““America this is the impression I get from looking at my television set.
America is this correct?”
—Allen Ginsberg, “America” (1956)
AMC’s critical darling Mad Men depicts, with obsessive attention to visual and verbal detail, the early-‘60s, a precarious time in American history. On one hand, echoes of the purported suburban paradise of the late-‘50s, found more in the monochromatic world of Leave it to Beaver than in real life, resounded well into the ‘60s. On the other hand, hints of future tensions and radical change found their way into the “innocent” early part of the decade.
Mad Men depicts the darker underbelly of America’s supposed age of innocence. In the show’s early episodes, it seems that Don Draper represents the ideal urban man of the epoch. He has an exciting, creative job in Midtown and returns each evening via commuter train to his attractive Westchester family.
However, as the show has progressed, this delineation has become far more complicated. The program’s current season has explored such dark topics as racism, the health effects of smoking and alcoholism, abortion, sexual harassment, and divorce. Mad Men‘s ubiquity, it might be argued, suggests an America trying to come to grips with its own demons.
This exorcism has been a long time coming. For too long, Americans have been willing to blindly accept the black & white version of the nation’s past. For insight into how America viewed itself during the time of Mad Men’s setting, one need not look further than to another critically successful and artistically engaging TV program, The Dick Van Dyke Show.
On the surface, the two shows seem to have little in common. One is a serious drama with a novelistic sense of detail and realism. The other is a comedy program that was considered sophisticated at the time of its original run, but feels a bit naïve by our current standards.
However, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mad Men provide relevant points of comparison because they depict similar cultural milieus. A Madison Avenue ad agency and a writer’s room for a hit variety show are not that far removed as professional settings. Both Rob Petrie and Don Draper live comfortable Westchester lives with clean-cut children and attractive wives who used to be in show business (Betty Draper is a former model, whereas Laura Petrie is a former dancer). Of course, Mad Men took a radical plot turn at the start of this season, resulting in Don breaking ties with the suburban part of his life.
If Don Draper represents the failed ideal of American manhood, Rob Petrie mostly lives up to the principles he aspires to. He is dapper and sophisticated like Mr. Draper. He has a successful career in a creative field and is highly regarded in the television industry. He has a happy and satisfying relationship with his wife and child. He has friendly neighbors who are both supportive and fun to be around. His work as head comedy writer for the demanding TV star Alan Brady creates some stress, although affable co-writers Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers insure that Petrie enjoys his creative work. Sometimes Rob has to work late, but he is only a short commuter train ride away from his lovely New Rochelle neighborhood and his loving spouse.
Petrie spends his free time golfing, playing bridge with the neighbors, going to Broadway shows, taking fishing trips upstate, and throwing trendy parties for his suburban and city friends. While Rob presents himself as a sophisticated suburbanite, he comes from a more humble Midwestern background. It’s revealed in several flashback episodes that he is originally from Illinois and met Laura while serving at Camp Crowder, Missouri.
Rob is frequently tempted with the behavior that plagues Mr. Draper. Throughout the series’ run, Rob had several opportunities to have extramarital relations with various women. Everyone from celebrity guest stars on The Alan Brady Show to hip Greenwich Village artists to old high school flames make passes at Robert. While Laura has bouts of jealousy and suspicion in numerous episodes, Rob never succumbs to the temptations and no existential problems come into the Petries’ marriage.
Rob and Laura seem to enjoy the cultural and social opportunities living in the New York metropolitan area bring, but never indulge in the kind of excesses—chain smoking, binge drinking, womanizing, eating too many oysters—that haunt the characters of Mad Men. While The Dick Van Dyke Show occasionally hinted at such contemporary issues as racism, gender inequality, and the avant-garde art scene, these explorations never dug below the subjects’ surface.
Of course, part of the difference between the morals of Don Draper and Rob Petrie are a product of style and purpose. Mad Men is intended to be a serious exploration of a particular time in America’s past, whereas The Dick Van Dyke Show was a contemporary program produced with the intent of making people laugh. Although it’s difficult to imagine even a comedic show about the early-‘60s being produced today with Dick Van Dyke’s relentless idealism and optimistic attitude.
The difference between the two shows is one of perspective. The Dick Van Dyke Show’s initial five-year run had the effect of normalizing the cultural milieu represented by Mr. Petrie’s life. Not only did the show make suburbia and New York City appealing, it also made these cultural settings seem ordinary. Plenty of viewers from Middle America identified with the east coast comedy writer because his cultural and personal values conformed to theirs.
On the other hand, Mad Men has the effect of defamiliarization, deconstructing the essential elements of recognizable settings and character types. A creative job in Midtown no longer seems glamorous, but rather taxing. The generous and caring relationship of Rob and Laura descends into the dysfunctional marriage of Don and Betty. Robert Petrie, the confident, savvy, and morally upright young New Yorker devolves into Donald Draper, the insecure, duplicitous ad man with more skeletons in the closet that can be counted. America has finally come to grips with the imperfections of its own supposed “dream.”
Some would say that Mad Men represents a bold step forward. Americans are no longer living in a land of make-believe regarding its tainted past. Others might say they prefer the cockeyed optimism of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Sure, very few men of the early-‘60s lived like Robert Petrie. The show bypassed not only the complexities of human behavior, but also the intricate social issues of urban and suburban life.
Personally, I treasure every moment of both cultural products. While I recognize that life in the writer’s room of The Alan Brady Show and Rob Petrie’s beautiful home was the privilege of few, it’s still a pleasant space to visit and dream. I’m also happy that Donald Draper has been brought into the world, reminding us that nothing is ever quite what it seems on the surface. Even the best dreams can descend into nightmares.