Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Nostalgia for the ’60s in TV

During a rough patch not long ago, I found myself watching a lot of vintage television online very late at night. At first, this effort to escape my demons was only intermittently successful. But then, by chance, I rediscovered a classic situation comedy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, that almost always lifted my spirits, and I kept coming back for more. Soon I had Hulued my way through all 158 episodes of the series, which aired on CBS from 1961 to 1966. I searched in vain for any episodes I might have missed. Finding none, I started over from the beginning.

In time, the demons began to recede and my obsession wore thin. Still, The Dick Van Dyke Show had helped to get me through the night – in fact, many nights. I was grateful for that. I was also a little puzzled about exactly why a well-executed yet hardly profound TV series from half a century ago did so much to salve my soul.

That question was lingering a few months later, when I finally caught up with Mad Men, the hit series that concluded its fourth season on AMC last year. Almost everyone I knew, it seemed, had already been watching the show for years. As soon as I saw it, I was hooked, too. Unlike my solitary fascination with The Dick Van Dyke Show, I found that Mad Men inspired a collective mania. Friends who followed the series were ready to rehash its latest intrigues at the drop of a fedora. And beyond the show’s undeniable appeal as a high-end soap opera, its meticulous attention to period detail and social milieu evoked something more – something that felt distinctly like nostalgia for a time most of the Mad Men audience is probably too young to remember.

This led me back to the question of soul-salving. Are we so ambivalent about the quality of our lives today, I wondered, that we secretly (or in some cases, not so secretly) want to turn back the clock? The flagging spirit of our age suggests, I’m afraid, that the answer is yes, but for reasons that are as diverse – maybe even as polarized – as America itself.

That’s because nostalgia touches us in distinctly personal, bittersweet ways that defy broad generalization. For me, the appeal of The Dick Van Dyke Show might come from having watched the series as a child and remembering my delight at the slapstick antics of its lanky, rubber-legged star. (Van Dyke was a gifted physical comedian in his prime.) Others might associate the show with the poignant optimism of the New Frontier. As for Mad Men, who knows what longing it evokes? The series paints a portrait of those same years with a dark-hued pallet of bad behavior and indiscretion, from sexist abuse and casual racism to infidelity and greed. For some viewers, it’s simply a guilty pleasure; for others, it’s a throwback to a Golden Age before the rise of political correctness forced us to live self-censored lives.

There’s something in the early-’60s for everyone to love or hate or obsess about. Perhaps that explains the period’s allure for contemporary hearts and minds.

It turns out, for example, that I wasn’t alone in connecting the dots between The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mad Men. In a mid-October post on PopMatters, Jacob Adams outlined the surprising degree of overlap between these two seemingly unrelated confections of commercial television produced several decades apart. (“The Mad Man and the Comedy Writer: Two Sides of the American Dream” , 15 October 2010) Viewed up close, they have much more in common than narrow ties, bouffant hairdos and the joys of smoking indoors.

As Adams notes, both Rob Petrie and Don Draper, the two shows’ main protagonists, are creative professionals working in Manhattan high-rise offices during the “innocent” first half of the ’60s – before the political and social upheavals that marked the rest of the decade. Rob (played by Van Dyke) is the head comedy writer on a TV variety show. Don (played by Jon Hamm) is the creative director at a prestigious Madison Avenue ad agency. Both characters live with their lovely wives and handsome children in comfortable Westchester homes, the Petries in New Rochelle and the Drapers in Ossining. It’s not hard to imagine Rob and Don brushing past each other in Grand Central Station one random rush hour in 1962.

Adams might have added that both series are also fairly blinding in their whiteness. Mad Men has introduced just a few African-American characters, all of them minor. The Dick Van Dyke Show was similarly lacking in diversity; however, it was notable for a handful of storylines that touched on civil rights themes, anticipating later sitcoms like All in the Family that mined that vein relentlessly.

The Dick Van Dyke Show

The two shows diverge in their perspective on the American dream of postwar suburban contentment. Adams positions “the Mad Man and the comedy writer” on opposite sides of that ideal. Part of their difference is easily explained: Don Draper inhabits a darkly serious drama, while Rob Petrie is a character in a feather-light comedy. But there’s more to the comparison than that. The Dick Van Dyke Show’s subtly liberal sensibility, and its orderly domesticity spiced up with a dash of showbiz , reinforced the notion that mid-century Americans could have it all. Mad Men, on the other hand, exposes the period’s underbelly of dysfunction and cynicism, conveying a palpable sense of foreboding about the reckoning that Vietnam and urban chaos would soon bring.

Echoes of that chaos still ring across America. They pique our interest in the ’60s that came before “the ’60s” – a time when it was still not quite inevitable that the revolution would end, for the most part, in tears.

How fervent has our interest become? Well, it now extends to the books on the office shelves of Don Draper and company. One book in particular, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, figures prominently on Mad Men and in some quarters of the contemporary popular imagination.

Atlas Shrugged pops up in the first season of the series, when the senior partner at Don’s ad agency, Bert Cooper, recommends it to him during a private meeting in the older man’s office. “I believe we are alike,” Bert tells Don. “You are a productive and reasonable man, and in the end, completely self-interested.” The sentiment is utterly in keeping with Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, which glorifies rational self-interest, vilifies all forms of collectivism and posits altruism as a social evil. The compulsively selfish Don Draper is, in many respects, Rand’s ideal man of action.

