Mad Men: Revisiting 1960s Americana

The show Mad Men was created by Matthew Weiner through Lionsgate Television, and produced by Matthew Weiner, Scott Hornbacher, and…

Sean Szymkowski

Contributor

MADMEN

The show Mad Men was created by Matthew Weiner through Lionsgate Television, and produced by Matthew Weiner, Scott Hornbacher, and Andre and Maria Jacquemetton. The show has been broadcast on AMC since 2007, and deals with Sterling Cooper, a marketing agency, and the characters employed there (“Season 1”). Mad Men is like a time machine. The show is extremely effective due to the believable setting, the lifestyle, the musical score, and the development of the main character, which all exemplifies the glitz and glamor of the 1960s.

Mad Men revolves around the introduction of the main characters, but more importantly, an account that main character Don Draper becomes baffled over. Lucky Strike, a cigarette company, is coming into the office to see how they can still market and sell cigarettes to the consumer after the federal government begins to throw out positive smoking claims. Don remains unsure over what he will present to the company even into the meeting itself, but through Don’s incredible marketing skills and influential way with words, he pitches something last minute that the company understands and accepts. After seeing Don as his business self and his unfaithful self, he comes home to a wife and two children to convey to the viewers his family-oriented self.

The major piece of criteria the show relies on is its realism in setting. Much work has been put into the show to create a believable and realistic 1960s New York City. 1960s model cars roam the streets of New York, picture perfect suburbs crafted after the 50s housing boom dot the setting when the viewer is taken out of the hustle and bustle of the city, and the interior design of every building looks as if it was plucked straight out of a 60s design catalog.

The viewers constantly find themselves sucked into this nostalgic time bomb of a setting – there is constantly something to look at, and the audience is always immersed in the realism since the times have certainly changed. Part of what this show hinges on for success is its accuracy and portrayal of these times, and it does this quite well. Tim Goodman, a reviewer of the show from the San Francisco Gate, may have said it best when he wrote in his review “Drinking and smoking and stylized sets and clothes are the touchstones of the series and are frequently mentioned in the buzz that surrounds the show.” When the viewer runs into Peter Campbell, in his blue suit, skinny tie, and gelled hair, or Joan Hallaway, in a flattering pale-off-yellow dress, sixties-esque make-up and professional up-do to complete it, there is no question one is seeing the year 1960 portrayed in complete accuracy. This accuracy only helps translate the viewer into the lifestyle these characters are presented in for the viewer.

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Mad Men would not be Mad Men without the swinging sixties lifestyle revolving around it. The very opening scene where Don is seen sitting in a bar, gin in hand and cigarette in the other (“Season 1”) screams 1960s to the viewer. As the viewer wanders around the offices of Sterling Cooper, they will see constant smoking by many of the employees, since this was a way of life fifty years ago. Wet bars are present in almost every office as well, where Don or many other characters are almost always pouring a drink before a meeting.

Another quote from the San Francisco Gate furthers this point, “The racism and sexism and old-school values and habits (which often form the basis for the best jokes in ‘Mad Men’) were in their DNA.” (Goodman 2). Goodman points out that these jokes were a way of life, which the show does an excellent job of portraying. This banter and sixties jargon only adds to this foreign lifestyle to the viewer today, which provides another piece of an effective show for the viewer to enjoy and continue to watch through the whole season. The lifestyle portrayal would not be anywhere near as successful if the musical score was not present, though.

Another key element to the show is how the show is scored musically. As the first episode opens up, the viewer’s ears are greeted with swinging sixties music. The music then will constantly falter while characters chat and interact with one another, only to come swelling back in at the appropriate time. Another example of this excellent score is the quick and moving beats employed while 1960 New York City is being shown off during b-roll, or scenes of supplemental footage. Taxicabs drop employees off at work, then the camera pans to the quick moving feet of workers as they scuffle towards the elevators inside buildings. The music played behind all of this allows for a real sense of hustle for the employees as the viewer takes it all in, and only adds to the overall aura of the show in a very positive way. More importantly, the music can set the mood for when Don, the main character, is in front of the viewer.

The main character the viewers follow in the show only adds to the hook the show provides. Don Draper is an interesting man, and an even more interesting main character. As the viewers watch Don in the first episode, one begins to strangely take a liking towards him. He is witty, influential, and who you wanted to be if you were a male in the 1960s: successful. The viewer sees Don transform from an influential and intelligent businessman who will not take anything but success for an answer, to a family man with a wife and children, and even to a cheater and unfaithful husband.

All of this draws the viewer, offers reasons for one to want to explore Mr. Draper’s head and figure out how he manages this balancing act. A piece of mystery included in the pilot episode is when Don pulls out a purple heart, which the viewer assumes was given to him during the war (Mad Men: Season 1). This strange scene further raises questions to Don’s character development for the view. Don makes for an excellent main character for the viewer to really relate to as he grows and transforms, but more importantly, he provides a real reason for the viewer’s attention and engagement of the show.

Mad Men embodies the glamor and glitz of 1960s big business, promiscuity, and the riff created between this lifestyle of Don’s work and his home life. Through this balancing act of all these things, the viewer finds himself or herself stepping back in time. Into a time where values were different, where people smoked in an office still, and even where taking a train to work was not necessarily out of place. Mad Men is extremely effective because of all these things. The show is a box of nostalgia, wrapped in a perfect balance of realism, development, and a lifestyle no longer present today.