Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mad Men: Now and Then and Back Again

by guest contributor FlickChick

Watching Mad Men is a bit like time traveling with one foot dipped in the past and one firmly planted in the present. Viewing the actions of the "then", we can't help but measure them against the "now." The fact that things were like that in the past usually means things are not like that in the present. We judge if those things are better or worse now as the story of the Sterling Cooper (Draper Pryce) gang unfolds.

Mad Men is famous for Matthew Weiner’s meticulous attention to detail. For those who did not live through the Mad Men times, the authenticity is akin to watching a well-researched Victorian drama. Yes, we know they dressed like that and spoke like that because we have seen the pictures and read the books. For those of us who actually lived through those times (though I was a mere child, I assure you), the details are like little jolts of electrodes to the brain.

Mad Men is a great "water cooler" show. While workers might not literally congregate around that proverbial watering hole for discussions any more (like they do at Sterling Cooper), one aspect of the morning-after dish on the show is always an "I had one of those!" or "my mother had one just like that!" Somebody we knew wore that dress, had that drinking glass or drove that car. Somewhere in the back of our mind we remember seeing that hat, those keys, that hairdo.

Do you remember:

Silver-rimmed roly poly high-ball glasses?

Mad Men uses authentic Dorothy Thorpe (a popular 60s glass maker) tumblers when the gang throws back a quart or two.

Remote Controls that looked like they were in control?

The Zenith Space Commander 400 at the Draper household was the first remote control for the home.


The steno pool gals at the firm proudly use their IBM golf ball typewriters. All typewriters used on the show are operational and all have identical covers.

One of my favorite little Mad Men vignettes shows the Draper family on an idyllic family picnic. Betty’s crinolines cover a blanket spread over a meadow-like space of grass. The children are there and so is Don. It is all so wholesome, so idyllic and all so American. When they are done, Ma and Pa Draper pack their picnic basket and the kids into the family station wagon and head home, their trash left behind to litter the beautiful landscape. And that’s really how it was until the word “litter bug” (no doubt dreamt up by a real life Mad Man) entered our consciousness. Before it became socially unacceptable to litter, respectable people scattered their garbage to the 4 winds thinking, perhaps, that elves or convicts came and cleaned it up.

The episode that featured the dipping or dunking bird also brought back great memories. How fascinated we all were by this little novelty item that ever so gingerly stuck its beak in a cup of water and mimicked a drinking bird. How did it do that? Seeing the employees of Sterling Cooper so intrigued by this silly toy tugged at a thread of memory that is attached to the heart.

And what a wow stroke of now and then to cast Robert Morse as the elder statesman of the firm. When first we – of a certain age – saw Mr. Morse, he was one of those eager young Madison Avenue men – namely J. Pierpont Finch of 1961’s Broadways Production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Climbing the ladder of success at the World Wide Wicket Company is not unlike getting ahead at Sterling Cooper. Then, in fact, is so “now,” that a revival of the show is currently running on Broadway (Nick Jonas as J. Pierpont Finch) and has been going strong since March 2011.

It’s fun to see your mother’s plaid kitchen wallpaper and your father’s car. It’s fun to remember favorite TV shows and the shared behavior of a safer time. And so we watch Don, Betty, Peggy, Roger, and the entire gang knowing full well that, as their story unfolds, they will never, ever feel that safe again. Unlike them, we know what happens. Peggy’s struggle as the lone creative woman of the firm is one that makes many women today bristle. But Peggy doesn’t bristle, she just plows forward, because she only has an unknown future to draw upon. She does not drive looking through a rearview mirror. To look back is to see Joan and all of the other Best of Everything girls who either marry the boss or just sleep with him.

Those who didn't live through those times may long for its glamour. Those who did probably have mixed feelings. From the vantage point of our living room, Mad Men disturbs and delights and never fails to cause us to measure our present against our past.


Guest contributor FlickChick has a Facebook page of the same name and her popular blog is A Person in the Dark.


Click here for more on Mad Men...from around the blogosphere.


  1. Thanks FlickChick for a fascinating journey into the past as it is so painstakingly depicted in “Mad Men.” For those of us who were alive then, the show is a veritable “Magical Mystery Tour” into days gone by. It does, indeed, both “disturb and delight” us as we ponder where we’ve been and where we are.

