As a wave of 1950s and 1960s-set dramas hit our screens, George Morahan examines the influence of Mad Men as a template for these new series
As phenomena go, Mad Men is very small indeed. The prestigious US television show, which follows sixties advertising executive Don Draper as he negotiates changing cultural attitudes, as well as his treacherous personal and professional lives, will begin its fifth season in early 2012, but with an average number of American viewers that hovers around the two million mark, it could not be labelled as a hit in any traditional sense. However, 2011 has seen three new shows appropriating the Mad Men template in pursuit of a commercial success that the original could only dream of attaining. BBC’s The Hour and two American shows; Pan Am and The Playboy Club have all premiered in recent months and have the connection of being period dramas set in the 1950s and 1960s – all waxing nostalgic for a time of finely crafted suits, profuse smoking and great social upheaval.
Where Mad Men follows men on the losing side of history; resistant to a new liberalising age, all three new shows attempt to portray women breaking through the ‘glass ceiling’ with varying degrees of subtlety and realism. Pan Am and The Playboy Club revolve around the lives of air stewardesses and Playboy Bunnies, respectively, and bludgeon the viewer with all sorts of pseudo-empowerment rhetoric – at the end of Pan Am’s first episode, the co-pilot labels the four leads as “natural selection at work” and says that “They don’t know they are a new breed of women. They just had an impulse to take flight.” Though that may sound somewhat on the nose, at least Pan Am doesn’t confuse Hugh Heffner for Simone de Beauvoir as the now cancelled and truly heinous Playboy Club frequently did. Behind the aspirational message of Pan Am, there are efforts to show the hypocrisies and the falsehood of social mobility this new breed of women faced, but The Playboy Club is all bluster, weakly backed by frivolous melodrama. For the Bunnies everything is a party and the men are always on hand for when things get messy.
Mad Men’s approach to the feminist question is manifested in the quiet determination of Peggy Olsen and The Hour’s leading woman, Bel Rowley (as played by Romola Garai) is far closer to Peggy than anyone from the abovementioned shows – smart and independent; Rowley has to balance her career ambitions with her journalistic integrity (she produces the show’s titular current affairs programme) and faces her fair share of degradation from her superiors as well as from a hostile government. Creator Abi Morgan provides a more nuanced portrayal of professional womanhood in the sixties than the propaganda-lite styling of the writers for Pan Am and The Playboy Club. While her American counterparts may be dedicated to a traditional narrative of the sexual revolution, Morgan explores the drab passivity of a Britain in decline, still trying to acclimatise itself to the new order of the post-war world, which better plays into the realities for women of the time than the unbridled optimism of America’s continuing ascent.
It could be argued that by setting their shows before the large majority of social change took place plays into a sense of nostalgia (a quality Draper himself describes as “delicate, but potent” enough to evoke a deep-seated emotional response) held by elder viewers in the post-9/11 age, for it was a time “when men were men” and power was held in assuredly white hands. Even as a younger viewer, it is very difficult to resist the appeal of that time. Mad Men may be the most stylish and aesthetically pleasing show on television, and it’s mostly down to the obsessive fetishisation of period fashion and detailing on the part of the series’ creator, Matthew Weiner. An early reviewer of Mad Men preferred to call it a time machine rather than a TV show, and such a description has many fantastical and awe-inspiring implications.
Mad Men itself is not immune to utilising twenty-first century hindsight for dramatic gain, having had major episodes revolve around the Nixon/Kennedy election, Kennedy’s assassination, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Hour is set in the midst of the Suez Crisis, Pan Am flew to Berlin to witness Kennedy’s monumental ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, and both have Cold War espionage subplots as a way to quickly inject excitement and mystery into proceedings. By transporting the viewer back to a time when the western world was on the crest of major change rather than in the aftermath of acclimatisation, writers can exploit their respective settings for historical context while still providing a rose-tinted perspective on a bygone era. In short, they can provide all the drama of a revolution, while subtextually siding with conservatism.
The cult of Don Draper is more than enough proof of that. An all-American male: rich, successful, commanding, charismatic and devilishly handsome, if the term “men want to be him and women want to be with him” hadn’t been invented already, it would have been created especially for him. He’s an unreformed womaniser and a sickening coward at times, but his ample flaws can be forgiven through Jon Hamm’s career-defining performance. He provides the character with a sense of classic masculinity that is somewhat refreshing as it is rarely seen in film and television these days, with the rise of flawed and beta-males in leading roles.
The Playboy Club’s Nick Dalton is a Draper copycat in the most awful sense. He’s good-looking and impeccably dressed, yet with none of the intrigue or magnetism that Hamm endows Draper with. It’s telling that everything the viewer would need to know about Dalton is revealed in the words of supporting characters rather than in Dalton’s actions. Eddie Cibrian (who played Dalton) simply looked out of his depth any time he was on camera. Dominic West has more success as Hector Madden in The Hour; the character is undoubtedly indebted to Draper, but there are enough subtle differences to make him stand out. Madden is much worse at compartmentalising his public persona from the mess of contradictions underneath, and this manifests itself in his sometimes vapid and clumsy demeanour, but where Draper could be seen as a cipher, there’s clearly heart and personality in Madden’s surface-level flaws.
Overall, it seems that the glamour and history of the post-war period, rather than Mad Men itself, is what attracts writers to go back to the era. It’s a difficult blend of engaging plot, memorable characters and itching nostalgia that Weiner propelled with Mad Men, but The Hour and Pan Am have their moments and are evidence of the Cold War as a period of creative fertility, one that show runners are shrewdly mining.