Magazine article The American Prospect

Old Frontier: Mad Men Has Provoked Nostalgia for the 1960s-The Pre-Counterculture 1960s

Magazine article The American Prospect

Old Frontier: Mad Men Has Provoked Nostalgia for the 1960s-The Pre-Counterculture 1960s

Article excerpt


Let's recap what happened on the just-concluded fifth season of AMC's MadMen. Ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) blew his brains out after adding up the total number of women he'd slept with and realizing it topped the population of Schenectady. Soon after Don's death, his ex-secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) met the young Ellen Willis (guest star EmmaWatson, fresh from wrapping her part as Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise). Peggy became such a wild-eyed contributor to The Redstockings Manifesto that even Shulamith Firestone (the Emmy-nominated Lindsay Lohan, finally living up to her youthful promise) had to ask her to tone it down.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) got lured away to LBJ's White House to overhaul its PR. That assignment ended in disaster when he was gleefully rogered by Allen Ginsberg (Paul Giamatti, who else?) during the 1967 March on the Pentagon. Pete's eerie resemblance to Ralph Reed made him bitter in old age.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was fired from Sterling Cooper Draper Price after drunkenly turning down the Disney account: "Aw, screw Mickey Mouse and the ship he rode in on. Everyone knows it'll all go in the toilet now that Walt's dead." On a visit to Monaco, Betty Draper (January Jones) got trapped in a revolving door with Grace Kelly (also played by Jones) and spent the whole season going around and around until neither woman could tell which one was the other.

None of this ever aired, needless to say. Thanks to contract wrangling, there was no fifth season of MadMen this year. Still, we can dream, can't we? Kidding aside, if series creator Matthew Weiner doesn't know the saga needs to end with Don Draper kicking the bucket, he's shorter on huevos than he thinks he is. Right now, though, Weiner is probably more worried about the downside of delayed gratification. By the time Mad Men returns next spring, the bloom could be off our fascination with Don, Peggy, and the gang--or even with those fabulous 1960s in general, the necrophile vogue the show did so much to crystallize.

Even if it includes you, keep in mind that my use of "we" and "our" is highly restricted. Several years of magazine covers to the contrary, Mad Men is by no means a popular phenomenon. If you even recognize Don Draper's name, you're an elitist whether you like it or not--and obviously, some do like it fine. No longer the one-size-fits-all broadcast monolith of the boomers' childhood, TV has turned into something more closely resembling the landscape of Los Angeles itself: nugget-like enclaves without even a freeway exit in common.

Watching upscale boutique cable shows provides the same kind of social and cultural marker that checking out the latest Bergman or Fellini did back when the yobs were all flocking to Debbie Reynolds in The Singing Nun. The twist is that now we've managed to create the subtitle-free equivalent of foreign cinema for well-off, sophisticated people right here at home. But to a diehard fan of pop culture's broad outreach, such unmistakably class-based niche viewing can't help smacking of decadence all the same.

THAT GOES DOUBLE for Mad Men, since nostalgia for the 1960s--not the New Left's barricades version, but the flawed cathedral in place as Dwight D. Eisenhower left office--sometimes feels like an acknowledgment that this country's just about ready for the glue factory. Sure, we can kid ourselves that maybe we could do World War II over again if we had to--but not midcentury's heady combo of flush wallets, unparalleled power, and paradoxically vibrant complacency.

Nor would its resurrection be a good idea, for reasons the show itself is sometimes keen to remind us of (the sexism that Peggy battles daily) and sometimes cloyingly evasive about. Along with--I'm guessing--a good many of his viewers, Weiner does seem unduly entranced with the vanilla swank of a time when nobody knew what the word "multiculti" meant. …

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