Mad Men’s Delicate, but Potent Nostalgia

 

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in The Wheel

I sometimes weep at series finales and — writing this shortly before the final episode of Mad Men airs on AMC — I’m almost certain to so again tonight. Regardless of the final scene and music, I’ll likely tear up when it’s time to ritually delete the program from the Series Manager list on our DVR, in which Mad Men has held the #1 priority position since its 2007 debuted (the #1 slot tells the DVR “if you must record only one program, let it be this one.”)

It surprised me when I suddenly began bawling on March 1, 2005 after the final episode of NYPD Blue aired, and I deleted it from the auto-record menu of the DVR. It wasn’t just that brilliant final crane shot which completed the transformation of Andy Sipowicz. It was all the memories of that classic program flooding back, and knowing there would never be another scene, another frame of the show.

Nostalgia for Mad Men is a special punch to the gut because of The Wheel, the Emmy-winning episodic masterpiece from season one wherein Don Draper references the emotion to pitch the Carousel campaign to Kodak. I could list for you dozens of moments and episodes from the show which moved us, or made us laugh, or made me recall the 1960′s or the human condition, or perfectly typified the essence of a character. (Maybe you have some to share?)

Great moments from great shows stay with our family (I’ve watched it all sitting next to my wife) in a way that others are moved by the Bible, or Shakespeare. We reference Seinfeld every day around here.

Some TV shows limp to the finish line — the final two years of Seinfeld weren’t as great as the rest — but others are walk-off winners. The finale of The Fugitive on August 29, 1967 was a thriller ending with the final exoneration of Dr. Richard Kimble, falsely convicted of killing his wife. Everything in the series built up to that moment. Although summer was dead time in TV ratings in the 1960s, it reigned for years as the most watched American series episode of all time.

The Fugitive was the first purely adult series I ever got hooked on. Kimble took on all kinds of jobs, usually working-class gigs in the heartland, laying low while keeping an eye out for the murderous one-armed drifter. He worked for a sail-maker, or as a ranch hand, and often had to risk his own anonymity to right some wrong. It opened my eyes to worlds outside my experience as an urban teenager.

For me, Mad Men has been a more personal sojourn. I grew up in Manhattan during the 1960s, my dad’s name was Don, and he worked in advertising in the Time-Life building. I can vouch — as many have — for Mad Men‘s authenticity. It got the details right, including the details of character. Many of the men had fought wars, and were living it up in an economic boom of their own making. The women in advertising were ahead of their time. To paraphrase what Marshall McLuhan said at the time about media, they shaped the 1960s, and the 1960s shaped them.

Still, for all Mad Men built around the truth of that time, our real “Mad Men Era” has been those Sunday nights since 2007 when its stories unfolded in our living room, and fed our conversations about it in my classes and in restaurants. Well, we’ll always have reruns, and Blu-rays with commentary tracks.

I’m curious which television programs have affected you the most, and which series endings you remember.

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  1. Mario the Gator Inactive
    Mario the Gator
    @Pelayo

    The original Star Trek series.

    • #1
  2. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @MatthewSinger

    Just wish I had a bar in my office :-(

    • #2
  3. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    The conclusion of Mad Men was perfect for me, perhaps the best realized finale of any series I’ve seen on television. Relationships were resolved in such a way as to ratify the longstanding themes about love, work, and parenting. The protagonist’s present came to terms with the past when at the very last possible moment, Don Draper’s inner identity and his path as a creative artist came together.

    Because the ending left me in tears of laughter and relief, it may not be so painful to delete that #1 listing on the DVR series manager. I find it fascinating that serious newspapers including The Wall Street Journal have encouraged reader commentary on the show on their websites. Last week one reader correctly predicted the key role an actual McCann-Erickson advertisement would play in the finale, and another read the signals connecting art director Stan Rizzo and copywriter Peggy Olson.

