Outwardly, AMC's Mad Men sells itself as a show about traditional values and how the definition of them changes over the span of a decade. It uses a New York advertising agency and an ace creative director (Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm) as the centre of the narrative, but this is a show where the characters are secondary to a larger, looming energy. We are made to care about them and their flaws (which are more apparent with about 50 years' hindsight), but we are also aware of how insignificant their concerns will soon be as a change in the guard is just on the cusp of happening.
It isn't exactly The Way We Were though; the portrayal of this generation is largely unsympathetic.
Many sight gags are made on this show of the unfortunate ignorance exhibited by the characters. Every social arena is touched upon, thankfully, in subtle ways. Like the heroine going up the stairs in a horror movie, Mad Men sometimes makes you scream out at your screen: "Don't smoke when you're pregnant!" No blue bins to be found here; when the Draper family goes for a picnic, they yank the blanket up and leave their refuse where it is.
When smarmy overachiever Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) gets demographic information that tells him black customers buy one television set brand over another, he needles the black elevator operator, not realizing his inappropriateness. Yet when old school ad company partner Roger Sterling literally performs "My Old Country Home" in blackface during his wedding party, Pete and his wife Trudy are the only ones to be offended. This willingness to display the different degrees of these issues through the narrative is how Mad Men pulls people in.
When the hammer really drops on certain issues that you know will happen eventually, the power of the moment relative to the world of the characters is made beautifully clear to the audience. The episode that revolves around JFK's assassination illustrates the feeling of hopelessness and confusion perfectly. Don Draper gets to the office late that day, only to be greeted by a hundred telephones ringing at the same time and the entire staff of Sterling Cooper huddled around a television.
The magnitude of this event has been rarely matched in our lifetime but we know there are more foundation shakers afoot. TV shows typically unfold with the audience following the leader, never knowing where the ebb and flow will occur, but period pieces such as this give us a limited road map to colour our expectations. Luckily, Mad Men doesn't come off as a purely historical exercise. Our limited omniscient perspective in this case influences our opinions of the characters' foibles. Show creator Matthew Weiner is sympathetic to his audience, but not to his characters.
As the show's fourth season has just sprung forth taking place during the tail end of 1964, the dominant figures of social change appear to be TV advertising, music and sexual dynamics. Don buying his daughter some Beatles 45s for Christmas, young characters referencing Jan and Dean and dancing to the Beach Boys. The new ad company getting positive referrals for a Glo-Coat TV spot. Harry Crane, the head of TV advertising, taking frequent trips to LA. Women becoming sexually liberated. You can feel an undercurrent of change on the show. It's an exciting time for us because it was an exciting time for them.
And Don Draper is a great compass to follow. Jon Hamm's performance has been changing subtly from season to season. I went from thinking he was impenetrable, almost cartoonish in his effortless cool. But as his persona unravels and you learn more about his true self, you can catch moments of him dropping the façade, such as during a fateful admission of a secret to his wife Betty where he drops a cigarette and looks uncharacteristically frightened.
Matthew Weiner has created an alternate reality from a mix of true facts and fabricated characters with human flaws. And though we are prescient of what stands ahead of them and subsequently worry about the short-sighted decisions they make, it's still the pastel '60s; their world is made as brightly coloured as their futures are. V