I love Mad Men as much as the next guy, but I’m nearly as fascinated by the commentary that surrounds it. In particular, the idea that the show exists as a medium for us to look back and smugly say “now we know better.” We’re enlightened now: not so racist, so sexist, so conformist. It’s an idea that is completely opposite everything I see in the show.
What is the price we’ve paid to be ‘better’ than our forbears? We look at the set design, the costumes, the lifestyle, and we clearly recognize (h/t to my buddy Nate, who wrote the booze bits) that today’s world is missing out. Our habits are slovenly and style is a thing of the past. Take a look around 90% of professional offices nowadays and the design language hasn’t moved an inch in fifty years. Not only is mid century design still the dominant genre, but we haven’t even moved beyond the pieces themselves. Who are today’s Jacobsen, Eames, and Miller?
Outside the bounds of the show, we know that America of the ‘60s was driven by scientific achievement capped by putting a man on the moon. America of the 21st century meanwhile is driven by the debate of pushing science out of the biology classroom. We put any wag with an opinion on a level with real climate scientists. Even our greatest advances, in communications technology, have led us to hide and to prevaricate and to bicker.
Artistically, scientifically, politically, we’ve replaced glory with fear. We no longer tolerate risks, too scared to fall flat, too likely to be excoriated publicly. Is that truth intricately tied to how much ‘better’ we think we are now? Are those very real advances we’ve made towards sexism and racism only held together by fear of punishment? Have we fallen too far towards punishing transgression, instead of supporting right actions?
Part of the American mythos is, “things were better back then.” Arguably that was the truly defining characteristic that separated us from the evils of (utopian) Communism. Mad Men captures that dynamic and so moves us at a primal level. Things were better back then, and we should be doing our damndest to claim back what we’ve lost.