Does anything more need to be said about the brilliance of Mad Men? The production value soars above most cable series and the story lines have not faltered. The series has benefited tremendously from continuously casting relatively unknown actors. Above else, unlike most retro productions, they get very little wrong. Credit the producers for perhaps having been alive during the early 1960s or at least having the good sense to hire people who were. Mad Men is 99.44% anachronism free.
While much of the period perfect depictions seem quaint and distant, there is much that is timeless. Every generation thinks they are covering new terrain and making new discoveries. Every twist and turn in life seems unique and in need of a brand-new solution. But there is much to gain from being reminded of the continuity of life and its annoyances.
Work is Demanding – Long before instant communication, Peggy was working nights and weekends. Personal lives were impinged upon with after-hours work related functions. Before technology companies put playrooms and free dry cleaning in the workplace (to keep workers at the office) companies had coffee carts. Break rooms, sandwich machines and even office bars, were designed to keep workers in the workplace. Work has never been fair or nice. Meetings will happen without you, you will be left off of organizational charts and someone might just run a lawn mower over your foot.
Thin and Pretty Sells – There is nothing new about selling a female ideal. Media has been single minded in its affair with pretty, young thin women. Before Spanx, there were girdles. Creating a perfect form was a rite of passage for a young woman. Pointed bras bore no more resemblance to the human breast than the wonderbra of today. Before diet shakes, there was melba toast and cottage cheese. Women carried lovely little boxes of (deadly) saccharin in their purses and smoked like chimneys to avoid eating. Clothing was expensive and spandex wasn’t invented yet, so not being able to zip your dress meant not being able to leave the house.
Marriage is a Mystery – From a wedding guest’s perspective, do any two people really belong together? Don cheats with the same woman, over and over again. He craves emotional attachment with an intelligent, professional brunette, but married Betty. Kitty is happily married to Sal, a man who doesn’t want Ann-Margret, he wants to be Ann-Margret. Joan, in her early thirties, with a panic she feels deep in her bones, grabs what looks like a gold ring. There is nothing new about making fear based choices and there rarely is anything good that comes from it. Joan married beneath her on so many levels, and we wait for the “we regret to inform you” letter from the war department.
Fake it Till You Make It – The only people who don’t at one time or another feel like a fraud are sociopaths. Everyone, regardless of achievement or talent has feared being found out. Don struggles with that issue most of his adult life. Joan, herself her greatest creation, visibly stumbles at times. Peggy, a woman whose emotional sophistication belies her tender years, forces herself past those moments. She gets the job, the haircut, the wardrobe, and the office, incrementally and with intent. She always had the talent, if not the experience, but by the time she’s done with herself, she looks like a competent middle manager (at 23.)
Parenting isn’t Pretty – Glossy magazines aside, there’s nothing pretty about raising children. Betty didn’t feel the need to self-censor when she likened the presence of her children in her car to that of horse poop. The children misbehaved and developed strange behaviors, they refused to eat and sleep, they got sick at the most inopportune times and mixed a pretty lousy drink. But parenting was made a little easier, not just because of the drinking and sedatives, but because of a bit of emotional distance. When little Sally ran amok in the house (with a dry cleaning bag on her head) her mother was concerned about the mess, but not enough to put out her cigarette and interrupt her adult conversation.
Experience Breeds Calm – There is much to savor in getting older, even during the youth revolution of the 1960s. Bert Cooper is a sage beacon of calm during many a storm. Sure, he knows firsthand how to succeed in business, but it’s more than that. His Eastern sensibilities and embracing of modern art, speak to a man who is taking a big bite out of life. He enjoys the fruits of his labor and has a deep generosity of spirit. He takes his relationships as seriously as he does his job. He is not feared but revered, a management lesson, yes, but also a life lesson.