richer – than they were when the story began.
Roger, Peggy and Pete all find or recover love and family; Joan realizes her calling while Don, after bottoming out, finally makes an emotional connection with another human being and has the idea – Coca-Cola’s “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” ad – that redeems him. Don’s ex-wife Betty might be dying of cancer but she’s leaving the world in control of her destiny and her family for the first time ever, shepherding their daughter Sally into adulthood as she exits life.
The decade-long story arc of Mad Men is one where, ultimately, hard work is rewarded, love is reciprocated, inspiration is found and bad fathers admit their mistakes. The new age of cable TV drama has been described as one where bleakness and moral ambiguity rule, but the Mad Men finale ended up veering wildly away from that, and instead of littering the stage with bodies or cutting to black in the middle of a thought, it let its fans see the characters they’ve followed for eight years experience redemption, accomplishment and even riches.
For anyone between 21 and 40 – that is, born between the year Sally Draper would have graduated college and when Peggy Olson reaches retirement age – these are truly goals worth achieving, whether you’re looking for your first real job, getting married, having children or walking the first few miles across the plateau of middle age.
After eight years, Matthew Weiner rewarded his audience with a future worth wanting set to a tune the oldest of them might recall, vaguely, from their childhoods – a treacly but maddeningly catchy song that imagined a better world even while the headlines promised war, instability, social turmoil and economic downturns. And as the credits rolled they could wonder that there was a time when people could believe such a thing, even when it seemed impossible.
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