Part of the appeal of AMC’s hit series Mad Men, which begins its fourth season on Sunday night, is the feeling of unearthing a time capsule from a bygone era, when not a single hair or hemline was out of place – except behind closed doors.
Set in the early ’60s at a Manhattan ad agency, the drama is a favourite among adults of all ages: those old enough to remember the time when poodle skirts, flawless coifs, and clean lines in furniture and fashion were as crucial to the zeitgeist as smoking and sexism, as well as younger audiences for whom the aesthetic of the period has a novel, exotic appeal.
But when viewers rejoin Don Draper and company this weekend, they may find that pristine aesthetic on the verge of transforming into something more familiar.
As Mad Men’s plot evolves, so too must its visual palette. When we left the newly constituted advertising firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Price at the end of the third season, President Kennedy had just been shot and America had embarked on a war in Vietnam. Over the final three seasons (producers have confirmed that the show will end after its sixth), the story will move deeper into the age of youth culture, when glamorous urbanites donned go-go boots and rebellious youngsters proudly sported long, dirty hair.
Audiences of all ages have seen the mid to late ’60s glorified in more movies, TV shows, musicals, and books than bear mentioning. Those who weren’t alive for the real deal dress in the flower-child look of bell-bottoms, tie-dye, and peace signs for Halloween.
The ’50s and early ’60s are another story. Sure, Sandy’s perfect ponytails in Grease are not unlike those sported by the plain but talented copywriter, Peggy Olsen – but the campy story and style of that movie basically exempts it from this conversation. And though Mad Men fans may have marvelled at the dapper suits and tidy hair featured in Good Night, and Good Luck, that movie lacked mass appeal.
Mad Men came at the start of a new trend. Think of the movies that have followed: Revolutionary Road, An Education, A Single Man, and the soon-to-be-released biopic about John Lennon and the birth of the Beatles Nowhere Boy. The July issue of Vogue featured a beautiful spread with Ewan McGregor and the model du jour Natalia Vodianova sporting an untouchable JFK and Jackie O look that is distinctly familiar to any Joan Holloway or Don Draper fan. Audiences have become fascinated with this era and its style – now considered Mad Men style by many.
So the question is, will Mad Men still be Mad Men when the show begins to move beyond the period it is so closely associated with into an era that has already been so thoroughly documented?
The show’s creator, Matt Weiner, made an ambitious move setting a sexy drama in an age that has often been associated with backwards ideals, tradition, and prim, proper, and stuffy style, but his gamble paid off. The man obviously knew what he was doing, and so there’s no reason to doubt that he and his team have planned out exactly how to progress into the mid ’60s without becoming irrelevant.
Until now the show has capitalized on an interesting period of history that came after the devastation of the Second World War and before the messiness of the Vietnam era when America seemed to be trying to preserve order by any means necessary, right down to the way they combed their hair and the types of clothes on their backs. Men always wore hats and little girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school.
In hindsight it was the calm before the storm, or at least the illusion of calm. There was in fact disorderliness all along, and Mad Men has always made room for the early signs of chaos that would become the norm only a few years later. In the first season Don Draper has an affair with a beatnik woman. The next season devoted a couple of episodes to the civil rights riots in the South, and soon after Peggy and some of the men in the office smoke pot.
As the show progresses into the age of hippies and rebellion, it will be interesting to see how Weiner, the celebrated costume designer Janie Bryant, and the rest of the team will handle the massive transition without sacrificing the essence of Mad Men.
(This piece originally appeared here on The Mark News.)