After 17 months, the gripping TV drama is back, and cities are pulling out all the stop with parties and special screenings. What is it about this show that strikes such a chord?
Jace Lacob is one of a rare breed of people in the US. He is the television critic at the Daily Beast and therefore has already seen the two-hour episode of Mad Men that will kick off the show’s long-awaited fifth season.
Of course, he is sworn to secrecy about its contents. After a 17-month wait, the return on 25 March of the show about a 1960s advertising agency is hotly awaited. But the latest goings-on involving characters Don Draper, Roger Sterling and Peggy Olson are a closely guarded secret. Lacob will say one thing, though: “It surpasses its expectations. It is beautiful, it is surprising and it is emotional.”
It is hard to overstate the hype surrounding the return of Mad Men, whose long period away from US television screens was caused by complex contractual negotiations prompted by its massive global success. The show has had a massive impact on the US cultural landscape by tracking the lives of characters through the social upheavals of the 1960s.
With its meticulous reconstruction of the decade, it has won a fanatical audience and transformed the fortunes of the AMC cable network. The programme is known for its lavish sense of 1960s style in its acting, scripts and every detail of the characters’ costumes and attitudes. “The 1960s have always resonated in America. We think that it was such a cool place to be. So we look at them through the show with this nostalgia, but also a knowing eye,” said Professor Jennifer Dunn, a pop culture expert at Dominican University in Illinois.
That resonance has manifested itself in countless ways. The show has crept into US malls, where fashionable clothes and shoes with a distinctively 1960s look are all the rage. In New York, in the build-up to the season’s beginning, the Roosevelt Hotel – whose 1960s incarnation featured in the show – is offering a “Mad Men in the City” experience for guests to pretend that they have slipped back in time by five decades. The real-life building that houses Mad Men’s fictional Manhattan corporate headquarters is hosting parties where guests dress up in period clothes. Even the venerable Newsweek magazine is producing a Mad Men-styled issue, complete with retro-looking adverts. There are viewing parties galore in New York, including those at the Carnegie Club, which is one of the few bars left in Manhattan where you can legally smoke: something that would no doubt appeal to the hard-living Draper.
The show has also spawned a mini-publishing boom. There are two Mad Men cookbooks, which feature retro recipes such as Waldorf salad and oysters Rockefeller. There is a guide to imbibing called How to Drink Like a Mad Man, a reprint of a genuine 1962 humorous tome called The 24-Hour Drink Book: A Guide to Executive Survival. But it is not just all testosterone-fuelled excess. The show is famous for its depiction of the struggle women had to get noticed as equals in the 1960s.
It is a slice of the past brought vividly to life by author Jane Maas in her memoir Mad Women. The book, which collects her stories of life on Madison Avenue in the 1960s, has led to her being dubbed the “real-life Peggy Olson”.
The show’s success has also led others to copy its formula of complex plots, deep characterisation and obsessive recreation of the past. They include Boardwalk Empire, which has recreated the Atlantic City of the 1920s; Pan Am, which went back to the 1960s to look at flight attendants; and The Playboy Club, which featured a 1960s gentlemen’s club.
Such an impact can be difficult for a show to keep living up to. Mad Men was never expected to be a huge smash and now both cast and creators face huge pressure. Not least because nearly all of them have gone on to become stars. Jon Hamm, who plays Draper, and January Jones, who plays his ex-wife Betty, are now among the most famous actors in the US. Christina Hendricks, who plays voluptuous siren Joan Holloway, is a major sex symbol. Even Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sally Draper and is just 12 years old, was the subject of a recent interview in Grazia.
That intense spotlight might even invite a backlash. “Success can be a double-edged sword. Expectations are very, very high for this show,” said Lacob.
Yet the series has already won its place in TV history. Mad Men has been widely discussed in academic papers, a book about philosophy and a lengthy intellectual essay in the New York Review of Books. Few experts really expect that influence to drop off as the characters live through the rest of the 1960s. “It is a show that will continually be studied at the academic level,” Lacob said.