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and feed their un-seatbelted children peanut butter, they are not doing so simply to rub our collective noses in the outdated social mores of 1960.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.