It's a hit of the television season -- again. What with Hollywood turning out one silly movie after another, the little screen is reasserting itself as the place to go for, if not serious drama, than the kind that rivets the viewer's attention between commercials. Much as "The Sopranos" did a few seasons back.
What keeps people tuning into "Mad Men"? Surely it's not the convoluted plots within plots. It's the acting -- especially Jon Hamm's -- and the re-creation of a particular time, place and culture: Madison Avenue in the early Sixties.
Something else is at work here, too, though it may not be easily spelled out. We tune in because once again the country is in the market for a new model of masculinity, as it regularly is. Fathers used to provide one, but sons being sons, they turn elsewhere, for what does dad know? So the movies stepped in to provide a succession of models for manhood over the years. The times they're always a-changin', and so did the models available on the big screen. We traded them in regularly, like cars.
Once upon a time, there was the strong, silent type. Gary Cooper. John Wayne. To show emotion, or at least any emotion besides cold anger, was considered effeminate. Then came the sophisticated charm of Cary Grant, which alternated with the aw-shucks, all-American appeal of a Jimmy Stewart. The cowboy hero remained a staple, but tough guys would appear intermittently: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson....
Styles varied. There was no common denominator among these models. Except a cluelessness about women, which is the essential male trait in all places at all times. Women were to be captivated, not understood. Except perhaps by an Alan Alda, The New Male, the Sympathetic Male ... a model that, naturally enough, lasted no longer than the Edsel.
Now we get Don Draper, whom Jon Hamm brings to restrained life so convincingly that "Mad Men" could be to this generation what "Lonesome Dove" is to Texans. Or "Gone With the Wind" was to a generation or two of Southerners. That is, a depiction of a lost era so well remembered that perhaps it never was. Which is how nostalgia works -- and reworks mere reality.
"Mad Men's" Don Draper seems the epitome of the rigid, cool 1950s generation confronted by the unbuttoned Sixties, when everything that was forbidden, at least ostensibly, became not just permitted but just about mandatory. Mental health demanded it, according to the Freudian canon. No wonder so many of the characters on "Mad Men," caught between the equal but opposite requirements of two such different decades, are mad. In both senses.