    Spirituality of a sort also played a part. The niece of a woman who was always Don Draper’s angel figure guides him to a spiritual retreat in California. The 1970’s human potential movement is depicted and validated for its effort to connect and enlighten the emotionally adrift. Then, with delicious irony, the Om chime becomes an idea chime, and enlightenment crosses paths with the global route of America’s most iconic advertiser. The search for authenticity meets The Real Thing.

    • #3
  4. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Alert:  Minority view and possible micro-aggression to follow:

    I managed to slog through Season 1 of Mad Men.  I managed to persevere mostly by reminding myself how many people were saying it was a great show.  I cannot remember a single moment of the show that did not bore me out of my skull.  There was not a single character that I cared about in the least.  If there had been a “Red Wedding” scene where every character on the show died, I don’t think I could have mustered up enough interest to shrug.

    • #4
  5. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @WardRobles

    The early MASH episodes had an impact, especially when the character Henry Blake was killed after finally being sent back home. That ended the series for me, as the intelligence of the scripts dropped and the agit-prop rose. The television that had the most impact was not series television, but certain talk show episodes. I still remember Milton Friedman shredding Phil Donahue, William F. Buckley in a rumpled suit leaning way back in his tulip chair, and Orson Welles carrying entire episodes of the Merv Griffin Show. Do old movies shown on television count? Before cable TV and VCRs, Gone with the Wind, James Bond movies, and even Humphrey Bogart vehicles were events in themselves. I don’t think I would have discovered Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler without The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

    • #5
  6. Ed G. Member
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    I have loved many series over the years. However, I can’t recall a finale that didn’t strike me as anticlimactic, lackluster, or just bad. And that’s not even counting the series which never made it long enough for a planned finale.

    MASH probably did an ok job. They took time to unwind and let the emotions ebb and flow. It helped that the nature of the setting lent itself to a finale; the world we had grown accustomed to and the characters we knew wouldn’t exist anymore even in TV fantasyland – the characters were separating and going home with the crisis of the war now over. That spell was broken for viewer and character alike and we were all left to part ways on our own terms.

    • #6
  7. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    (Trigger warning: The following comment contains old geezer opinions that may offend the hip.)

    The final numbers aren’t in yet but here’s my starting point:

    Ratings Viz

    The itty bitty blue dot is peak ratings for Mad Men. The green circle represents the rightfully forgotten Richard Crenna/Ed Asner drama Slattery’s People which aired on CBS for two minutes in 1965.

    This show that everyone in the media is frothing at the mouth about this morning (ICONIC! LANDMARK! DEFINES A GENERATION!) has smaller ratings than the worst scripted show 50 years ago in a country with 40% more people in it. And to get to those numbers Nielsen has to wait until the DVR numbers are counted (They call it L+3: Live plus giving you 3 days to watch taped.)

    Ah, yes! But all the right people are watching! Bill Paley and David Sarnoff would be appalled.

    Culturally, the moment couldn’t not be more insignificant. Outside of the Super Bowl I’m not sure we even have a national culture anymore.

    • #7
  8. BThompson Inactive
    BThompson
    @BThompson

    Mad Men was aptly named in that it was a maddening series to stay loyal to. It was a lot like playing golf. You muddle along not really enjoying yourself, frustrated at shanks and miss hits, and then comes that one magnificent moment when the sweet spot of the clubface squares perfectly with the ball, and you watch it soar like it was fired into a secret channel bored into space time just for you. That fleeting sublimity you find in your swing at that moment is enough to keep you coming back to the capricious pastime against your better judgement time and again. So it was watching Mad Men for me. And like a round of golf, while I’m glad I stuck with it until the end, I’m also glad it’s over.

    • #8
  9. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Ed G.:I have loved many series over the years. However, I can’t recall a finale that didn’t strike me as anticlimactic, lackluster, or just bad. And that’s not even counting the series which never made it long enough for a planned finale.

    MASH probably did an ok job. They took time to unwind and let the emotions ebb and flow. It helped that the nature of the setting lent itself to a finale; the world we had grown accustomed to and the characters we knew wouldn’t exist anymore even in TV fantasyland – the characters were separating and going home with the crisis of the war now over. That spell was broken for viewer and character alike and we were all left to part ways on our own terms.

