The curated past of Mad Men
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What has Mad Men inspired you to seek out?”
Now that Mad Men is entering its final stretch at last, it’s time to acknowledge a subtle but important point about the source of its appeal. This is my favorite television drama of all time. I’m not going to argue that it’s the greatest series ever—we’ll need another decade or two to make that appraisal with a cool head—but from one scene to the next, one episode after another, it’s provided me with more consistent pleasure and emotion than any show I can name. I’ve spoken before, perhaps too often, about what I like to call its fractal quality: the tiniest elements start to feel like emblems of the largest, and there’s seemingly no limit to how deep you can drill while analyzing even the smallest of touches. For proof, we need turn no further than the fashion recaps by Tom and Lorenzo, which stand as some of the most inspired television criticism of recent years. The choice of a fabric or color, the reappearance of a dress or crucial accessory, a contrast between the outfits of one character and another turn out to be profoundly expressive of personality and theme, and it’s a testament to the genius of both costume designer Jane Bryant and Matthew Weiner, the ultimate man behind the curtain.
Every detail in Mad Men, then, starts to feel like a considered choice, and we can argue over their meaning and significance for days. But that’s also true of any good television series. By definition, everything we see in a work of televised fiction is there because someone decided it should be, or didn’t actively prevent it from appearing. Not every showrunner is as obsessed with minutiae as Weiner is, but it’s invariably true of the unsung creative professionals—the art director, the costume designer, the craftsmen responsible for editing, music, cinematography, sound—whose contributions make up the whole. Once you’ve reached the point in your career where you’re responsible for a department in a show watched by millions, you’re not likely to achieve your effects by accident: even if your work goes unnoticed by most viewers, every prop or bit of business is the end result of a train of thought. If asked, I don’t have any doubt that the costume designers for, say, Revenge or The Vampire Diaries would have much to say about their craft as Jane Bryant does. But Mad Men stands alone in the current golden age of television in actually inspiring that kind of routine scrutiny for each of its aesthetic choices, all of which we’re primed to unpack for clues.
What sets it apart, of course, is its period setting. With a series set in the present day, we’re more likely to take elements like costume design and art direction for granted; it takes a truly exceptional creative vision, like the one we find in Hannibal, to encourage us to study those choices with a comparable degree of attention. In a period piece, by contrast, everything looks exactly as considered as it really is: we know that every lamp, every end table, every cigarette or magazine cover has been put consciously into place, and while we might appreciate this on an intellectual level with other shows, Mad Men makes us feel it. And its relatively recent timeframe makes those touches even more evident. When you go back further, as with a show like Downton Abbey, most of us are less likely to think about the decisions a show makes, simply because it’s more removed from our experience: only a specialist would take an interest in which kind of silverware Mrs. Hughes sets on the banquet table, rather than another, and we’re likely to think of it as a recreation, not a creation. (This even applies to a series like Game of Thrones, in which it’s easy to take the world it makes at face value, at least until the seams start to show.) But the sixties are still close enough that we’re able to see each element as a choice between alternatives. As a result, Mad Men seems curated in a way that neither a contemporary or more remote show would be.
I’m not saying this to minimize the genuine intelligence behind Mad Men’s look and atmosphere. But it’s worth admitting that if we’re more aware of it than usual, it’s partially a consequence of that canny choice of period. Just as a setting in the recent past allows for the use of historical irony and an oblique engagement with contemporary social issues, it also encourages the audience to regard mundane details as if they were charged with significance. When we see Don Draper reading Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, for instance, we’re inclined to wonder why, and maybe even check it out for ourselves. And many of us have been influenced by the show’s choices of fashion, music, and even liquor. But its real breakthrough lay in how those surface aspects became an invitation to read more deeply into the elements that mattered. Even if we start to pay less attention to brand names or articles of set dressing, we’re still trained to watch the show as if everything meant something, from a line of throwaway dialogue to Don’s lingering glance at Megan at the end of “Hands and Knees.” Like all great works of art, Mad Men taught us how to watch it, and as artists as different as Hitchcock and Buñuel understood, it knew that it could only awaken us to its deepest resonances by enticing us first with its surfaces. It turned us all into noticers. And the best way to honor its legacy is by directing that same level of attention onto all the shows we love.