Created by Matthew Weiner, who wrote for HBO's extraordinary mafia drama, 'The Sopranos,' the tales and intrigues involving the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency can be viewed and enjoyed on many levels.
Some look at the program as a depiction of American society on the brink of the radical changes that the Sixties brought. Others see it as a grim condemnation of corporate culture and the greed and abuses inherent in capitalist society. Others simply enjoy the authentic period fashion and styles that the show meticulously adheres to.
For me, 'Mad Men' brings to life a vanished world that existed just before I was born and which I admire and long for.
Although I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, I have never felt comfortable with nor even liked the fashions, styles and social mores of my own times.
Don Draper, the handsome, hard-drinking, chain-smoking executive and serial womanizer forms the heart and soul of the show -- for good and bad.
Draper is a tragic figure because he is living a lie (he took the identity of a dead man during the Korean War) and seemingly cannot find any sustained happiness despite the many material comforts and carnal pleasures he has available to him.
With The Beatles, Vietnam, civil rights marches and campus unrest on the near horizon, the privileged lives of Draper and his male peers are on the precipice of destruction. One can almost sense that they are doomed as they stroll along the corridors of their agency or drink themselves into a stupor in a fancy bar.
Critics of the show complain that the program tends to glorify the bad habits (smoking, drinking, racism, careerism, misogyny, adultery, etc.) of Draper and his cohorts by portraying them in such elegance and high style. I disagree -- I think the program is simply depicting a narrow sub-section of urban U.S. life with all of its warts.
Moreover, Draper seems to represent a “male fantasy symbol” that many men of my generation likely aspire to. Draper may not be a nice guy, nor particularly content with his life, but he certainly has a good time and looks great. Plus, he enjoys wealth, success, women, power and some measure of control – what man wouldn't dream of having all that?
Despite all the drastic changes U.S. society has witnessed over the past half-century, most men today would rather revert to being someone like Don Draper than anyone else.
On a personal basis, Draper reminds me somewhat of my late father. While my dad did not drink alcohol nor commit adultery, he was (like Draper) tall, slender, handsome, elegant, stylish, serious, masculine and smart – and he smoked a lot, too.
It’s all a question of personal style, not so much lifestyle.
My father grew up under the British Raj of India when one’s options in life were very narrow and status in society was pre-ordained. Nevertheless, he overcame his early rural poverty and became a successful engineer (somewhat following Draper’s life trajectory).
And (at least from my weary eyes in 2012), my father’s world was filled with beauty, adventure and an elegance that no longer seems to exist.
Look at photographs of people in New York, London, Paris or Bombay in the 1950s and early 1960s and what do you see? Men, regardless of class, are dressed elegantly in suits, vests, jackets, ties and sometimes hats. Women are attired in dresses, hats and evince an effortless feminine demeanor. Almost nobody is overweight and no one appears slovenly.
I realize this wasn't the complete reality of that place and time period, but it at least depicts a definite truth among a significant swath of society.
'Mad Men' is almost like an epitaph for that world which has, sadly, irrevocably vanished forever.
As much as I love the pop-rock music of the 1960s (and the sense of freedom that era evoked), I still think that the global 'youth-hippie' revolution destroyed many of the good things from the past, while replacing it with a very unpleasant and ugly “new order.”
I concede that people in the contemporary world are “freer” now and people have more “opportunities” -- but what has been the cost?
I propose that the quality of life in the U.S. has drastically declined since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when Draper ruled Madison Avenue.
Consider the various dichotomies of the modern US society: education is available to everyone, yet too many people are vastly under-educated (a college degree has become almost meaningless); in the wealthiest country the world has ever seen, the majority of people are overweight and unhealthy; the ‘freedoms’ espoused by the 1960 revolutionaries and hippies has led to an epidemic of drug abuse and deadly health consequences; the ‘free love’ movement has directly led to HIV/AIDS, one of the gravest health crises ever confronted; and despite all the dramatic improvements on technology and communications, we are increasingly isolated and alienated from one another.
Moreover, the food we eat is junk, most of the TV shows and movies we watch are garbage; and the rising wave of agnosticism and atheism has somehow created a world in which we tend to admire the activities of worthless ‘media-created celebrities’ instead of clergymen, soldiers, scientists and statesmen as we did in the distant past.
In Don Draper’s America (at least from my perspective 50 years in the future), families were intact; neighborhoods were safe and clean; people took care of each other; different parts of the country maintained their regional charm and had not yet been homogenized by mass-culture television; middle-class people had jobs for life; and, most importantly, there was a genuine concern about maintaining traditions and culture.
What culture do we have now? Hollywood? TV? The internet?
Thus, by my reckoning, almost every parameter of the human condition has declined in quality over the past 50 years. And, sadly, I don’t see things improving anytime soon.
Luckily for Don Draper, he is no longer around to witness this decay and degradation.