    M*A*S*H had huge finale ratings, but I had the opposite reaction to it. I was disappointed that they didn’t spring for a full-on depiction of stateside welcome homes, with period cars, families, the works. They certainly made the correct decision monetarily.

    • #9
  10. Ed G. Member
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Jim Kearney:

    …..

    M*A*S*H had huge finale ratings, but I had the opposite reaction to it. I was disappointed that they didn’t spring for a full-on depiction of stateside welcome homes, with period cars, families, the works. They certainly made the correct decision monetarily.

    But those characters – stateside parades, families, domestic landmarks – weren’t part of the world we came to know in MASH. Sure, we heard and knew about them second hand as extensions of the MASH characters rather than characters in their own right, but they weren’t part of it and the charm would never reach as far as America as After MASH was some indication.

    It’s like my real life partings from my fellow summer camp staffers in my youth. Closing day was always bittersweet and meaningful. Finding out that my bunkmate’s parents were taking him out for a welcome-home dinner, however, would have been meaningless and perhaps even an unwelcome intrusion into the intimate bonds I had forged with the staffers and our difficult parting. The staffers’ parents and the common comforts of home just were not part of that bond.

    • #10
  11. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Pelayo:The original Star Trek series.

    The worst cancellation decision in TV history. Clearly the fan base was wanted more, and got it two decades later with the movies and spin-offs.

    The 1960’s were the days when three networks split 90+ household share points and you’d better get 30. No demographics, no loyalty metrics, and not much regard for quality.

    So what’s the most memorable episode? City on the Edge of Forever ? Balance of Terror ? The Trouble with Tribbles ?

    I greatly admired TNG, with Yesterday’s Enterprise the stand-out.

    • #11
  12. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Jim Kearney: M*A*S*H had huge finale ratings… I was disappointed that they didn’t spring for a full-on depiction of stateside welcome homes…

    Then you’ve totally forgotten the rightfully forgotten After M*A*S*H which aired on CBS for two seasons after the original went off the air. It starred Harry Morgan (Col. Potter), Jamie Farr (Cpl. Klinger) and William Christopher (Father Mulcahy).

    The most the latter two worked after that: Christopher appeared in 11 episodes of the soap Days of Our Lives – as a priest.

    • #12
  13. billy Inactive
    billy
    @billy

    BThompson:Mad Men was aptly named in that it was a maddening series to stay loyal to. It was a lot like playing golf. You muddle along not really enjoying yourself, frustrated at shanks and miss hits, and then comes that one magnificent moment when the sweet spot of the clubface squares perfectly with the ball, and you watch it soar like it was fired into a secret channel bored into space time just for you. That fleeting sublimity you find in your swing at that moment is enough to keep you coming back to the capricious pastime against your better judgement time and again.So it was watching Mad Men for me. And like a round of golf, while I’m glad I stuck with it until the end, I’m also glad it’s over.

    That is perfectly stated. There times when I dreaded going to the DVR to watch the latest episode (especially seasons 5 and 4). I had to watch, because I had to see it through, and in the end I am glad I did.

    • #13
  14. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    EJHill:(Trigger warning: The following comment contains old geezer opinions that may offend the hip.) …

    This show that everyone in the media is frothing at the mouth about this morning (ICONIC! LANDMARK! DEFINES A GENERATION!) has smaller ratings than the worst scripted show 50 years ago in a country with 40% more people in it.

    Culturally, the moment couldn’t not be more insignificant. Outside of the Super Bowl I’m not sure we even have a national culture anymore.

    I framed this conversation as a personal response to art, but as a fellow geezer I’ll say a word on behalf of Mad Men in its commercial and cultural impact.

    Mad Men lifted AMC from the low $.20 range to the high $.40s in per subscriber monthly revenue. What was a repetitive old movie network became arguably cable’s top creative and (thanks to one of the other programs enabled by Mad Men‘s success) popular scripted program channels. Since cable network valuations have long been up in the billions, Mad Men built more value for AMC than most of the shows which networks rent from studio suppliers. Plus advertisers loved it, because it showcased advertising like no other show.

