On “Mad Men,” the AMC television show that returns for its fifth season Sunday night, booze, cigarettes, unprotected sex, cholesterol-rich foods and negligent parenting play starring roles in a surprisingly accurate and yet idealized picture of a New York ad agency in the mid-1960s. Seismic cultural shifts — Vietnam War protests, bra-burning and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — are just over the horizon. But the fictional Don Draper and the other characters have no idea.
The show gives us a window into the mind-sets of our parents and grandparents. But let’s fast-forward a few decades: Imagine a televised version of life today, as seen and interpreted by our grandchildren and their children. What would a “Mad Men” set in 2012 and filmed in the future look like?
Our lives would no doubt be portrayed as much more casual than in the ’60s and increasingly steeped in technology. Corsets and fedoras would be traded in for skinny jeans and ballet flats. Typewritten letters would be swapped for text messages.
Don Draper, master of the “Mad Men” universe, in 2012 might resemble an older, establishment-oriented Mark Zuckerberg: an ambitious entrepreneur who lives in Silicon Valley, wears flip-flops to formal occasions and rides his bicycle to work. Though he started out at a software firm, designing programs that helped big banks better identify their customers’ preferences, he left to launch his first social-media venture, YouPrivacy, an answer to the daily boundary violations of airport security and Google location software.
He led the company through a much-hyped initial public offering, rocketing his net worth beyond $100 million just before his 30th birthday. Instead of having Scotch-saturated chats behind closed doors, this Don takes the door off his office. Brainstorming sessions involve everyone — with notes taken in 140-character snippets.
“Ah, the days when we could formulate such long thoughts!” viewers muse, shaking their heads at all the energy drinks fueling these meetings. “Don’t they realize that stuff causes cancer?”
Draper’s protege is Peggy Olson, a go-getter who launched herself from unpaid intern to valued head of the company’s legal department. Today’s Peggy has far more opportunities than her 1960s counterpart did. Millennial Peggy always skips happy hour (her colleagues have stopped even inviting her) because she is too swamped defending the company from lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of YouPrivacy’s services.
Though in the late ’60s and ’70swomen like Peggy might have proclaimed themselves “feminists,” in 2012 they do not have to make such pronouncements, as equal- opportunity concerns are often part of a young woman’s DNA. On “Mad Men,” Peggy seeks out contraception even before she is in a relationship; today she might march into Don’s office and demand that the firm pull all its projects with companies that advertise with Rush Limbaugh.
Peggy is recently married — to a co-worker, of course; she never leaves the office. Her husband wants to have kids, but she wants to wait until she makes partner, for fear of being mommy-tracked just as her star is rising. Future generations might feel for 2012 Peggy. Too bad she didn’t have improved in-vitro fertilization technology that would make pregnancy for a woman of 40 (by then she’ll be retired and will have cashed in all of her stock options, anyway) as safe and easy as it is for one of 25.
And what of the blue bloods of “Mad Men” society, such as Roger Sterling? Roger inherits the clients and has only to wine and dine them — but there are fewer and fewer such characters in the corporate America of 2012. Today’s Roger, used to being handed success rather than working for it, might be extinct in a couple of decades, a curiosity in future generations’ eyes.
The stay-at-home mom and housewife of the modern age has done a 180 — at least compared with how she is portrayed on “Mad Men.” Don’s ex-wife, Betty, is a distant, cold and neglectful mother in the 1960s, but Gen X Betty is a Velcro mom, always driving her kids to soccer or play practice, supervising homework, and running school and church bake sales. And with the sluggish economy, she may even have to get a job after being out of the market for 10 years, since many families can no longer get by on one income.
Pete Campbell, the bulldog, is a character who does whatever it takes to get ahead — and generally succeeds. Men like this don’t seem to have changed much since the “Mad Men” era. Pete is ambitious to a fault, a rainmaker. In 2012, he would never leave the house without his iPhone and laptop.
He can’t be bothered with headsets, though, and his devoted wife, Trudy, worries about the dangers to the brain from radiation emitted by wireless devices. She leaves reports on the bedside and breakfast tables, but he is too busy to take heed. Technology is moving so fast that whatever risk he incurs from his devices, he’s confident that there’ll be a cure by the time he’d have to worry about any problems anyway. “There’s simply no way to do business these days without being connected all the time,” he might say.
Some viewers will remember that sentiment wistfully — reflecting the moment before our uber-connected society unraveled into divorce rates of 75 percent and children dropping out of school to seek asylum at yoga ashrams in India; they are desperate for privacy after being raised by Tiger moms who inhabit their Facebook pages and co-enroll in their extracurricular activities and, later, their colleges. Overworked Americans are lining up for surgically implanted devices that perpetually stimulate the brain stem, so they can get by with two or three hours’ sleep a night. How else can they get it all done — and still have time for leisure, such as watching “Mad Men 2012”?
Joan, the glorified “Mad Men” office manager and resident sexpot, uses her sexuality to get ahead but hits a glass ceiling at 1960s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She’s a bit of a schemer, though. Today’s Joan might tweet defamatory gossip about the firm — under an assumed name — in an effort to put the sexist art director in his place for challenging her authority. (“Guess who recently checked into rehab for sex addiction? I’ll let you DRAW those conclusions. . .”)
Of course she soon learns that electronic communications on company devices aren’t ever anonymous (a realization the audience finds quite quaint), and the social-media firm lets her go. But Joan is a survivor; she starts a YouTube reality show, blogging and tweeting her personal brand to success, instead of toiling in a dead-end administrative position near the bottom of the office hierarchy. For the Joan of 2012, corporate culture is her glass ceiling — a forced, even militant brand loyalty that keeps all genders from success. Becoming a viral video star does more for her career than sitting behind a desk ever did.
We have made strides since Don Draper’s 1960s. Society has become less rigid. In the workplace, women and people of color now hold many of the same positions as white men. Families look different, as more people choose to be single parents or marry same-sex partners. And for the first time in history, we have a president who is a person of color. Maybe we will look back on our era — similar to the transitional time “Mad Men” portrays — as one in which technology and world events redrew all the lines for the better.
But “Mad Men” is about more than social change and resistance to it. It’s also about relationships among the characters, many of whom are victims of what Christopher Lasch has called the culture of narcissism, a society in which shallow, self-involved behavior is the norm.
Feeling empty, craving attention and admiration, our 2012 Don Draper, like the emotionally detached 1960s Don, would be lonely and desperate, given to engaging in shallow relationships and using others to satisfy his desires. While sitting next to one woman, he texts others, perhaps lining up a booty call so that a lackluster dinner date won’t ruin the evening’s search for pleasure. He sneaks peeks of his favorite TV shows on his iPhone from the restaurant bathroom. He wants to know everything about a prospective girlfriend before he meets her: “So that’s where she went to school?” Scroll down to bikini shot . . . “Not bad.”
Stephanie Newman, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York City, is the author of “Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show.”