I share an obsession with many people and this obsession is Mad Men. This is also an obsession that causes withdrawal for 168 hours a week and, all forces forbid, an entire summer (we already waited a year between!). This obsession does not stay at the doorsteps of viewing. In fact, this obsession needs to be talked about in order for it not to overflow into mania (it’s already being talked about everywhere so why not more more more). Here begins such an attempt to stave off the itch—the absence of eternal new episodes—and thus to talk about that which we cannot always be within.
Since its conception Mad Men has altered the landscape of television with very acute pizzazz; first, and I believe foremost, it has the ability to make its viewers not only want to partake but actually partake in the actions the characters do and to do so while viewing—I don’t mean in all facets, just some more than others (I doubt anyone is boxing one another with the foolhardy awkwardness Lane and Pete so recently did. . .). There are a multitude of reasons Mad Men succeeds at causing/encouraging/conjuring this communal existence between viewer and character but there’s not enough space to get into that here. Instead, what I want to point out is the immediacy, that even my non-drinking and non-smoking friends comment on how much they’d like a small glass of bourbon and a cigarette during every episode, and for drinkers and smokers it seems impossible not to clink a few cubes and strike a sharp match while Don Draper crops his impatient brow mid-meeting, or when Joan Harris patiently withholds her rage at a dinner table with an unlit cigarette in mouth. Side note: might this all be Pavlovian?
Perhaps it’s the swank of the office—matched by a sort of indolent bravado the partners smug and slug from—that invites this communal partaking, yet whatever it is it has a profound impact and one I’ve rarely seen a television show accomplish; perhaps I don’t watch enough to be affected elsewhere but I can honestly say that my favorite dramatic shows of the past (Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks, Wonder Years, Six Feet Under. . ) don’t even come close to Mad Men in making me want to be with them; of course, and to clarify, this could all just be topical milieu—certainly I’ve wanted a bite of the pie that Dale Cooper eats in Twin Peaks, followed by black coffee—but it also deals with wanting the objects in the setting, not just the components of desire and nostalgia and attainment the subjects themselves live and often writhe within. When I think of Wonder Years I remember the pang of not being able to have what Kevin Arnold often didn’t have (the love of Winnie Cooper and Becky Slater, etc.) but this is different than the immediate desire to be in the room with and thus holding the same things as the characters in Mad Men. It’d be easy to cross this feeling off as the desire for a drink in hand while watching a heated drama, but I know there’s more to it than that and this is what’s exciting, that the compulsion is consistent and contagious and perhaps a bit indefinable, like the 60’s themselves.
The second alteration Mad Men has made comes in how the “affected times” underscore the dramatic complexions of each characters existence, in a quiet but profound manner. These were the times that were “a-changin’” and the cultural and societal backdrop for the show is heightened by what we know from history as both an intimately progressive and devastating decade: Bay of Pigs, presidential debates on television, the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK assassination, a surge of beatniks, MLK assassination, Viet Nam, race riots and protests, the list goes on and on and yes, all decades have a measure of progressiveness and devastation, but the 60’s are a stickler decade for returning images to posterity’s front porch. There is also, during this decade, and aside from phenomenal and iconic aspects of rock n’ roll, a sweltering paradox in the culture of advertising, in that many firms and projects aimed at trying to appeal to a populace, to sell to a populace, that was constantly in tune with the news of a world deteriorating in many all-but-advertising-desirous ways—how do you sell alongside images of the horror? The contours of such paradox makes Mad Men keep a rhythm and gruff jaunt whereby the viewers, with knowledge of this time we’re brought back to, want to not only feel a part of it but also capable of grazing it, holding its hand and mixing its drinks and puffing its cigarettes. And this is the backbone of the obsession.
Like any type of attempt at articulation, or with any attempted continuity within rant, I feel compelled to talk about a thousand other things Mad Men presents us with, and perhaps I’ll just have to do so in my own little episodes. . . the epiblogs?...but for now I must leave what instigated the above. If you’re compelled to approach a different aspect of the immediacy I mention above there is a fascinating article recently published over at NPR, which speaks about drinking in the office setting, and how this either assists in or deters from productivity, all in relation to Mad Men, of course.
As I try to wind down from this obsession, while I avoid the itch, I will end with a personal anecdote. A month ago I was walking down 9th avenue, around 42nd street and I saw, a block away, not Jon Hamm and John Slattery but Don Draper and Roger Sterling approaching, bathed in 60’s suits with timeless cigarettes snug in their mouths. In a city where seeing stars is almost a daily thing I was, this time, completely frozen. I turned to my friend and said “it’s them, straight up them!” I realized later that they’d just left the premiere of the first episode of the new season. But it wasn’t about seeing them as the actors it was about seeing them, feeling part of the series, and this is part of what I mean by “partaking in” their territory—you just can’t help it.