    The scene you reference in which the Drapers go on a picnic and simply leave their trash behind on the grass brought back a childhood memory. My family would sometimes travel from San Diego, where we lived, to Los Angeles via the Pacific Coast Hwy. I’ll never forget a stretch of beach we would pass near Huntington Beach that seemed completely covered in litter (so much so that it was nicknamed “Tin Can Beach”). Miles of litter – a real eyesore any way you look at it, but especially after traveling through all the quaint sandy-beached towns like Encinitas, Corona Del Mar, Laguna Beach, etc. Eventually the state took that beach over and it was completely cleaned up. This must have been around the time the “Keep California Green and Golden” campaign was launched.

    Thanks again for being part of this event and for a thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining look at "Mad Men."

  2. Nice job, FlickChick. I agree, the casting of Robert Morse is something that works on many levels. Nostalgia, like sex, sells – and there is plenty of both in “Mad Men”. One of the many memorable images from the series for me is voluptuous redhead Joan Holloway playing an accordion: it conjures up my childhood in a very particular, almost surreal, way (flashes of Marilyn Monroe meets Lawrence Welk). Women tend to not look like that anymore and who, within any major urban area, plays an accordion these days? It was a cool image because it was very "old school" (the Welk, anachronistic part) but also the Marilyn-like part brought to mind (at least to my mind) the coming sexual revolution, which Monroe somewhat foreshadowed. I don’t know what percentage of the show’s viewers are Baby Boomers (like me) but I would think it must be reasonably high. Of course, you can be in your twenties and find much to enjoy in the twisting plots and numerous, fascinating characters, but I can’t help but think that if you lived through the period, even as a child, it carries a deeper resonance. This is nostalgia as cultural history.

  3. Marsha ~ your journey time traveling through the very recognizable elements of mid-century design made me smile. I don’t recall these items from my youth or childhood, but the period detail in every episode of “Mad Men” is one of the reasons the show has captured my imagination. It is curious how many of these items have taken on iconic status and can be found online or in vintage shops. I have a few mid-century items in my personal collection, and just the other day, on a visit to purchase the ingredients for a Negroni (while having a “Roman Spring Of Mrs. Stone” moment); I saw one of those dippy birds.

    Robert Morse is one of the best “then and now” connections in the show: his ambition, enthusiasm, idealism and youthful persona from the sixties is a reminder, to those of us who have seen his films, of the same qualities that highlight a decade lived against an increasingly darker backdrop (your rear view mirror analogy was appropriately inspired). Thanks for the reminder of why we have become fascinated with an era depicted in a fascinating television show.

  4. FlickChick: While I don't watch Mad Men, your post gave me some context about its time period. I was not a mere child during the 60s--I was an egg waiting to be fertilized in the 70s--but I do remember seeing some of the items you discussed in my grandmother's home. I especially enjoyed this line: "Before it became socially unacceptable to litter, respectable people scattered their garbage to the 4 winds thinking, perhaps, that elves or convicts came and cleaned it up." Good work!

  5. FlickChick - thanks for the excellent review of what makes Mad Men so fascinating. I must admit I'm close enough in age to remember that silly bird, which my parents bought along with apparently everyone else in the country - this in the days when silly fads sprung up like wildfire. And worse, I actually had one of those bird beak ashtrays that I spotted on Don's desk when looking at a repeat. Mad Men is definetly a time machine trip. Thanks for this latest ride.

  6. Marvelous post. Part of the show's appeal is that "time capsule" aspect of it, but one of the many things I admire about the show is that this aspect doesn't overshadow the drama and the characters. The attention to detail and behavior enhances the storylines.

  7. Classicfilmboy,I want to second what you say: the "time capsule", "then and now" part of the show is fascinating and important, but it's the tip of the iceberg as far as the total impact of the show. If someone has never seen "Mad Men" I would say just get a hold of the first show from the first season and you'll see immediately the elements at play - you should be able to tell from that if it's not your thing, or, if like many of us, you're deeply hooked.

  8. Thanks to all for your encouraging comments and many thanks to Lady Eve for shining the spotlight on this great show. All I can say is - I can't wait to read the rest of the posts and - even more so - for the season to start!!!