“I love smoking,” a painfully deferential black cocktail waiter tells a chain-smoking white advertising executive in the opening scene of Mad Men, the new, critically acclaimed AMC series. That line–along with the character’s subservience–establishes an important theme of the show’s dramatic formula and liberal politics: namely, that the recent past is a different world. One may yearn for or frown on its passionate vices and casual inequalities, but they are plainly of the old order.
Set in 1960, at a moment when admen represented all that was glamorous–and corrupt–about postwar American consumer culture, Mad Men follows the personal and professional lives of the men (and women) of Sterling Cooper, a slick Madison Avenue advertising agency. Created by Matthew Weiner, formerly an executive producer and writer for The Sopranos, Mad Men is part soap opera and part history lesson. As such, it bears a striking resemblance to Weiner’s last production, a show that thrived on potent combinations of melodrama and cultural anthropology. Weiner’s depiction of postwar midtown Manhattan is a lot like his vision of millennial mafia-run northern New Jersey. Both are alien and amoral worlds in which people do terrible things, and both shows draw us in by exposing the vulnerability of the monster. Much like the gangsters in The Sopranos, Mad Men‘s brilliantined, philandering admen and their caged-in, taffeta-bound wives–epitomized by the show’s handsome, cheating protagonist, Don Draper, and his loyal, naïve wife, Betsy–are products of their culture. We are never allowed to forget their humanity, nor their circumstances. People back then may not have been liberated or self-aware, the show suggests, but their passions and conflicts are timeless.
Sometimes, Mad Men‘s references to The Sopranos are shameless. Most blatantly, an early episode has Betsy Draper seeking help from a psychiatrist after experiencing alarming episodes of psychosomatic paralysis. As this piece of cribbery might suggest, it’s not the melodrama that makes Mad Men enjoyable and innovative; it’s the sense of historical detail. This was a time, the show tells us, when fatal, dirty habits were considered fun. Everyone, including visibly pregnant women, smoked and drank hard liquor–although they didn’t say “drunk”; they said “stoned.” They had weird ideas about food too. Back then, you ordered tomato juice as an appetizer, and some people were crazy enough to eat raw eggs. (In one deliciously sensuous scene, Don and Betsy sip martinis on a plush leather banquette while a waiter expertly puts together a caesar salad at their table, the glossy yolk plopping fatly into the bowl.)
It’s hard to tell if Mad Men‘s celebration of smoking, drinking and culinary excess is moralistic or nostalgic for these bad old days, or both. Then again, the prominent product placement for cigarette brands suggests that this may not be the right question to ask. It’s very clear that the show is going for a “cracks in the facade” depiction of suburban life. Baby boomer childhood, it tells us, was not a nonstop parade of deadly allergenic peanut butter sandwiches and helmetless bike-riding. There was polio to worry about, not to mention adults. A sense of casual violence percolates through the suburban complacency. In one scene, interestingly downplayed, one of Don’s neighbors disciplines another man’s rambunctious little boy with a slap in the face. Small touches like this inject a sense of fear, hatred and spite into the history of middle-class WASP life that the show seems keen to convey.