In its eulogy for the Weekly World News, the Washington Post quoted a former WWN editor's newsroom philosophy. His admonition, "Don't fact-check your way out of a good story," also seems perfectly applicable to much of the lay criticism of our current favorite work of the media arts, AMC's Mad Men.
Many online comments about this series nitpick this or that detail of the costumes or props or express genuine outrage at the characters' "excessive" drinking and smoking — so many, on so many different sites, that a segment of the audience seems in danger of fact-checking itself right out of a very good story indeed. Like a certain WWN stalwart, some of these viewers seem mad, "pig-biting mad" about Mad Men. We're not going to let their anger get in the way of our good time.
Mad Men not only plausibly recreates the world of 1960 — it's also competing with our contemporary perceptions of what that world was like, impressions of that period (even for those who lived it) which have been formed over time by the media, mostly television and the movies. Nancy Franklin's canny one-paragraph appraisal in The New Yorker pegged the series as a love letter to Hollywood's idealized version of New York in the late '50s/early '60s. Director Douglas Sirk is often invoked, but so far what Mad Men most resembles is a melodramatic (and we mean that as a compliment) mashup, told from today's vantage point, of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and the productions of Jerry Wald, especially Jean Negulesco's The Best of Everything.
It seems to us that many of Mad Men's haters don't understand just how favorably Mad Men compares with those sources or they willfully refuse to appreciate the basic premise of historical fiction. In a period drama, the period is a leading character. If, as we argue, there have been only one or two truly glaring anachronisms or inaccuracies per every few episodes, then in Mad Men that character has been developed and it is fleshed out pretty damn well.
And pick all the nits you want, but when the human characters of Mad Men smoke, drink, flaunt their marriage vows, and feed their un-seatbelted children peanut butter, they are not doing so simply to rub our collective noses in the outdated social mores of 1960. They are also creating the mise en scène that makes fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper (and all who are nailed in her) a world we viewers can immerse ourselves in, every week. Like the viewers, the creators are observing that world — and commenting on it — from a 2007 perspective.
Throughout its history, television has done period drama with varying degrees of success. Mad Men 's production design seems meticulously researched compared to period pieces from American television's earlier periods. How do Gunsmoke or Bonanza hold up next to Deadwood (or even '90s syndie Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years)? From its second season, Happy Days included more anachronisms (costumes, grooming, dialog) in each episode than we will probably see in Mad Men's entire run.
Productions take more care with historical material in the era of Deadwood and HBO's various biographical films, but there are still exceptions. We'll cut the recent BBC production of Robin Hood some slack for its obvious camp but that still doesn't excuse its lapses into modern dialog ("Okay!") and off-the-rack costumes. The Tudors is Showtime's wretched retelling of the Henry VIII history in which only a few of the supporting roles are even watchable. Despite the richness (and middling accuracy) of the interiors and the richness (and irritating inaccuracy) of much of the costuming and grooming, the series' grating dialog and petulant characterizations are enough to make the discerning viewer long for the late '60s and early '70s run of BBC and ITV studio productions that set a seldom-matched standard for televised historical drama.
Some of those British series were, like Mad Men, original stories and not adaptations, among them The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Upstairs, Downstairs. They were quite simply very well-written and period-accurate plays.
Straight out of the theatrical tradition, these were dramas performed live-to-tape under the constraints of what is now considered primitive studio TV production: they were shot by relatively huge and cumbersome television – not video – cameras, under harsh lights on a few standing sets. Yet the beauty of the dialog, the quality of the performances, and the rich detail of the costumes (copied, albeit cheaply, from portraits and other primary sources) combine to pull the viewer into another place and time, and keep us there, which is exactly what we want from a period piece.
Production values have long since advanced to the point where the television costume drama once rooted in the theater now takes its cues from motion pictures. Filmed on a basic-cable budget for AMC (a channel desperate for original "cinematic" programming that can complement and freshen the demo for its often dubious library of "classic" films), Mad Men is also working within certain limitations. By our 2007 standards it is doing a fine job. We enjoy playing spot-the-anachronism as much as the next viewer — even more, maybe, when a work tackles one of our favorite eras in aesthetics.
But when it comes to Mad Men, we agree to willingly suspend our disbelief. We have an inkling that the producers of Mad Men are telling a good story, we are predisposed to enjoy it, and we're determined not to let a few stray facts get in our way.