Maybe it’s the writing. Maybe it’s the 60’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s the vague sense of cheating death we get from watching healthy, attractive people constantly smoke and drink. Mad Men’s calculated decadence thrives off the concept of “maybe”, with its enigmatic characters and carefully rendered settings drawing people in by the millions. The show’s artful uncertainty is nothing like the fast-paced suspense that is typical in many of today’s most successful TV series. Totally opposite to a Game of Thrones style of storytelling, Mad Men maximizes the power of subtlety when others aim merely to shock the supposedly jaded and sensation-hungry viewer.
Instead of quickly burning through endless characters and places as a means to ward off the onset of boredom, Mad Men’s seven seasons have had the audacity to dive into their characters with saturating amounts of detail. Most of the time, this is done in one of the world’s most mundane of settings — an office. In spite of such low amounts of action, this show about 60’s advertising executives has permeated popular culture in a phenomenal way.
Since its start in 2007, Mad Men has arguably become one of the most socially influential post-financial-crisis TV series in America. But what is it about this show that has us so enthralled? What lives in a 60’s aesthetic that has viewers throwing Mad Men themed parties, and people in their twenties adopting mid-20th century haircuts and clothes as a fad? How did the middle aged, womanizing, and emotionally detached character of Don Draper become a sex symbol to modern day college girls, some of whom are even majoring in feminist studies?
The real truth is that Mad Men isn’t pandering to you. A show of such complexity isn’t likely to be successful for any single reason. There is no magic formula that anyone can boil it down to. Show creator Matthew Wiener even attests to writing scripts that deliberately try not to be formulaic. Because of this, the closest thing to understanding why Mad Men is a success might simply come from looking at the themes that it most frequently lands upon. The most recurring and arguably most relatable theme of Mad Men might just be the corny yet intrinsic human need to fill a void.
Mad Men’s Limited Edition Doll Collection from Barbie
Everyone has felt emptiness or loss, and has yearned for something without really knowing what it is. How do we satisfy such yearnings? How do we fill the void? The responses are endless, but not without their patterns. We can all relate to wanting things that feel unattainable, be it a product or a person. Particularly alluring are people from places, times, and socioeconomic brackets other than our own. We all feel the advance of advertising, which tries to dictate to us the ingredients of a happy life, with mixed success. We all connect to clothing choice as way of highlighting what parts of our own personalities we wish to have most visible. Some can also scandalously connect with combatting loneliness through incessant drinking, or tabooed casual sex. Even if we don’t, Mad Men makes such lewdness appear fun, and at times even classy.
Another distinct possibility is that the distance of the Mad Men world is what makes it so alluring to people today. It’s also possible that many are celebrating 60’s fashions now because they serve via shows like Mad Men as a way of addressing deep social ideas in a way that most modern symbols or styles have failed to do. Maybe for right now, being more 60’s is being more human.
Another possibility, particularly for people who remember the 60’s, might be nostalgia for a simpler and more affluent time. Postwar America had a booming economy, and little foreign competition with the rest of the world’s industrial powers having recently been leveled. Such a situation makes afternoon drinks for businessmen not only an available luxury, but also a social requirement. All kinds of things from smoking inside to being politically incorrect were completely acceptable in that time. So too, of course, were sickening levels of sexism, racial discrimination and social conformity. Mad Men is not without its critics. Many have accused the show of ignoring, or even romanticizing, the problems of the 60’s instead of condemning them. They’re largely correct, although most viewers don’t seem to be charging the show with that level of civic responsibility.
However we choose to fill our own personal voids, TV will certainly leave quite a large one when the last episode of Mad Men’s final season airs next year. The amount of social power that this one show has had is nothing short of extraordinary. Whether that power takes root in sexy idealism, deep self-discovery, or a complex hybrid of numerous ideas may forever remain a mystery. All the same, Mad Men is a standout that has proven to be something more intimate than simple entertainment. It has become art.