Cue Saul Bass titles, thumping music. It rates less than 1% in the US, the writing is terrible, and it’s a cult phenomenon — yes, Mad Men is back!

The show that is to the inner-city-elite-latte-blah-blah-sodomy set, what a Top Gear appearance at a jelly-wrestling pub is — apparently — to the sainted masses, returns for a fifth season in the US and UK this week. The plot continues to crawl along, as do the years — having started as the ’50s were turning into the ’60s, the series is now at 1965, right at the point at which society as about to change rapidly and substantially.

Though the series doesn’t commit the sin of many other historical series — having two beatniks walking down the street saying “man that Bobby Dylan sure can play!” or anything — but nor can it fully represent the world of ’60s advertising in its glorious amoral splendour. Thus by season four, Don Draper is taking out full-page ads in The New York Times to announce that his agency won’t take cigarette advertising, which seems well ahead of the game. The issue of residual anti-Semitism is tackled, but race is largely left alone — and in any case, each issue gets a special episode, rather than being mixed in to the general run of affairs.

Thus, the transitional nature of the period — one where some people were happy to keep using words such as “kike”, “Jewboy” or “darkie” worked side by side with people who found such language deeply discomfiting — tends to be missed. And as old advertising hands will tell you, the single most salient feature of the industry at the time, at any time, has been missed out — the large-scale use of prostitution as a sales incentive at the time, the scads of hookers called in for client parties, TV deals, etc.

There’s a reason ad agencies and brothels can always be found in the same area (i.e. South Melbourne). Lacking drive and focus, Mad Men is maddening, drifting vaguely around plot, coming back to lost themes, without ever really getting anywhere.

But of course it doesn’t need to. The real-time progression of the series — every season takes us forward a year — gives us the movement we need, and is the core meaning of the season. Once that is taken care of, the viewer is given the licence to lie back and think of New England in the autumn — to take in the sumptuous colours and textures of a re-imagined early 1960s, shot in a style that mimics the colour processes of the technicolour period.

Mad Men not only conjures up the textures of vanished materials — the heavy fabrics of womens’ fabrics, the walnut panelling of the offices — it conjures up the way in which it as conveyed in film, until the late 1960s, when other colour processes — the ones we now regard as “natural” and “real” — took over. Just as the world before the 1920s seems to us, though we know it is wrong, to have existed entirely in sepia, so we can’t quite believe that the world at the time wasn’t entirely conducted in blocks of deep colour.

The world conjured up by Mad Men is a near-pastiche of the visual style pioneered by the ’50s filmmaker Douglas Sirk – a German refugee from Nazism who poured expressionistic technique into the personal drama “women’s pictures”, melodramatic stories of overwrought crises within families. Sirk managed to smuggle in a deal of social commentary on tight-laced ’50s America, homing in on race prejudice, persecution of homosexuals, and the neurotic effects of modern American life — all disguised in acceptable forms of conflict, the films made all the more delicious today by the fact that the straight man whose role sometimes represents a gay man, is usually played by Rock Hudson.

Yet, it’s the very comparison with Sirk that tells us what a limited portrait of the era Mad Men is. For what is characteristic of the characters in Sirk’s movies is how they stand at an ironic distance from their own social role. Thus in All That Heaven Allows Jane Wyman (Mrs Ronald Reagan I) plays an early middle-aged — i.e. late 30s — small-town widow who has an affair with a young gardener. Yet the first scene shows her providing an impromptu lunch for two frenemies, all the while making terse remarks that suggests that she — and everyone — find the whole set of received social mores tedious beyond belief. In Sirk’s films, as in life, people are far more willing to momentarily step out of their social roles with an ironic remark, or a sudden spark of refusal and assertion.

That doesn’t happen in Mad Men, because the characters are, and must be, locked in their era, living it with complete seriousness.

Such an approach is essential, for Mad Men achieves much of a sense of drama through a disjuncture between what they know of their circumstances, and what we do. We know that their world is one with Nineveh and Tyre — that in a few short years, the ordered and role-bound society in which they live is about to be undermined at its very core, above all in the matter of gender. The whole set of assumptions that guarantee not only power, but the meaning of people’s lives, their assumptions about how things should be done, exists in a state of innocence, about to be shaken by Are You Experienced?

The series is thus a creation myth, and that is the source of its occult power over so many. Season by season we see the world we live in coming to being, from a prehistoric dreaming, when the gods — Don, Peggy, Bert and above all Joan — walked the Earth, and lived in ways utterly different to ours. If any further clue was needed for that, Joan is it — the impossibly rounded fertility symbol, a sheelagh na’gigh in twinsets.

Were the myth spruiked by Mad Men a general one, the show would rate in the tens of millions, rather than the two to three million who regularly tune in. But of course it doesn’t for it is a creation myth for a special class of people — the “elites”, the trendies, the cultural producers — those whose job is to make texts and meanings. Advertising in the modern style — where you sell a product through image and metaphor, by what it isn’t rather than by what it is — was around for decades before the period in which MM is set, but they have essentially restaged the conflicts and placed them at the same time as the greater social conflicts going on around them.Mad Men dramatises the genesis of a world in which the bulk of our meanings and our surrounds are consciously made for us, with an intended meaning in mind, rather than just being there, as a result of life — the shift from culture as activity to culture as product. In the past half-century manufactured culture has come to so dominate our consciousness that a lot of life is devoted to fighting our way out of it, or at least getting some critical distance. For those who work in it, the demand is double — there is a need to work out what this bizarre process means, where work involve designing a lunchbox, or drafting a press release for a policy initiative or organising a flash mob for a conference in Port Douglas, or teaching whatever new curriculum is being urged on us this year, and so on.

Most people caught up in this process have a terrible sense of unreality about their own work — like a silhouette falling from a skyscraper — and a creation myth, though not making it any more legitimate, does suggest that others have gone before, and that there is a reason to the rhyme. So its reign will likely continue — but only, I suspect, so far. Go too many years ahead, and Don Draper will have grown-out shagpile sideburns, to go with the safari suit he wears to his primal screaming workshop. The secretaries in their make-up and pearls will be growing their hair long and forgoing bras, the desks won’t sit outside the men’s offices. And that would deprive us of the final satisfaction of MM — a vision of a world where meaning was secure because elements were separated and defined each other, women and men, work and play, public and private.

Today, when cultural and knowledge work often as not involves ghastly team-building, ice-breaking, casual Fridays, fuzbol tables and candy machines, offices that look like playpens, schools that look like a BMW factory, adults in big shorts, children with laptops, hotdesking, telecommuting, webinars, cyber networking — when all this and more has become standard, we understand that work has used the idea of play to colonise our free time, and free headspace.

The deal offered by Mad Men — hideously sexist, but defined, demarcated, and in its decorum, crackling with sex — would be shameful to accept were it even possible, and that is what makes a secret yearning for it, as borne out by a devotion to the show (especially among women) such a deliciously guilty pleasure. Enjoy it while it lasts — their world is becoming our world, and if the show, cartoonish and one-dimensional though it can be, does nothing else, it reminds us of the enormous cultural changes we have been through in the past half-century, and what a strange and new place we live in. Cue Saul Bass titles, thumping music.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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