Mad Men: Dream Come True TV (Review)

Who knows when Mad Men will return. Reports say “early 2012.” If you can’t wait, you can always relive your favorite episodes on AMC or pop in a DVD. For fans who want to give a little extra thought to the series, you should check out Gary R. Edgerton‘s collection of essays, Mad Men: Dream Come True TV.

Mad Men: Dream Come True TV is really a mixed bag of essays. I found some to be a bit convoluted and direction-less while others were most informative. The last two sections of the book, which cover race, gender, and politics, will be of interest, I would imagine, to most visitors to this site. Fans of the series will no doubt flock to the first two essays that offer the most behind-the-scenes perspectives on the show. If anything, the essays collected here remind us why good television matters and why we should care about and watch it so closely. Whether at an ad agency in 1960s New York or on an intergalactic battleship, the drama of good television is, more often than not, more about us than it is the objects on the screen. As Edgerton points out in his introduction to the book, “[The characters in Mad Men] are merely an earlier, confused and conflicted version of us, trying to make the best of a future that is unfolding before them at breakneck speed” (xxvii). The brilliance of Mad Men, according to many of these contributors, is that it simultaneously portrays and critiques a seemingly distant time while showing us that we have much farther to go to get to where we already think we are. A brief summary of the book follows.

In a Foreword, Introduction, and fifteen essays, the contributors to this collection cover the series from a wide array of perspectives, all bunched into five larger themes. In the first, “Industry and Authorship,” Edgerton discusses the production history of Mad Men…how the series came to be. Brian Rose interviews executive producer Scott Hornbacher on both the birth of the series and the day-to-day, or episode-to-episode, work on it. Finally, Ron Simon puts, or reflects on, Don Draper in conversation with Bob Dylan and George Lois.

The second section addresses visual and aural style and their influences on the series. Jeremy G. Butler discusses the series’ style and the ways in which it compares to other popular ’60s fare like The Apartment or Ben-Hur. Tim Anderson analyzes the ways in which music and sound critique the idealism of the series and the time in which it is set. Finally, Maurice Yacowar, in brilliant fashion, extends this study to consider how moments of silence in particular episodes continues this critique. Yacowar observes, “If our awareness makes us feel superior to the characters we fall into Weiner’s trap. For it is his advertising men’s sense of superiority […] that renders them hollow. These suggestive silences draw on our privileged knowledge and pull us into Weiner’s satire” (86).

The third section, “Narrative Dynamics and Genealogy,” places the series in historical context in relation to its structure and development. Horace Newcomb considers the role that television plays within the series and, by extension, in our own lives. Sean O’Sullivan points to the serial nature of the series and its relation to other serialized narratives and even The Odyssey. O’Sullivan realizes that, much like Yacowar’s discussion of silence, the moments of nothingness in between each season and the time that elapses in the narrative have implications for how we view the events that take place in each episode.  David Lavery discusses the poetic nature of the series and Frank O’Hara‘s influence on the ’60s, the series, and series creator Matthew Weiner.

In the fourth section, contributors mine the rich sexual politics and gender themes in Mad Men. In this section, contributors offer insightful essays that shed light on the brilliance of the series but that also reveal conflicting interpretations of the series. Mimi White analyzes the series’ “Mad Women” and argues that they are so for completely different, and sometimes self-imposed, reasons. Mary Beth Haralovich discusses the ways in which Mad Men‘s women characters open up conversations about feminism and how they can bridge the three different waves of it. Finally, Kim Akass and Janet McCabe point to the opportunities for and limitations on “the working girl” in Mad Men, the ’60s, and our world today.

Finally, three contributors focus on “Cultural Memory and the American Dream.” William Siska shows how the “boyish” nature of the men in Mad Men is a critique of American capitalism and consumerism as well as an embodiment of the tension between “gemeinschaft” and “gesellschaft.” Allison Perlman extends her analysis beyond the series, placing it in conversation with “paratexts” like DVD featurettes and accompanying documentaries about race and gender in American history to look at the ways in which the series offers a revisionist history of racism in America while simultaneously undermining that history. David Marc considers the series to be a “Roots Tale of the Information Age” and analyzes it in the context of broadcast advertising, the birth of the radio, and McLuhan‘s observations on advertising.