Exploring Cultural References in "Mad Men"

Mad Men: Pete Campbell, Don Draper, and Roger Sterling. Photo: MCC Current [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr.

The Ultimate Guide to Mad Men: The Guardian Companion to the Slickest Show on TelevisionThe Ultimate Guide to Mad Men: The Guardian Companion to the Slickest Show on Television by Will Dean

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Recent period-drama television series closely resemble soap operas but with a twist: there is much to learn from deliberate literary, cultural, and historical references. 

I first became aware of Mad Men while reading a post on The Art of Manliness about Don Draper's haircut. Much has been written about the series on respected media websites, including the Wall Street Journal, The Conversation, and The Guardian. (Another of my favourite period-dramas, Downton Abbey, has a similar following in terms of literary, cultural and historical references.) 

I purchased this book to delve deeper into some of the cultural references appearing in the series. I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the more obvious references, such as Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency, Palisades Amusement Park, the story of Park Avenue Armory, Penn Station, and other historical sites. The New York Public Library has also compiled a Mad Men reading list and a series of 1960's fashion illustrations

What I didn't know was that most of this book is available on The Guardian's website. The book itself is formulaic, and only covers the first three seasons. Aside from some interesting essays on the various sociological aspects of the show, the general format is a description of each episode, commentary on the social and cultural references, and comments by a number of the participants on the original blog. 

It wasn't riveting stuff, and at times I felt that almost anyone with the right institutional backing could produce such an easy (lazy?) book. Having said that, I discovered much that I had missed on my several viewings of the series. 

Like Downton Abbey, so much of the background research that went into writing the drama is far from self-evident, and there is much to be gained from lifting the lid on the research. Even the anachronisms and historical errors (usually stemming from poetic licence) are sources of fascinating knowledge. 

Matthew Weiner's work is first-class, and I must admit to a tinge of envy that someone could know so much and write for the screen. Of course, this is no ordinary person, but it was interesting that one of the blog commentators noticed in the credits that a mental health expert had been employed in the making of one episode. I took some solace in the fact that such big productions are the work of many people. (Until I discovered that Matthew Weiner has written a novella, too. Now I will have to read it - and that's how my reading process works!) 

I have often struggled with the idea of not finishing books that I do not like, but then I often end up discovering something interesting in even the worst of books. Not that this book is so bad, but when the formula for the final episode of the book ends, so does the book. It is followed by a list of the music featured in each episode. (Check out Spotify's Mad Men playlist - the soundtrack is great!) 

I often get a bit snobbish about the value of a television series in comparison to literature. But the same could be said of my favourite computer game, Sid Meier's Civilization, which has been referred to as a form of "edutainment"

In many ways, I find television series, particularly period-dramas, a useful form of Netflix bingeing with a mild excuse of having some educational value. For example, after finishing both Mad Men and Downton Abbey, I looked for the "best" television series to start on next. Consistently, Breaking Bad rated as the best television series of all time. But after a few episodes, I found the show rather empty and I abandoned it soon after. 

Recently, Grimm had me hooked, and it has sent me off to learn all about the Black Forest and the Grimm brothers. I daresay learning from Breaking Bad would not lead to the type of education I am seeking! But I digress. 

I learnt much from this book, but it is obviously dated, and I am in no rush to read up more about Mad Men any time soon. But I will continue to delve into the many literary, cultural, and historical references from the series (and this book), but I really must be a little more critical with my reading choices and not rely on a brand name (no pun intended) when going off the beaten track.

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