The AMC series Mad Men, an hour-long drama about the lives and loves of Madison Avenue advertising executives in the early 1960s, may still want for a larger audience, but as its awards stack up, and many deem it the best show on television, it's not wanting for critical reception.
In a way, it's surprising that the show has marshaled such enthusiasm, since, on its surface, it seems to retread two of the most cliché themes of modern narrative: the repression and bigotry of 1950s America and the times-they-are-a-changing mood of the 1960s. The show has found a way to portray the 1960s without falling into the trap of revisiting, and refighting, the same culture wars. But what Mad Men really gets about the 1960s is a story that isn't told as much: how much the era was about collapsing the boundaries of pop culture and lived experience, how the illusions we built up quit being fantasies and became indistinguishable from reality.
Mad Men actively runs against the stale narratives that posit the 1960s as driven by young hippies going against their parents' staid lifestyles after being disillusioned by the Vietnam War and the battles over civil rights. Instead, the show tells a story of how the changes of the 1960s emerged gradually from various historical shifts. Progress wasn't solely affected by the demands of Ivy League educated youth and a few civil-rights leaders. The rebellion of the 1960s was only made possible because of economic changes and other cultural developments that happened in the early -- and less romanticized -- part of the decade.
In offering a subtle counter narrative to the stories we all know so well about the tumultuous era, Mad Men manages to make the familiar terrain feel fresh again. Part of it is just the unique choices of what to show -- lesser writers would make the characters sympathetic by having them support Kennedy and then mourn his death, but on Mad Men, they vote for Nixon and weep for Marilyn Monroe. Legend has it that the 1950s morphed into the 1960s when the Beatles hit American shores. But on Mad Men, we're reminded that Bob Dylan was already attracting interest with a sound that would define the era well before the British invasion and the rise of psychedelica, and that the beatniks had already defined a counterculture based around drugs and artistic innovation. The most annoying cliché of politically minded '60s-era films and shows -- the noble white person who heroically stands up against racism -- is brutally sent up: A self-important white man registers voters to gain street cred and is then summarily dumped by his black girlfriend, for whom this is not a game.
The show's ability to create historical context is particularly vivid when it comes to the feminist themes. True, Mad Men addresses the issue of the feminine mystique through the character of Betty, the bored and frustrated housewife of lead ad man Don Draper. But Mad Men also shows the other side of the story, how second-wave feminism was made possible only because apolitical working women paved the way out of economic necessity. The character of Peggy Olson, a secretary at the advertising agency Sterling Cooper who moves into copywriting, doesn't go to work because she's an overeducated housewife looking to relieve boredom. She is a working-class Catholic girl from Brooklyn who needs the money and then finds herself addicted to ambition. Peggy's story, and that of all working-class women who held jobs because they had to, is as essential to the history of women's liberation as The Feminine Mystique or protests against the Miss America contest.
In his 1998 book The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank painstakingly dismantled the myth of the 1960s youth rebellion, pointing out that as much as people would like to believe in a simple dichotomy that pits mainstream against counterculture, the reality is that the counterculture fed into and was in turn created by the mainstream culture of advertising. Youth culture was co-opted -- and even invented -- by older ad executives in order to sell products. And as Mad Men begins its third season, its producers have a real opportunity to portray this other side of the 1960s, where the counterculture was as much a Madison Avenue creation as a grass-roots phenomenon.
Season two dropped huge hints that the show will indeed continue in this direction. Sterling Cooper has hired two youthful ad executives, who have joined up with lone female copywriter Peggy. The three are supposed to speak to this new youth demographic in the language they understand, the language of cool. Peggy and the young executives pride themselves on being plugged into what's hip even as they're ensconced in Madison Avenue high rises. They go to Dylan concerts, get hip haircuts, and one of the young men is openly homosexual. But they're there not for political reasons but because they're infatuated with the idea of cool, and their infatuation works its way into their ad copy.
In the most tantalizing scene alluding to this theme, the young copywriters pitch a campaign for Martinson coffee that involves calypso music, breaking from the heavy-handed pitches of the past. The campaign confuses the coffee executives, who don't understand that an ad can merely evoke a sense of "cool" rather than make a hard sell. One of the copywriters announces to the Martinson executives that the younger generation "doesn't want to be told what to do" and that they just want to "feel." For a brief moment, we begin to see how Madison Avenue sucked up the minor rumblings of a youth culture, refined them, and fed them back to the public -- creating as much as co-opting the counterculture.
Comments from lead actor Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper, also suggest that Mad Men will continue to explore the Madison Avenue co-option of youth culture this season. "What I think happened in the '60s is I think irony happened. And the idea of selling non-earnestly became cool," he told reporters at a press tour party. "And obviously that's not a mistake that that's when the baby boomers started getting 18."
From the beginning, "cool" was about selling products as much as politics, about pushing capitalism far more than resisting it. But in order to be effective, the mainstream selling of the youth culture had to feel rebellious, or it wouldn't be as effective a tool. By the end of last season, it was well established that Sterling Cooper must master the lingua franca of youth if it wants to stay competitive as an ad agency.
On Mad Men, the ad executives believe that they possess the power of illusion. In the series pilot, Don woos a client and potential lover by replying, when she states that she believes in love, "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." Let's hope Mad Men continues its brave path and goes into season three exploring the possibility that the '60s youth culture was also created by ad executives looking to sell coffee and miniskirts.