One of my favorite TV shows of the last few years, Mad Men, depicts “The Golden Age” of America through the lens of an advertising agency in New York during the early 60’s. Everytime I watch it, I seriously start craving a cigarette and a glass of whiskey. Though on the exterior, the idea of making a show about the Rat Race in an office doesn’t sound very original- or even interesting- stick with it.
Besides some badass vintage fashions, what makes Mad Men so interesting, at least to me, is the exploration of the underground, bohemian counterculture worlds that were percolating just beneath the surface during this time period in America. The Hippie era of the late Sixties has been covered ad nauseam by Hollywood and TV, but 1960-1965 has always been pretty unexplored material.
Most the characters in the show are living these rather prosaic lives, commuting to work everyday in their grey flannel suits. Outside of the office though, in the underbelly of Manhattan, all sorts of vices, double-lives and secrets are played out. When you peel back the rather banal veneer of conservative white-collar America, there were of course beatniks, gays, artist communes, reefer, infidelity, alcoholism, prostitution, junkies, draft-dodging, abortion, racism, sexism etc.etc.
The Past was never “The Good Old Days”, even though this time period is highly romanticized as a great time in the US. It might of been great if you were an upper-class white male, but that was about it, and most those guys in the show seem like just a bunch of miserable alcoholics anyway. Most of the characters enter many of these subterranean worlds and enable the social problems that existed during this time (and still exist today in many ways), but of course none of them would ever admit it.
The main character, Don Draper, is a seemingly bizarre series of contradictions: raised a poor farm boy, and then grew up in a brothel. He plays the part of the gray-suit wearing corporate square, replete with the blonde model wife and a big house in suburbs. But he seems perpetually uncomfortable with this seemingly “perfect life”, and is always sneaking out of his straightjacket to see his drug-addicted painter girlfriend in Greenwich Village, drink himself stupid, impersonate false identities or attend a New Age retreat in Big Sur. Even though at work he can be a cruel, stressed-out taskmaster, he seems to have a softer sympathy for his closeted gay co-worker, Sal, or pregnant out-of-wedlock, Peggy, who gives away her child for adoption.
Also, if you’re a fan Mid-Century design and fashions, Mad Men will be completely up your alley replete with sleek sharkskin suits and skinny ties for the men and Grace Kelly looks for the ladies. Personally, I collect vintage suits and ties, so I freak out over this kinda shit.
Hilariously, someone actually went to all the trouble to document every single drink drunk in Mad Men (at least in the first few seasons) and then made a YouTube video about it. Holy Crap, my liver hurts just watching this…
Ironically enough, my Grandfather (who I never met) actually was an advertising executive in the 50s and 60s. His name was even “Don” believe it or not, and he left my Grandma for his secretary, smoked two packs a day, and dropped dead of a heart attack at age 59. Yes, a true Mad Man… My mom says she can’t even watch the show, “God, it just reminds me of my parents!”
Somehow in those days, I think it was probably much more exciting to be a bohemian on the fringes of society, or just simply “bad” on your nights off. Doing anything secretive is always more fun anyway.