Television

The Mad Man and the Comedy Writer: Two Sides of the American Dream

If The Dick Van Dyke Show's Rob Petrie represents the ideals of American manhood, Mad Men's Don Draper represents a descent into the American nightmare.

"“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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.