Since the series premiered in the summer of 2007, AMC’s Mad Men has become the powerhouse drama when it comes to award show season. Currently, Mad Men is the reigning winner of Primetime Emmys for “Outstanding Drama Series” and “Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series” two years running. Mad Men also holds honors for the past two consecutive years as the Golden Globes’ “Best Television Drama” and the Screen Actors Guild’s “Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series.” In light of all this attention, I thought maybe the season four premiere might be worth my attention, and with any luck, render a decent column.
It’s impossible to embark on any description or exploration of Mad Men without acknowledging the role of the 1960s as a backdrop for the show, and by extension acknowledging the impact of the 1960s on American society — a period of technological progress, social volatility, and collective rebellion. While I am no authority on this particular decade (not being a history buff and having not been alive at the time), I believe it is safe to describe the 1960s as the first "anything goes" decade in American history. If there is a single philosophy that permeates Mad Men, it is the idea that people can do whatever they want. Take, for example, the workplace culture of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising Agency. Overall, it is a culture of self-indulgence in which most characters are completely willing to use each other if it means gaining personal success.
From this culture emerges the quietly self-destructing Don Draper (Jon Hamm). While keeping a calm-and-cool façade in place at the office, Draper privately struggles with loneliness and depression due to the breakup of his marriage and the absence of his children. At night, he comes home to a dark apartment and pours himself the next in a day-long series of drinks in an attempt to dull his pain (unless of course there is an even remotely willing woman nearby to offer another type of distraction). At some point, either from exhaustion, inebriation, or both, he passes out. Then, he wakes up in the morning and starts his rapid downward spiral all over again. Everyone at his office notices, but they all pretend they don’t, and life goes on. To say the least, Don Draper’s world is very dark both literally and figuratively.
Five decades later, in the midst of another "anything goes" decade, some things haven’t changed. We are still told daily that we can do whatever we want. We can. We can indulge every appetite. We can pursue success at any cost. We are all one choice away from a Draper-like dark existence in our own lives. It may be tempting to try to distance ourselves from this uncomfortable truth. We may want to launch into a tirade against Mad Men for the wrongs the show depicts. (There are a variety of moral wrongs to choose from on Mad Men. I’m not denying them. I am asking you to look beyond their surface for a moment.) We all, at times, try to insist that such things could never happen in our own lives, but the messy world of Mad Men is inspired by the mess in which we live, and the reality is that the low points of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising Agency and its employees are the low points that we are all capable of, even inevitably headed toward, without a firmly grounded faith.
Of all the things that haven’t changed from the 1960s as depicted on Mad Men to today, one is particularly insidious, maybe even more so than the potential downward slide of our own lives. Eventually, we would at least have to acknowledge the slow onset of an ugly truth about ourselves. When it comes to other people, however, many of us who claim a grounded faith follow the example of Don Draper’s coworkers, pretending that we don’t notice when the lives of those around us slip into darkness and begin to unravel. We defend this approach by saying that other people’s problems are none of our business, and that may be true, but it may also be an excuse. In some cases, people have made clear that they don’t want our help or involvement or friendship, so all we can do is respect that. But in many other cases, I know I avoid getting involved in people’s lives or problems because getting involved is often inconvenient and intimidating. Getting close to people may be uncomfortable. It may offend our sensibilities. It may be hard work. But none of that matters. Getting close to and lighting the darkness for people in desperate need is exactly what Jesus did. That’s the example we should be following, because while the world of Mad Men may be called television entertainment, it is not an entertaining reality. Think about it. How much fun does Don Draper really look like he’s having right now?