Americans are Mad for the 1960s

Every day for four years, Hollywood writer Matthew Weiner carried with him the script for a new show, hoping for an opportunity that would propel his vision of 1960s Madison Avenue ad executives and their world onto the little screen. He called the show “Mad Men.”

AMC eventually gave him a chance, and his period piece about the hard-living and lechering mad men (and a few women) is now taking America by storm. Even if you’ve never seen an episode, it’s unlikely you’ve escaped the influence of those clever ad executives, both past and present.

Purchase furniture or clothing or movie tickets, and you may notice that the new couches at Pottery Barn are sleek mid-century modern, Banana Republic’s racks are thick with shirt dresses and leopard prints, and the posters for Tom Cruise’s latest flop, Knight and Day, feature graphic art in Mad Men’s trademark red, white, and black.

If it seems like everything new is starting to look 50 years old, that might actually be the case. Popular décor website Apartment Therapy features how-to thrifting guides so that shoppers can identify authentic 1960s furniture and accessories in second-hand stores (that we’re in a recession doesn’t hurt). The Boston Globe recently reported on a trend for “Mad Men Parties,” advising readers how to mix their own Old Fashioneds and Vodka Gimlets, since “alcohol is one of the most important aspects of the show.”

Drinking has never ceased to be popular, but it’s now chic as well. The number of bottles “Mad Men” characters keep in their homes and offices make a liquor store look under stocked. Everyone drinks, all the time; even the kids are being brought up right. In season two, the show’s star Don Draper teaches his little tyke Sally how to mix drinks (with some mild scolding over the results). It’s pertinent training for her future role as the perfect housewife.

“Mad Men” is hardly “Ozzie and Harriet.” For all its popularity, each hour is a parade of ideas and prejudices that, far from being accepted today, are widely abhorred. Not least among these is the relentless smoking by every character north of elementary school. Conversations are punctuated by the glowing embers of newly lit cancer sticks, and the entire show takes place in the atmospheric condition of low visibility. If the power ever went out on-set, “Mad Men” could still be filmed by the light of Lucky Strikes.

While six-martini lunches might be an office drone’s dream, smoking these days is almost as heinous as the “isms”—racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism—all of which abound in “Mad Men.” Matthew Weiner’s famous attention to period detail extends to the popular attitudes of the day, and he portrays them with painful, unflinching clarity. When the ad firm gets a call from a Jewish department store looking for bigger sales, the bad mouth of the ad boys, Roger Sterling, wonders why they don’t get their “own people” to run a campaign.

The fate of the show’s women is typified in Peggy Olson, an aspiring career girl who contends with glass ceilings low enough to scalp a less determined woman, and whose figure is more talked about around the water cooler than her work. African Americans spend much of their time on screen running elevators or kitchen faucets; in the first episode of season one, Don Draper starts a conversation with a black waiter, only to be approached by a white server who apologies that Don is being bothered.

So it’s reasonable to wonder why a show that reminds Americans of what we hate about our past is so popular. In some ways, it’s an expression of self-satisfaction from the men and women who lived through that era and changed its legacy. The more oppressive the 60s were, the more revolutionary and brave today’s baby boomers appear to become. For younger generations, the show is a form of cultural catharsis, and a comforting sign of progress. We can “remember when” from the security of our arm chairs, while our own little Sally, a future aeronautical engineer, is off learning Spanish with Dora the Explorer in her paraben-free room.

The 1960s are a period of powerful nostalgia for viewers dreaming of the glamour of Jackie and JFK, when the adult world was full of sophistication and charm, not lived out among sweat suits, fiber cereal, and mini vans. But beneath its alluring veneer, it was also a time of lost opportunities for many Americans, great cultural turmoil, and real peril, from the nuclear threat to the unrealized dangers of smoking.

Viewers tune in to “Mad Men” week after week because they want to enjoy the sophistication and excitement of this old world from the safety of the new. Fortunately, that’s the glamour of television: all of the pleasure, and none of the pain.