    Nobody remembers Slattery’s People. John Slattery’s Roger Sterling will deservedly become one of the best remembered businessmen in TV history. Don Draper is already probably second to J.R. Ewing on that list. (And Mad Men treated the business world more fairly than most shows, to my eyes.)

    Cultural impact is not measured in audience volume alone. Social buzz, electronic media coverage, journals of influence (both the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal maintained Mad Men blogs), women’s magazines, and advertising trends all feed it. And that impact in turn feeds subscriber fees.

    When it comes to monetizing content, subscriber fees are a geezer friendly element. Media buyers target the 18-49 set overall. Sub fees are age neutral. This program valued our eyeballs, and gave boomers and elders a chance to revisit an era we lived through. You don’t see that very much on broadcast television.

    Our national culture today, like our population, is a jigsaw of fragments. I’m also a loyal fan of NCIS, one of the larger fragments, and of Blue Bloods, an artistically shaped somewhat smaller one which has survived for another season. Will the folks at our tables on the next conservative cruise want to talk about NCIS and Blue Bloods? Maybe, I hope so. But if there’s another Mad Men fan at the table, we’ll bond quickly. A shared appreciation for an ambitious work of art does that for you.

    • #14
  15. BThompson Inactive
    BThompson
    @BThompson

    What Matt Weiner did with Mad Men is make capturing the zeitgeist of the culture the main point of the show. It was all about creating moments between the characters that captured the mood and sense of identity our society was experiencing during that time. Weiner chose advertising as the imperfect canvas to convey his impressions.

    It resulted in some awkward and forced character development and bizarre twists and turns in the plot. Plot and character just weren’t the heart of the show the way they are in most great series, and the way Weiner tortured those essential aspects of storytelling in service of making some point about the human condition or the transformation of our culture really felt unsatisfying a lot of the time. But people who lived through that era, or who had a connection to the advertising world, were able to tolerate the unorthodox and often unsuccessful approach for the moments of deep truth they saw.

    In the end all of the ennui and moments of existential angst were overdone, and the attention to period and art direction detail rather than on good acting and coherent storylines, made Mad Men something of a noble failure. There is no doubt though, that it was groundbreaking and at it’s best some of the best television ever produced.

    • #15
  16. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Jim Kearney: Mad Men lifted AMC from the low $.20 range to the high $.40s in per subscriber monthly revenue.

    I’d say Zombies in Atlanta probably had more to do with that than ad execs in Manhattan. Someday they may be right up there with Nickelodeon which posts sub fees in the mid 60 cents.

    Still, it has a Pauline Kael feel to it. Everybody I know watches it!

    The fractious state of the media has allowed us to define success in a decidedly downward trajectory. That also allows us to fawn over the insignificant.

    • #16
  17. BThompson Inactive
    BThompson
    @BThompson

    Your animus against this show is bizarre EJ. It’s not for you, we get it. But to deny that Mad Men was the catalyst for making AMC a serious network is just wrong. The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad would never have happened without Mad Men. Period.

    Mad Men wasn’t for everyone, as I’ve outlined, but commenting about it as if fans are too stupid to understand that Mad Men doesn’t deserve the admiration they have for it is obnoxious.

    • #17
  18. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    BThompson: Your animus against this show is bizarre EJ.

    It’s not animus as much as bewilderment. It’s the breathlessness of the praise and the amount of attention that it gets vis-à-vis it’s actual audience numbers. Maybe I’m jaded or old or both.

    Rob’s show, Sullivan & Son, was in the same ballpark as Mad Men (debuted with over 2 million viewers and ended with 1.58) and but it didn’t have snob appeal. It only made a lot of people laugh.

    • #18
  19. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    EJHill:

    BThompson: Your animus against this show is bizarre EJ.

