With the return of Mad Men days away, it is seemingly impossible to avoid seeing or hearing mention of it in the news, through social media, or by the water cooler. In its hiatus, I found substitute in a few of the books that have been written about the show. A standout is Analyzing Mad Men: Critical Essays on the Television Series. The book is comprised of twelve essays involving the context, politics, women, and nostalgia of Mad Men.

The series is the brainchild of Matthew Weiner and I learned it is based entirely on monitoring the effect of change. And though Mr. Weiner is clearly fascinated with the early sixties, the show is meant to parallel the changes experienced in this last decade. He is interested in knowing whether people in tumultuous times “recognize that change is going on?”

At its base level, the series centers on capitalism, clear roles regarding the sexes and races, and unchecked hedonism. Those topics make for a great soap opera but Mad Men’s appeal is in the search for deeper meaning and connection. All the struggles and conflicts that make up the storylines are predicated on a rejection of the status quo.

The series is akin to an episode of The Twilight Zone: the characters are trapped in a world they have contributed to but one in which they want to escape…it is a nightmare of their own making. And many would argue that we find ourselves in exactly the same dilemma today… “Mad Men offers the schadenfreude-filled message that their predecessors were equally unhappy – and that the bleakness meter in American life has always been set on high.”

Mad Men’s brilliance goes back to the first season when it began with “classic literary archetypes”. These characters were quickly revealed to be either mysterious, disingenuous, or just terribly flawed as we humans can be. Equally brilliant are the accurate sets and costumes providing the nostalgic yearning many have for the show. In combination the characters and sets only emphasize how staged life was back then. Many of my friend’s homes in the 60’s and 70’s had immaculate living and dining rooms that no one was allowed to enter. In essence, many of us lived on a “set”.

What is not sufficiently explored in the books and articles I have read on Mad Men is why advertising? Perhaps because it is a simple answer: the people in the industry were seen as mavericks and non-comformists. They ran counter to the ubiquitous grey, drone-like middle managers that were the subject of sociologist William H. Whyte’s 1956 book The Organization Man. If “conformity was the enemy of creativity and, therefore, productivity” then ad men appeared highly productive and appealing as anti-heroes. What it really means is, a show that took place at IBM, Bethlehem Steel, or General Electric in the early 60’s may not have had the same appeal.

Another reason why the chosen backdrop is advertising is that we are all impacted by it in some way. The “influence of advertising” has to be in the top ten of most common cocktail topics as we each have a theory. It also “helps explain why Don’s chosen profession is advertising. In the advertisements that Don creates, he avoids the anxieties of the ‘real’ world and simulates comfort and stability. According to Jean Baudrillard, “All original culture forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten”.

Personally, as someone in the profession I enjoy the conundrum of “the contradictory notion that any “mass” marketed product has the capacity to individualize anyone”.

One observation about the show that it still accurate in the industry today is “everyone in this office is always competing with each other, even if they do not seem to be doing so.” It is when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce bonds together and pitches new work or delivers a new campaign that their talents truly shine. Today employees of ad agencies still forget that the competition is outside of their office.

There also has to be recognition that Sterling Cooper has been ineptly run and managed. They can rightfully be accused of milking a cash cow whose strategy and structure are no longer relevant. One essay points out it “is resistant to adapting its strategy to a changing media landscape, often underestimating the impact of new media (e.g., television), new products (e.g., imported small cars) and demographics (e.g., youth culture)”.

In terms of plotlines, the most jarring for me was Don denying his brother Adam a connection to his new life. The resulting suicide was horrific. As such, the psychological issues related to his family of origin make for meaty material as Don is more devastated over the loss of his fake wife. And his eventual “alienation from his family is one of the show’s clearest examples of the real world’s failure to deliver on the promises given us by capitalism.”

On the notion of drinking in Mad Men, I agree with the analysis that “dissatisfaction seems to be the primary motivator”. However, as a reader of everything John Cheever and Richard Yates ever published, I have to advance a related theory and that is that many of these men were experiencing post-traumatic stress from World War Two and Korea. Yates’ The B.A.R. Man is but one example of how these guys came home from the war, largely conformed, and decompressed with booze. Mad Men does a great job reflecting this through the character Freddy Rumsfeld who was a killer of many Germans and then wrote copy for ads and now battles alcoholism.

I often wonder what the reaction would be if Mad Men were broadcast in 1961. How would those actually living the times identify with or recognize themselves? Like Mr. Weiner, I was born in 1965 and also like him, I wonder if the “obsession is one based on and nurtured by representations of the period” rather than its reality. In the end, I believe Mr. Weiner is celebrating the era while at the same time exposing its contradictions and the confusion felt by those who lived it.

This collection of essays is well worth the read if you are a fan. It peels back wonderfully deep layers that will benefit as Season Four progresses. It is clear that Mr. Weiner has been influenced by many books and films from the very times he covers. In one essay in this collection, Mad Men is called “a copy of a copy”. I do not take that stand but instead recognize the great source material available, much of which I have read.

For those who want to dive deeper I encourage you to read The Organization Man by William H. Whyte previously mentioned. And, in terms of fiction, pick up Rona Jaffe who captures the plight of the working woman in The Best of Everything, John Cheever’s short stories that delightfully skewer the fallacies of man at work and man at home, and Richard Yates’ work which brings a dark brooding to an era largely characterized as bright, simple and cheerful (brilliantly depicted in his book Revolutionary Road and well done as a recent movie).

Having consumed this insightful collection of essays, I plan to consume another Mad Men-related book called, How to Drink Like a Mad Man by Ralph Maloney. I consider myself quite adept already but look forward to any tips this tome will provide.