On Sunday, July 25, several million people will crowd around their televisions and watch the fourth season premiere of Mad Men on AMC. Fans will sip Old Fashioneds and vodka gimlets and comment on the excellent performances and thought-provoking storylines. They’ll admire the detailed set design, coo over the ’60s-era costumes and talk about how crazy things were back then, before we confronted racism, sexism and homophobia.
When I watch Mad Men, I think of my late father. Back in the early 1960s, he was an ad man just like Don Draper. He worked in Chicago, not Manhattan, but the stories my father told us as children are virtually identical to episodes I’ve seen. And Mad Men feels a lot like an old family photo that’s sprung to life.
My dad had Don’s same suit, hat and briefcase, and worked with backstabbing weasels like Pete Campbell and Duck Phillips, who thought nothing of taking credit for his ideas. He often came home with new products, months before they hit the market, shvitzing over the best way to present them. When clients were happy, they celebrated by drinking; when they hated his campaigns, the office would drown their sorrows in the same manner. Clients expected fancy meals and adult entertainment, and everybody smoked too much. Eventually, my father wearied of the obligatory three-martini lunches. Fearful of becoming an alcoholic, he moved to California and took a job as marketing director for a company that specialized in office furniture.
I grew up in a house littered with the latest issues of Graphis, Print and Art Directors Annuals, and I have vivid memories of my father hunched over a drawing board, drafting perfectly straight lines with his T-square. His pre-computer home office was a gold mine of rubber cement, colored pencils and fat Staedtler erasers.
In elementary school, I was probably the only kid who had heard of David Ogilvy, George Lois and Jerry Della Femina. I knew good ideas came from scribbling on a legal pad, and bad ideas belonged in the trash.
I’m sorry I can’t talk to my father about Mad Men, but I’m thankful I can watch it with my son. We recently had a Mad Men marathon, and though my son is a restless 15, the show kept his full attention. It’s hard for him to imagine a world without smartphones and recycling, but he asked all the right questions.
In Mad Men, Matthew Weiner (a former writer for The Sopranos) has “staffed” an office full of complicated and unforgettable characters, but surely his masterstroke was setting the series in the early 1960s. In many ways, the decade functions as the ultimate supporting character. Watching the show with my son, I was able to discuss American history (civil rights, women’s rights, the Kennedy assassination), not just family history.
Mad Men has ratings and critical acclaim (including back-to-back Emmys for Best Dramatic Series), but there are only a handful of shows you truly miss when they’re over for the season. It’s been eight long months since the third season of Mad Men ended, leaving viewers with a number of indelible images and loose story threads, and I look forward to welcoming it back.