MAD MEN-ESCAPE TO CAMELOT by Charles A Coulombe for Taki's Magazine
Television—thanks to the profit motive—is intensely imitative. If any type of show is successful, a horde will suddenly appear of usually lesser and shorter-lived knockoffs. In one season, the networks may be overwhelmed by alien invaders or ghosts, in another by “relevant” comedies. All such series are motivated by the hope of catching at least some overflow fans of this year’s plot du moment. The need for hits has become ever more desperate as the networks have lost ground to cable and now the Internet. Indicative of this desperation is the fact that the current “latch-on” show is itself a cable offering—AMC’s Mad Men.
Scheduled to start its fifth season next year, the series revolves around the adventures of a quintessential group of early 1960s types: advertising men based in New York City’s Madison Avenue. (Longtime readers of Mad magazine will remember how that immortal journal’s home street was always rendered as “MADison” Avenue.) Mad Men has become immensely popular during its run—especially among folk too young to remember the era. Hoping to cash in, ABC is offering Pan Am, featuring the adventures of that era’s quintessential figures, airline stewardesses (most definitely NOT “flight attendants”), and NBC gives us The Playboy Club, with yet another archetypal bunch, the Playboy Bunnies. These two series push the fact that their characters changed America, implying that we owe today’s perfection to them. But if they succeed, it will not be their alleged relevance that captures audiences, but the same retro factors that have made Mad Men so popular.
“Perhaps the era’s greatest crime was that it evolved into what followed it.”
But what are those? Why should the first half of the 1960s (as opposed to the second, so beloved of the baby boomers) command such attention from the same boomers’ children? Because, although still within the memory of many living (including myself, barely) it was, superficially at least, everything this era is not. Let’s zero in on a few points.
First, elegance. Before feminists burned their bras and hippies let it all hang out, anyone who aspired to anything wanted to look right. Jacket, tie, and hat for men; slip, skirt, high heels, makeup, and jewelry for women. Prior to the cult of dirt emerging from Haight-Ashbury, the truly cool wanted to “look like a million bucks,” even if they had nowhere near that in the bank. As with fashion, so with manners. Without a free-speech movement to tell them that foul language was liberating, anyone outside construction sites, barracks, and stag parties tried to keep their language clean. Do boomer parents’ surviving children make a concerted attempt to be elegant? Only in fits and starts; but they are often aware in a dim way that their progenitors’ grunge was a definite loss from something better.
Second, gender specificity. In those far-off days, men had short hair, wore natty clothes, held the door for ladies, and smoked pipes (cigars and cigarettes, too, but the pipe was considered über-masculine). Women tended to wear big hair such as bouffants or beehives. (The latter was almost singlehandedly revived in our time by the late Amy Winehouse.) And they walked. Oh, did they walk! Few women today can manage the particular hip movement that so clearly differentiated the female from the male, but it was something to watch. For the most part, gender roles were clearly defined from childhood: Men were soldiers, sailors, ad executives, and businessmen. Women were wives, secretaries, and teachers. Little girls did not play football, and little boys only played dolls with G.I. Joe. Here too, the portrayal of such stuff on the little screen has a strange attraction for those who have been raised with unisex fashions and lifestyles and expect a girl to “put out” on the first date.
Third, well, fun. People smoked and drank. A lot. A real lot. I can remember watching the cigarette smoke fill movie theaters. The purse-lipped brigade had other fish to fry in those days, and for the most part they left the drunks and human chimneys alone. It might be objected that cirrhosis and lung cancer were more widespread in those days. Perhaps, but AIDS and herpes were unknown. It is, I think, this latter point that is the greatest draw for the era’s fans.
For those who wish they could travel in time back to Camelot outside their minds, Southern California boasts an enormous number of “time machines.” (It is no wonder that Mad Men, although set in New York, is filmed out here.) Despite the fact that so much of the social revolution that propelled us from that world to this occurred in California, it amazes me how many sanctuaries from that same revolution can be found here.
This nostalgic glow is to some degree over-idealized—and the modern mantra is that the era was sexist, racist, and homophobic. The surface tinsel of the Kennedys’ Camelot was just that—and the fact that social mores would collapse so quickly over the next decade shows how fragile they really were. Perhaps the era’s greatest crime was that it evolved into what followed it. Nor should it be forgotten that if our own time has a certain nostalgia for the early ’60s, that era had a nostalgia of its own—for the 1920s and 30s in such series as The Untouchables and The Roaring Twenties.
All of which points up two truths. On one hand, folk bemused by current problems always seek shelter in supposedly happier times. As a Victorian New Year’s poem put it, “For hope shall brighten days to come, And memory gild the past.” But on the other, our era really is so screwed-up that anyone remotely sane will look elsewhere. As Tolkien put it, “it is easy to debunk escapism; but notice that the ones who do so are usually the gaolers!”