The return of Mad Men is three months away, but faithful fans like us are already in countdown mode. Just what is it about Mad Men, set in 1960s New York, that so captivates millions of loyal viewers? What’s the secret in the sauce?
Good writing, strong acting, high production values and glamorous actors are surely part of the recipe. But it’s more than that. For baby boomers Mad Men is like time travel to the days of our childhoods.
As children of the 1960s who grew up in the New York suburbs, Mad Men is an extended look into our parents’ lives when they were our age. When they threw cocktail and dinner parties we’d quietly sneak half way down the stairs and steal a peak of their grown-up world of well-dressed men and women, cocktail glasses in one hand and cigarettes in the other. Mad Men, as one friend described it, allows us to see the world as our parents experienced it. We hope their lives weren’t as dark as Don and Betty Draper’s, but they surely weren’t as relentlessly sunny and innocent as June and Ward Cleaver’s either.
Mad Men also captures the emotional power of unforgettable historical moments that defined the 1960s, from the existential fear induced by the Cuban Missile Crisis to the sorrow of the Kennedy assassination and the hope or, in the case of some of the characters on Mad Men, the angst stirred by Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. That too, resonates with viewers old enough to have lived through those times.
But as we discovered while writing The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, the show is also a huge hit with college students and twenty-somethings. What is it about Mad Men that speaks to them?
Like other viewers they’re drawn to the smart writing, the aesthetic and the story. But when we probed a little deeper we discovered a fascination with a world that, at least on the surface, seems much different than the one they are living in.
One Wellesley College student, a young African-American woman told us, “I can’t believe my parents grew up in such a different world than me.” She was referring to the overt sexism and racism that passed for acceptable workplace behavior. Mad Men lets her see a world she said she cannot imagine.
A Tulane University sophomore echoed that sentiment and added that she found Mad Men empowering. At a time when most college woman are thinking about careers, she finds it fascinating to watch the female characters either acquiesce to or struggle against the limitations they faced in the 1960s.
“Watching the contrast in life style choices between Peggy, Joan and Betty it is so unbelievable that all of this was very real and normal,” she said. “My grandmother had aspirations of overcoming the stereotypical roles women were expected to fill which makes me think of the ever so determined Peggy! Although she attended college and was an intellectual, once she married my grandfather she never worked another day in her life. Watching the show I can imagine the struggle she faced being such an intellect and having to settle as a housewife.”
We sensed that despite the lingering racism and sexism in this country, these young women were grateful to be living in a more enlightened time when an African-American could be president of the United States and a woman could aspire to be the CEO of a major company, not just a secretary who’d be lucky to work her way up to a junior staff position.
For Mike, a recent graduate of Amherst College, Mad Men lets him see a pre-politically correct world in which people didn’t hide their prejudices.
“The initial draw was how it recreated this era that seems, on the surface, so different from our own, “ he said, “women smoking while pregnant, people drinking at all hours of the day, blatant sexual discrimination in the office, etc. But the same problems presented in the show still exist today, yet they seem so much more appalling in a 60s drama than in real life. In today’s politically correct world inequality, racism, and sexism are more beneath the surface. Homophobia is masked as ‘protecting the sanctity of marriage,’ for example. But in Mad Men we see people without that veneer of political correctness. For someone of my generation it’s simultaneously shocking and refreshing.”
We don’t know if Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner could have foreseen the show’s appeal to a young generation of viewers born long after the 1960s, but in creating his perfect Manhattan he’s managed to create a program that is catnip to aging boomers and their children alike.