How Mad Men Deals With The Changing 60s

August 27, 2010

The girlfriend and I spent the last day or so watching reruns of season three and I realized something: there’s a distinct difference in the feeling of the show. In the first three seasons everything seems perfect at a moment’s glance. Only when you spend more than a minute scrutinizing just about anything do you realize it’s all an illusion. The Drapers aren’t the fabled perfect family of the 60s. Don isn’t the benevolent leader or ideal man with a perfect life. Bert Cooper isn’t the razor sharp titan of industry. And Sterling Cooper isn’t some kind of professional utopia.

Far from it. Sterling Cooper is full of horny clumsy businessmen. Betty and Don Draper are trying to convince themselves that they’re in a satisfying marriage. Betty also isn’t content being a housewife. Bert Cooper is an increasingly senile Asia obsessed businessman. Don is incredibly unfaithful and prone to crabby fits. Oh and he’s also hiding his real identity and somewhat of a homophobe. Roger Sterling thinks the solution to his dissatisfaction with life involves leaving his wife for a secretary(and in the process endangering Sterling Cooper). Conrad Hilton and Don Draper aren’t a perfect match. The list goes on but the first look doesn’t suggest any of that.

But in season 4 the illusion is lifted. It’s easy to see that nothing is perfect. Don Draper is clearly not the ace ad man —or father or husband or lover— that he comes off as. Betty is obviously a bad mother and housewife and quite possibly nuts. The office of Sterling Cooper Draper Price looks cramped and ugly and business isn’t as easy as it used to be. Just landing an account is a struggle.

The difference between season 4 and its predecessors, I think, is how Mad Men deals with the changing times of the 60s. Things are changing for the folks of Sterling Cooper but not in the way that perfectly captures everything that was going on in the 60s. Don isn’t becoming a hippie. Roger isn’t going back to war. Betty isn’t experimenting with drugs. Those things are all in the show but either a degree away or just not happening to these particular people because that’s not how it was for every single person in the 60s. It’s all there but only where it’s appropriate and makes sense.

—Daniel

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