    Sullivan & Son, was in the same ballpark as Mad Men (debuted with over 2 million viewers and ended with 1.58) and but it didn’t have snob appeal. It only made a lot of people laugh.

    Same attendance perhaps, different ballpark.

    • #19
  20. BThompson Inactive
    BThompson
    @BThompson

    It’s the breathlessness of the praise and the amount of attention that it gets vis-à-vis it’s actual audience numbers.

    This notion coming from a longtime Ricochet member is fairly ironic.

    • #20
  21. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    BThompson:

    It’s the breathlessness of the praise and the amount of attention that it gets vis-à-vis it’s actual audience numbers.

    This notion coming from a longtime Ricochet member is fairly ironic.

    Not necessarily. The medium and the format do not carry the same expectations.

    Jim Kearney: Same attendance perhaps, different ballpark.

    Exactly. 53% of Mad’s audience makes more than $100k per year. So we now measure success even farther down to less than 1 million households in a country of 320 million. (I will gladly wear my “rube badge.”)

    • #21
  22. BThompson Inactive
    BThompson
    @BThompson

    The point is, EJ, that measuring quality by statistics is pretty silly. There were and still are shows which are total garbage that receive big audiences. The success of Mad Men is the success of our long tail age. The market is now capable of providing a wide enough variety of entertainment in sufficient quantity that people can find highly specific, highly personal entertainment. People are dialing in and fine tuning their entertainment more an more narrowly all the time. It is an amazing thing to watch. I think you’re applying twentieth century on a twenty-first century phenomenon.

    • #22
  23. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    BThompson: The point is, EJ, that measuring quality by statistics is pretty silly.

    Maybe. Maybe not.

    It’s a difficult argument to make when a lot of quality stuff gets canceled because “the numbers aren’t there.” There’s something surreal about certain shows garnering huge, huge “buzz” and staying on while dozens more that appeal to a more heartland, working class population does not even though it may have double or triple the viewership.

    There’s no consistency in the decision making process. AMC gets a 2 million viewer “hit” and a broadcast network is stuck with a 5 million viewer “turkey.”

    As I said, I am fully prepared to concede that my age is betraying me.  And maybe I find it a bit ironic that if you would have asked a real Don Draper (contempory to the times portrayed) if they would buy ad space in a show with Mad’s ratings, he would have laughed in your face.

    • #23
  24. billy Inactive
    billy
    @billy

    EJHill:

    BThompson: The point is, EJ, that measuring quality by statistics is pretty silly.

    Maybe. Maybe not.

    It’s a difficult argument to make when a lot of quality stuff gets canceled because “the numbers aren’t there.” There’s something surreal about certain shows garnering huge, huge “buzz” and staying on while dozens more that appeal to a more heartland, working class population does not even though it may have double or triple the viewership.

    There’s no consistency in the decision making process. AMC gets a 2 million viewer “hit” and a broadcast network is stuck with a 5 million viewer “turkey.”

    As I said, I am fully prepared to concede that my age is betraying me. And maybe I find it a bit ironic that if you would have asked a real Don Draper (contempory to the times portrayed) if they would buy ad space in a show with Mad’s ratings, he would have laughed in your face.

    Couldn’t the success of the show be measured not how many are watching, but also by who is watching?

    I am guessing, but I presume the Mad Men audience trends to the higher income viewer.

    • #24
  25. Capt. Spaulding Member
    Capt. Spaulding
    @CaptSpaulding

    I was careful to avoid this post until watching the finale, and I am glad I did. I have to agree with the golfing analogy: brilliant moments in an uneven landscape. Like the series itself, the finale bounced between poignant moments and artsy pretension. I cast my vote with EJ Hill: over praised fodder for the cultural elites. So Don goes back to the job after all this crisis of being and nothingness? Clever but not satisfying.

    • #25
  26. BThompson Inactive
    BThompson
    @BThompson

    It’s not a question of whether he’d buy ad time, EJ. It’s how much he’d pay for the time. Does Mad Men pull in more money than other shows with similar ratings?

