Timeless: How ‘Mad Men’ changed history on television

In 1972 the Robert Altman film M*A*S*H was turned into a weekly half-hour situation comedy series. In retrospect I’m stunned that anybody thought to make this. The landscape of television comedy was cluttered with novelty premises and perfect families dealing with contrived scenarios which always, always resolved in a happy freeze-frame.

There was no sense of reality to television before 1972. Westerns set in the 19th century had no historical sense to them.  Gunsmoke and Bonanza rarely if ever referenced an understandable place and time. The Ponderosa was somewhere in Nevada, set vaguely in the 1860s.

Television’s M*A*S*H broke both of these molds. It was real life, affected by real history. It was in a recognizable place, and its characters were changed by events that were vividly real. For the first time it felt like a show was operating by the same cosmic rules as its viewers.

The year that Altman’s film was released is the year that the last season of Mad Men, which finishes its run this Sunday, is set.  We know this because creator Matthew Weiner and his writing team make very sure to watermark almost every scene.  Every detail — from the buttons on Joan’s dresses to the brand of cigarette in Betty’s hand — speaks to the show’s obsessive need to plant its coordinates into the narrative.

  Mad Men has re-envisioned the historical television show in exactly the same way that M*A*S*H reinvented the sitcom.  You can no longer make a television show set in the past without following (or rebelling against) the example set by the adventures of Don Draper and crew. Cognizant of the harsh mistress of social media, Mad Men has created a flawless timeline, leaving a masterful, rarely obvious path of breadcrumbs that have led viewers through the 1960s.  The first episode “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” is set in March 1960. The last episode, named “Person To Person,” will be set in either November or (most likely) December 1970. 

 

Episodes are crammed with historical and pop cultural references, but very rarely are they front and center. Don ate and drank his way through the finest restaurants in New York. Joan made out with somebody at the Electric Circus, while Peggy went to a happening at Washington Market. Kinsey joined the Hare Krishnas!

Shock treatment, LSD, race riots, Weight Watchers, moon landings, assassinations — the entirety of America in the 1960s was fully and richly presented, in far greater volume and diversity than perhaps even a college course would provide.  But not once — not a single time in its seven seasons — did the events of this tumultuous decade overtake the storyline. The characters, their lives, were always front and center.

  It has been an extraordinary pleasure the past few years to Tweet along with live viewings of Mad Men on Sunday night. I’m not paid to do it. It’s just a total blast. I just love a good scavenger hunt. Weiner and the Mad Men production team can infuse entirely new themes, sometimes with traces of irony, that only reside within the borders of an episode. Far from history being a binding and limiting framework, Mad Men has turned it into a set of playground monkey-bars from which to playfully swing.

 

Setting the show in New York, but not filming it here, seemed, at first, like a troubling and even annoying decision. But it worked because the Manhattan skyline is a dead giveaway, like the rings of a tree.  And Mad Men‘s not the kind of show that uses CGI. (A New York-filmed show might have been tempted to have Don swagger down the street with the under-construction World Trade Center in the background. Thank god Mad Men is not that show.)

History has been a vivid hue on Mad Men, as vivid as one of Pete Campbell’s most flamboyant ties. They don’t just plan episodes “in the spring of 1967.” There are usually clues that accurately pinpoint a scene to an actual day and, sometimes, an actual minute. You never had to be consciously aware of this information. It sits like a juicy footnote at the bottom of the page, waiting to reveal another facet of the story.

Will this formula work for future historically based television programs? Mad Men had the luxury of a cast of fictional characters, so history can coalesce around them with convenience.  Shows like Turn or Boardwalk Empire, on the other hand, have characters based on real-life individuals, and negotiation around historical events is trickier.

I wonder where the Mad Men effect will turn up next. The Knick, set in 1900s New York, makes obvious nods to Weiner’s precise use of historical detail, but understandably, it’s not consistent. (Being set over a century ago, it has a higher degree of difficulty.)  The writers of Downton Abbey love their history, but it’s often an interloper.  It invades more than informs.  Outlander would probably not be a good show if characters stopped to wonder what day it was.  Halt and Catch Fire could be a successor to Mad Men if it pulls its storylines together in the next season.  

 

Farewell Mad Men! And thank you for the best time-traveling adventure on television. Throughout this article is a sampling of a few of my Mad Men Tweets over the past few years to illustrate some of the details that the production team has incorporated into its shows.   You can find the complete list of my Mad Men Tweets right here!  And for other Bowery Boys articles on Mad Men, you can check them out here.

 

 

 

 

  • Jeff W

    Methinks thou doth protest too much. Yes M*A*S*H had a few characters die, and there were occassional references to the war that was going on… so I’ll grant a little more ‘cinema verite’ than, say, Hogan’s Heroes (which coincidently ended the year before M*A*S*H started). But M*A*S*H hardly offered a Platoon-level dose of the realities of war.

    I would argue that All in the Family, which premiered a year earlier than M*A*S*H (and was itself based on an even earlier British show), did more to break the mold of happy-family sitcoms than did M*A*S*H.

  • I really love this show! Thanks for the article.