Apart from its Mad Men association, Rand’s dystopian novel, published in 1957, is apparently enjoying a renaissance of its own. According to a report in The Economist, sales of Atlas Shrugged have spiked since the onset of the global financial downturn. To explain this correlation, the report speculates that fretful readers are seeking out the book – which depicts a collectivist America in crisis – because they believe “that life is imitating art.” For these readers, presumably, Atlas Shrugged is a cautionary tale about the evils of government meddling in the free market.

No wonder, then, that the real-life (if somewhat cartoonish) Glenn Beck has imitated the fictional Bert Cooper in evangelizing on behalf of Rand’s principles. The Fox News commentator has devoted considerable air time to parsing the meaning of Atlas Shrugged. He explicitly urges his Tea Party followers to read it as a prescription for undoing liberal social and economic policies that, they believe, have all but wrecked the country over the past 40 or 50 years. In effect, Beck’s embrace of Rand serves a larger project: the resurrection of an idealized age of old-fashioned American values and black-and-white certainties.

Meanwhile, a short spin down the cable dial, Mad Men dramatizes how illusory those certainties and values really were.

In reality, major cultural changes were already under way even before Don Draper made it to Madison Avenue. During the ’50s, the civil rights struggle was advancing, modern feminism was nascent, and a generation of artists and writers was breaking new ground. In 1955, the young Beat poet Allen Ginsberg had published Howl, his anthem of madness, sex and enlightenment. Two years later, he stood trial on obscenity charges over it. The recent movie version of Howl underscores just how epic Ginsberg’s achievement was, not only as a literary milestone but as a harbinger of changing social mores. (Ginsberg’s defense attorney at the obscenity trial is played in the film by none other than Mad Men’s Jon Hamm. If Hamm isn’t careful, he may well spend most of his career consigned to the era of the rotary phone.)

Authenticity and creative possibility marked the lives of the Beats, the Abstract Expressionists and other early adopters of a culturally revolutionary ethos that would later gain wider currency. But those qualities were nurtured in a bygone world of dirt-cheap rents and unhurried lives; they feel elusive in our obsessively networked and commodified culture. Maybe some of us look backward to recapture the spirit of that world, even as we suspect that it’s beyond our grasp. Mad Men and, for that matter, The Dick Van Dyke Show, offer a glimpse at the final days of a time where almost anything seemed possible, and almost anything was.

And yet, it’s worth restating: Nostalgia isn’t ultimately about politics or art. It’s about emotion and memory and, most of all, loss. In one of the most compelling and self-referential set pieces in the entire series, Mad Men gets to the literal heart of the matter.

At the end of the first season, Don Draper’s family life is teetering on the edge of disintegration. Still, he carries on at the agency, pitching an ad campaign to Kodak for its new Carousel slide projector. In a characteristic move, both risky and inspired, he loads the projector with images of himself, his wife and their children in happier times. Then he narrates the slide show with a thinly veiled confession of his own angst. “‘Nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound,’” Don says, clicking through the family photos. “It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” From there, his take on the Carousel slips into the sublime:

It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again…. It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.

Don’s “time machine” could just as easily refer to television, which has the power to transport us from our anxious present to that other place of succor and reassurance. It’s a place where we don’t worry every day over the fate of the planet or the SAT scores of our children or the next terrorist attack. Like a free-form Ginsberg rant or a Jackson Pollock action painting, this imagined past is open to hyper-individualized interpretation. We read between the lines and give form to the drips and splotches on the canvas based on our unique experiences and our deepest, oldest wounds. Simply put, we see what we want to see, and we focus on that image for dear life.

At this point, it appears that the next season of Mad Men may be delayed because of financial wrangling between AMC and Lionsgate, the studio that produces the show. But even aside from that imbroglio, series creator Matthew Weiner has said it will end after one or two more seasons. Too bad, because it would be fascinating to see Mad Men projected a few years ahead, through the radical transformations that shook America in the late-’60s.

Surely some of those changes would have appealed to Don Draper’s libertine side. In the first season, after all, he smokes marijuana with his mistress Midge, a Greenwich Village artist whose bohemian friends nonetheless consider him a square and corporate apologist. In the end, though, it’s hard to imagine Don dropping out of the mainstream or even challenging it fundamentally.

We don’t have to speculate on this score with The Dick Van Dyke Show. One of its characters – Rob Petrie’s wife, Laura, played by Mary Tyler Moore – reemerged on prime time in 1970, assuming the guise of “Mary Richards” on Moore’s eponymous sitcom. Though far from revolutionary, Mary Tyler Moore frequently addressed topical issues and was considered a feminist triumph in its time. No longer the spirited but dutiful wife, Laura/Mary had morphed into a single woman working as a local TV news producer in Minneapolis. The character was still sweet and slightly daffy, but she enjoyed a level of autonomy that would have been unthinkable on network television a decade earlier.

For her boss, the veteran newsman Lou Grant (brought to life with comically misanthropic gusto by Ed Asner), this paradigm shift was sometimes hard to handle. “Mary, you’ve got spunk,” Lou says in one episode. Then he pauses a beat and adds, “I hate spunk.” He could have been speaking for all the mad men of America who thought their special time had passed. Indeed, he could be speaking for them still.

Timothy Ledwith is a fellow at The Writers’ Institute of the CUNY Graduate Center.