Why I’m not mad about ‘Mad Men’

Image of Peter Aspden

The cultural bore of the autumn is the lover of Mad Men, which is just beginning to trudge its way through a fourth series on BBC4 to its usual near-hysterical levels of acclaim. The plaudits of recent converts to the show are particularly irritating, because Mad Men is a programme that is primarily about fashion, and the particular fashion being celebrated here – skinny ties, hourglass figures, suicidal drink consumption – has been with us a while now and needs to makes its sorry way back to the Yesterday channel for another bout of revivification in 20 to 30 years’ time.

I know this is a little harsh. Mad Men is better than most television shows. It has high production values, it is beautifully acted and has a stately, hypnotic rhythm that bravely defies the convention for improbable action and hyper-plotting. When it premiered in the summer of 2007, it enraptured us with its scrupulous attention to detail and sense of style. The pioneering ad-men of Madison Avenue that gave the show its devilishly clever title were a good subject for drama. They recalled an almost-forgotten age that suddenly seemed gilded in its quaint manners.

But Mad Men made the fatal mistake of falling in love with itself. It immersed itself so completely in its period that it stopped moving forward. It poured its smooth ingredients into one of its sleek cocktail shakers, but the resulting blend failed to bite. The beautiful leading couple, Don and Betty Draper, became predictable icons for style magazines. They were gorgeous and desirable. But they also attracted the admiration of people who should have known better.

I have heard grown and apparently sensible women swoon over the morally vacuous and misogynistic Don Draper, a throwback to the days before those pesky feminists ruined things forever. His wife Betty, emotionally stunted, schooled from the Medea manual of motherhood, drew the drools of all men, everywhere. Yes, women used to dress like that all the time! Was there anything so sexy, after all, as subservience? Mad Men became a weekly celebration of political incorrectitude, disguised as appreciation of style. “Did you see the way they whacked that kid?” I have heard, on more than one occasion, with the vaguest note of wistfulness.

None of this would matter quite so much were it not for the period in which Mad Men is set. It was, I acknowledge, a stroke of genius to begin the first series in the spring of 1960. Our knowledge of the convulsions to come later made for rich dramatic irony. The end of the decade would be unrecognisable: bad acid, bad presidents, the Manson murders. It wasn’t only the dresses that went shapeless. Society lost its way.

The result was that we suddenly looked back on the decade’s early years as some kind of prelapsarian idyll. Men were men, lunches were lunches and, dommage, the occasional heart attack or unwanted child would cast the briefest of blights on the shimmering loveliness all around.

That was clever: a television series that was pregnant with the events of one of the most important decades in human history was bound to be rich in narrative tension. But now, three series later, that tension has dissipated. We are nearly halfway through the decade, but there is still no trace of the 1960s. Kennedy has come and gone, the Beatles have stormed The Ed Sullivan Show, Martin Luther King has had his dream; but the Mad Men’s reveries reach no further than the lucrative completion of a hard-selling jingle.

The programme, famous for its near-absence of external shots, has become claustrophobic, self-referential and divorced from its historical context. The scripts may ring true, but they also ring hollow. Dreary Don and Icy Betty – at least they are finally apart – continue to cast their charmless shadows over proceedings. The most interesting character in the series, a portent of things to come, is the upwardly mobile Peggy. Yet the ascent of her consciousness is still in the foothills.

I know what defenders of the programme will say: it is more subtle than that. You don’t need to plaster it with nascent civil rights issues, Beatles songs or suddenly empowered women. The 1960s took a long time to become the 1960s. Mad Men is a slow-burner.

I accept all that – and I went with it for a while. But the style has now become more important than the substance. If the Kennedy era was Camelot, the age that Americans most revere for its combination of glamour and (false) innocence, then Mad Men is the US’s Merchant-Ivory moment, a turning away from the complicated present to indulge for an hour a week in an aesthetically superior and morally simpler past.

But what was happening outside Madison Avenue in the 1960s was so much more important than that. It shaped the way we live today: gender equality, baby-boomer consumerism, an African-American president. If the answers to modern living were elusive – blowing in the wind, as the saying goes – the search for them was frenetic and compelling.

But there is no sense of that in Mad Men, no trace of the overarching moral vision that has marked the best television shows of recent years: most obviously The Wire but also The Sopranos, a masterly rumination on the nature of evil, on which Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner worked with such distinction for its final seasons. Instead we have the elegant passive-aggressive skirmishes of Don and Betty, squeezing the life out of the most vital years of the past century.

Advertising copywriters were the least interesting characters of the 1960s, sucking the blood from the momentous happenings around them, turning them into fatuous slogans and inane jingles. That, too, has left a legacy of course – it is to be found all over the contemporary art scene – but not one that should be celebrated with the fawning respect that is given to this infuriating show.


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