    It seems to me you just are pouting that critics like something you don’t, so you are stamping your feet and crying, “Unfair!” Look, people like what they like. Don’t scold them for that. Is it really surprising that critics like meticulously art directed shows that have complex characters and take on challenging themes? A show that does’t pander to the lowest common denominator or rely on formulaic designs will be given leeway by critics. Despite your disapproval, Mad Men was ambitious and unique, and that will always score points with the arbiters of taste.

    You like something more meat and potatoes, that’s fine. I admire Mad Men for what it tried to do and how it actually innovated, while acknowledging it was far from perfect and missed as much as it hit.

    • #26
  27. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    BThompson: It’s not a question of whether he’d buy ad time, EJ. It’s how much he’d pay for the time. Does Mad Men pull in more money than other shows with similar ratings?

    About $65,000 per :30 for the finale according to AdWeek. Four years ago the primetime average on the four broadcast nets was $110,000.

    The way ads are sold these days is definitely different. When ABC did their upfront presentation earlier this month it featured personalities from ESPN as well. You no longer buy shows as much as you buy “platforms.” NBCUniversal isn’t just selling NBC. It’s USA, BRAVO, MSNBC, CNBC, et. al.

    BThompson: I admire Mad Men for what it tried to do and how it actually innovated…

    And what exactly did it invent?

    • #27
  28. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    EJHill:

    And what exactly did it invent?

    The period business drama, for one thing.

    As you know, high stakes, standalone episode drama franchises get the highest ratings, especially when you factor in reruns. High stakes serial dramas (ER) have been known to do well in first run. Soaps with a business setting (Dallas, Dynasty, Empire) can break out, but not without a lot of over-the-top melodrama.

    Period business dramas, set 40-45 years in the past, incorporating humor and historical reference points, and built around ordinary stakes such as landing a client, well, that requires some pretty nifty writing. They really broke all the rules of commercial success, except for the great looking cast.

    Side note … Say, EJ, since I’ve got your attention, how about a big warm sweatshirt or light outer jacket with the Ricochet logo? All they’ve got in the catalog is that Canadian design. Like Mad Men fans, Ricochet folks are proud to be associated with our culturally elite club, and some of us just don’t look so great in t-shirts.

    • #28
  29. EstoniaKat Inactive
    EstoniaKat
    @ScottAbel

    Ed G.:MASH probably did an ok job. They took time to unwind and let the emotions ebb and flow. It helped that the nature of the setting lent itself to a finale; the world we had grown accustomed to and the characters we knew wouldn’t exist anymore even in TV fantasyland – the characters were separating and going home with the crisis of the war now over. That spell was broken for viewer and character alike and we were all left to part ways on our own terms.

    I think you would be hard-pressed to name a final scene that was more perfect than MASH.

    I had just started high school when it aired, but I still remember this moment like yesterday:

    mash

    • #29
  30. BThompson Inactive
    BThompson
    @BThompson

    I’ll second Jim and emphasize how Mad Men brought the period to life by focusing on the minutia. Weiner used unexpected and untapped types of interactions to convey his ideas.

    Unlike other period pieces, Mad Men didn’t rely on celebrating the big, cliché historical events or cultural icons to shorthand what period it was in. Most period pieces simply plop modern stories and modern characters into costumes and show old cars and hairdos to pretend that they are talking about a different era. Mad Man used moments like tupperware parties or family picnics where people just left their garbage behind on the ground to remind people of how we used to live. The chauvenism and double standards of the time are also depicted convincingly and in a way that didn’t come across as preachy or judgmental.

    Mad Men didn’t go for pat depictions or caricature in conveying it’s commentary on the era. It also depicted the advertising industry more accurately, by a factor of 1000, than any other story set in that milieu.

    And finally, as I said before, it set out to do something different from other dramas, it set out to faithfully capture and depict the spirit of a tumultuous time. That was it’s ultimate mission, and it did so without nostalgia or revisionism or condescension. I don’t know any series that have done that before.

    • #30
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