The irresistible lure of Mad Men

As series six arrives on British shores, Ed Bearryman asks what makes the show and 1960s New York so appealing

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The hotly, almost breathlessly, anticipated return of Mad Men to British TV screens this Wednesday affords the opportunity to ask anew that favourite hypothetical question of my household: if you could be any character from the series, who would it be?

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The question elicits the same sort of sensory journey you went on as a child when someone asked you which superpower you’d go for given the choice. Whichever option you plump for allows for a few precious moments wandering up a mental garden path, into a giddy world of fantasy.

In this scenario it’s the sharp-suited, cocktail-infused playground of Don Draper and his fellow gallivanting ad men. As an antidote to a day in the contemporary, and comparatively dreary, office drudgery it’s pretty pervasive.

And not just for men. Women, too, find an aspirant quality to the gliding glamour of office manager Joan Harris and the plucky persistence of Peggy Olson, especially in her dogged determination to batter through that seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling of the 1960s workplace.

So what makes the lives of these characters, and the world in which they go to work, appear such a seductive alternative to its 21st-century equivalent?

The obvious answer is that it’s just so damn glamorous. Perhaps the producers got a little lucky by coinciding the show with a wider revival of sixties fashion. But the fact remains that the costume team behind Don’s tailoring – so crisp it makes you want to stand up straight and salute it – and Joan’s status-giving dresses have created, with the help of a richly vibrant set, the most stylish period drama ever known.  

That said, it doesn’t take a particularly forensic character examination to see that the beauty of the show really is only skin deep: our protagonists, each and every one, enjoy a pretty miserable lot in the wider scheme of things.

Don’s an emotionally bankrupt soul with an incredible streak of self-destruction. Joan suffers a grisly rape at the hands of her own fiancée in series two, and still goes on to marry him anyway. And Pete Campbell, Don’s conniving partner and sometime nemesis, takes a boardroom pummelling – literally – from fellow partner Lane Price, who eventually comes to a sticky end, hanging himself on the coat hook of his own office door.

I could go on – and there are many more poignant tragedies in the five-season run – but you get the picture.

So what is it that makes the idea of becoming one of these Mad Men quite so magnetic? It’s certainly not a sensation you get from watching, say, The Sopranos or Homeland. However engaged you are by the force of personality that is Tony Soprano, or the frantic CIA agent Carrie Mathison you wouldn’t actually want to live their life.

The lure of Mad Men is altogether more pervasive.

Could it be that what gives the lifestyle of the show’s characters deeper appeal today – as some sort of fantasy lifestyle template – is actually its archaic structure of society that we’re supposedly long moved on, and learned, from?

There’s a reliable order to things in the world of Don and his women. Specifically that the men come first and the women can, well, go hang.

That’s not to say we yearn for a return to the days where Mr. Executive called the shots and his little woman ran the home and cleaned up  – both literally and emotionally – after him, and nor should we.

But we are in the midst of a seismic reordering of gender roles in modern society, which is as unsettling as it is exciting. This applies to both women – empowered by growing equality in the work place and the possibilities that brings, while all the time struggling to figure out exactly when and how this leaves space for childbirth – and men, sleepwalking around trying to define their relevance now that their act as the figure uniquely positioned to win bread has been exposed as the sham that it is.

In this context, life in 1960s New York feels reliably simple and uncluttered. Today, for example, a professional woman is expected to hold down a job and bring up her family. While the modern metropolitan man must sprint through housework and ironing before he joints the daily rat race.

Perhaps, then, there is some sort of rose-tinted appeal to halving that load.

So consider that original question carefully, if you pose it, during Wednesday’s season six opener. Your eyes may kid you into thinking you’re making a choice based purely on glamorous superficialities when, in reality, it might have more to do with an uncertainty about your role in the modern world, and how Don Draper and his colleagues offer you a fantastical way out of facing up to that dilemma.

Which Mad Men character are YOU? Take our highly scientific personality test to find out…

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Mad Men starts on Wednesday at 10:00pm on Sky Atlantic.