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Mad Men: set in the Sixties, all about today

Never mind the history nerds, the hit US show reflects a modern ambivalence towards consumerism.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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Art or artifice? That’s the question on the lips of the chatterati on both sides of the Atlantic as Mad Men returns to our screens for its fourth season, fresh from winning its third consecutive Emmy for best drama last month.

You’ve heard of Mad Men, no doubt. If not from its glowing critical reviews or after it packed out Times Square for the US premier of the fourth season in July, then almost certainly from the endless style features about its immaculate Sixties fashion. Or perhaps the show was brought to your attentions courtesy of Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone when she celebrated curvy Christina Hendricks (who plays sassy secretary Joan Harris in the series) as a new female role model.

It’s the show – to use the language of advertising, which is the series’ lingua franca – that everyone’s talking about. Well, everyone in a certain middle-class milieu: the first episode of its third series back in January attracted 350,000 viewers, which is big for BBC4, but hardly in X-Factor territory. Even despite that Times Square party, the season four premier got 2.9million US viewers – which is astronomical for the small cable network AMC, but considering that’s less than half the number of people who watched the finale of Last of the Summer Wine in the UK, it adds a bit of perspective.

Of course, viewing figures in the age of internet downloads, TV-on-demand and DVD box-sets are deeply misleading, and have always served as a dubious measure of quality anyway. So let’s not be churlish: Mad Men is seriously good television. Created by Matthew Weiner, formerly a writer and producer of the similarly well-regarded The Sopranos, it focuses on the employees of a fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency in the early Sixties and follows them through the social and political upheavals of that decade. The dialogue is sharp, the acting skilful, the characters richly drawn. Its portrayal of big historical events intruding into people’s lives is done with subtlety and sophistication. In season three, for instance, we witness the impact on these American characters of the shooting of John F Kennedy.

Yet there is no denying that it’s the style which has grabbed the headlines. Whether it’s the immaculate tailoring of Roger Sterling’s three-piece suits or Joan’s iconic pointed brassieres and red beehive, Mad Men’s impact on high-street fashion has probably already outstripped its reach in terms of viewing figures.

More strikingly, the show’s vivid evocation of pre-feminist and less health-conscious social mores – where chain-smoking, hard-drinking male ad execs hold competitions to bed their secretaries – has brought it into a whole new realm of lifestyle porn for the post-Sixties generation. The show’s music may be a combination of RJD2’s ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and a reliably classy selection of long-forgotten Americana, but its real soundtrack consists of the gasps and moans of a thousand gentle middle-class souls being confronted with pregnant women drinking and smoking, whilst their husbands wash down blood pressure tablets with Scotch and company-account call girls. In one scene in the second series, the show’s lead character, Don Draper, went for a picnic with his family and simply dumped their rubbish and drove away, not even pausing to agonise over whether his hamper was Fairtrade or his plastics recyclable.

This vague whiff of smug condescension towards the social outrages of a previous generation has indeed provoked the ire of some critics – causing the Now We Know Better effect, as one reviewer had it. Critics have fretted over the prospect that some – who still don’t know better – may be watching the show out of furtive nostalgia for the Bad Old Days and might feel justified in taking up those bad habits again.

Yet, curiously this is not the most controversial aspect of the show. Instead, it is the question of authenticity. It looks good, goes the complaint, but does it have a soul? As real-life ad man George Lois thundered in August’s Playboy, is it ‘nothing more than a soap opera set in a glamorous office where stylish fools hump their appreciative, coiffed secretaries, suck up martinis and smoke themselves to death as they produce lifeless advertising?’ Is the show about the height of mass advertising – gasp – simply tricking us into thinking it’s a classy drama, when it fact it just wants to sell us more stuff?

The show itself rather toys with this very modern anxiety over consumerism. It makes a tremendous virtue of its absolute accuracy in set, costume and props – its ‘property master’ Ellen Freund boasts that an anachronistic gin bottle could get her fired – yet plays fast and loose with actual history. The fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency men claim credit, often anachronistically, for creating adverts for real and still-existing companies. When Draper arrogantly demonstrates his ability to manipulate suburban housewives by tricking his wife to buy an exotic European lager, Heineken happily provided period bottles for the scene. This is a show which purports to satirise the dinosaurs of Madison Avenue, whilst having the gall to sell us stuff while we watch.

Hitting back, leading playwright David Hare countered that such fears are misplaced, arguing that it has ‘the metaphor of authenticity’. I’ve read that sentence left to right and right to left and am still not entirely sure what it means, but I think that Britain’s most lavishly praised typist might be suggesting that a work of fiction can have an element of truth without having to be factually authentic.

Indeed, the rest of Hare’s defence is rock-solid. What really makes Mad Men stand out is not its fashion sense or attempts to satirise the preposterous advertising industry, but how neatly it portrays the division in its characters’ personal (private) and professional (public) lives. In an age where we are constantly urged to hold nothing back and are invited to share every passing thought or minor emotion, what is most shocking about Mad Men is that its characters see no problem with behaving one way in private and another in public.

That’s not to say that its panorama of broken marriages, unwanted pregnancies, repressed desires, self-destruction and political inequality offers a ringing endorsement of the Bad Old Days either. But as the show constantly reminds us, advertising relies on negotiating and exploiting those gaps between how people live and what they desire: their hopes and fears, their appearance and their inner life, their professional and their personal lives.

Mad Men speaks like no other show to contemporary Western middle-class ambivalence towards mass consumerism, material wealth, social freedom and the cult of the individual – and looks good into the bargain. Who cares whether it’s authentic, metaphorically or materially? It’s the most truthful programme on TV today.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture

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