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.