The dawn of the space age, the height of the Cold War, the assassination of JFK, and a childlike self-confidence in the midst of an unprecedented period of prosperity that was never to be seen again in America — how much more exciting and interesting can the 1960’s be? Hit television series Mad Men captures its essence in brilliant form. Now in its fifth season (if its producers and distributors could agree to just get along), the show is on fire.
The magic of Mad Men is in its dry but heady portrayal of life in 1960s New York City. At the epicentre of the cultural and industrial revolution that marked the decade is Madison Avenue in Manhattan — home to the cream of America’s advertising industry where the world’s consumer tastes were literally being created by men like Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), Creative Director of the fictional ad firm Sterling Cooper.
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In a period when the ill health effects of smoking was still considered debatable and not drinking when driving was still a recommendation, Draper’s episodes of creative bursts in the art of making people want products punctuates the drama woven around office politics marked by the banal sexism, racism and chauvinism of the time. The quaintness of 1960’s technology mixed with the emerging beholdenness to it adds a comic irony to the mood that so effectively gets inside the average viewer’s head. In one memorable episode where Draper is fuming about the use in a presentation of a report that he thought only he had access to, he says “I had a report just like that, and it’s not like there’s some magic machine that makes identical copies of things.” In another scene where Draper’s wife Betty (played by January Jones) gets into Draper’s brand new Cadillac for the first time, she swoons “it feels like we are in a space ship!”
To be fair, the 1960’s was, in fact, a remarkable decade. Man was rocketed to the moon at a time when the entirety of the computing power at NASA’s disposal was probably just one tenth that of the average 21st Century mobile phone. The only commercially viable supersonic air service organised around the 1960’s-designed Concorde was also launched. And Japan and Germany got back up to speed after devastating defeats in World War II to become the economic powerhouses of Asia and Europe respectively.
All these developments (and many more) now seem pretty straightforward and morally and ethically unambiguous in the eyes of the average 21st Century dweller. The genius of Mad Men is in how it induces its audience to step out of our jaded 21st Century minds and see — and experience — the 1960s with a refreshing innocence.
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