Mad Men is, at its essence, a show about terrible things happening to occasionally terrible people. Its characters are adulterers, careerists, alcoholics, and liars; they’re prone to selfishness, sexism, racism, and exploitation. Set in a period of massive social shift, they’re often (and often proudly) on the wrong side of history. The country’s in a shambles, relationships are falling apart, children are being damaged, lives are being destroyed. Even in this antihero-friendly pop culture environment, such grim goings-on risk alienating even the most intellectual audience — and yet Mad Men has done anything but that, drawing a viewership that ravenously consumes the bad behavior of its subjects. What pulls them to the show? Here’s one theory: in an odd, schadenfreude-tinged way, Mad Men is comfort television.
The label is admittedly a bit jarring, affixed as it so often is to gentle programs like The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, or Gilmore Girls, or even to cosmopolitan-yet-harmless ensemble comedies like Friends or Cheers. And those are examples of shows where the dominant vibe of the proceedings — warm, chummy, friendly, affable — extends out of the television and into the living room, where the good cheer of the ensemble is shared by the viewer.
This is something altogether different. In popular art, the disparity between what’s happening within a frame and how it’s viewed by those of us outside of that frame can be just as instructive, informative, and thought-provoking as the work itself. And a particularly apt demonstration of that comes by looking at the television shows that were big in Mad Men’s ‘60s heyday: The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Green Acres. In this most upending of periods, the most accessible and popular entertainment was utterly free of uncertainty; it was all shiny surfaces, happy endings, welcome neighbors, easy laughs. Even the hour-long dramas, like Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and Bonanza, trafficked in easy-to-grasp, traditional notions of good and bad, black and white. (Among the decade’s long-running series, The Twilight Zone was one of the few to tap into the precariousness and variability of the era, but that’s a topic for another time.)
And yet, in some kind of generational flip, Mad Men — which restores those tensions and difficulties to the era, serving as a corrective to the whitewashed programs that filled its contemporaneous airwaves — is a show that puts a certain kind of viewer (guilty!) at ease. It’s not that the conflicts, disruptions, and difficulties of the narrative aren’t vivid or upsetting; quite the contrary. You don’t need me to tell you that the writing is sharp, the direction impeccable, the acting perfect, the design (from costumes to props to sets to hair) flawless. Yet in spite of all of that attention to detail, it’s not a museum piece; it’s active and somehow, in spite of its historical road markings, spontaneous, and its characters aren’t cardboard-cutout ‘60s artifacts. They live and breathe and, most of the time, make a mess.
This, I think, is what’s so comforting about Mad Men, and why it’s been championed by an audience that, in most cases, predates its period. Sure, we either weren’t yet alive or weren’t yet aware during ‘60s, but we’ve heard about them — oh, how we’ve heard about them. For our entire lives, we’ve heard about how men like Don Draper and Roger Sterling were “The Greatest Generation,” serving selflessly, then coming home and building a utopia. And we’ve heard about how, in the 1960s, the good people in this country got together and decided to make it a better, more loving, and more accepting place.
Sure, some of those things happened. But history is never as simple as the history books would have it, nor as in the stories and sterilized remembrances served up by our elders. And with our world in flux, with mores shifting and culture accelerating, as we find ourselves somehow feeling simultaneously like disguised teenagers and hopelessly un-hip, out-of-touch has-beens, it’s easy to fall into self-doubt and despair. And it’s also consoling and even a little heartening to remind ourselves that, no matter how they’ve spun it, the people who tried to navigate this world ahead of us didn’t know what the hell they were doing either.