Mad Men’s glimpses into another era make us just as uneasy about our present.

By Helen Razer.

The past imperfect

No one does nostalgia porn better than the cast of Mad Men.
No one does nostalgia porn better than the cast of Mad Men.
Credit: Courtesy FOXTEL. Mad Men season 7, Mondays at 8.30pm on showcase.

In the 17th century, nostalgia was recognised as an illness. Had the classification endured, nostalgia would have gone on to become the late-20th century’s gravest plague. Once, military physicians treated soldiers who were sick with the thought that things would never again be as once they were. Now, in the battlefield of the spectacle, marketers turn longing for an idealised past into profit. 

History, it seems, is at an end with its parts upcycled everywhere from “retro” homewares to golden oldies radio; even punk wrath will be reheated for youthful seniors with the newly relaunched Double J. But it is now in the boxed-set genus of television that we see the past processed freshly and viciously and without desire. After seven years, where we see the stuff of the past detonated best is on Matthew Weiner’s phantom sidewalks of Madison Avenue in Mad Men

This advertising industry drama still takes out best-of-breed in television’s new anti-nostalgia. Good period drama such as Downton Abbey, Paper Giants, Boardwalk Empire, Puberty Blues, Underbelly and faux-historic Game of Thrones unfolds less to make us feel good about the Old Days and much more to give us a sense of relief that we are no longer those idiots who endorsed segregation, sexual harassment and smoking in front of the children. Mad Men, however, does just a little more.

It’s about time television started hating the past. As cheap as some of it is – often this moral anthropology serves as a rationale to show titillating scenes of abuse; viz. Thrones and Downton – it’s a whole lot better than a fetishised past. If nostalgia is a disease, then that vile little Kevin from The Wonder Years was Patient Zero for its mutant ’90s strain.

Television drama has begun to bring us the past with great acuity – Todd Haynes’s dreamy Mildred Pierce is a view of the Great Depression so seductively bleak as to outdo realist painter Edward Hopper. Kate Winslet as Pierce wears grey stockings that sag and do no justice to legs made shapely by years of waiting diner tables. This domestic melodrama, like so many of the period series, does a wonderful job of killing our fantasies of innocence. Slaps on a girl reporter’s arse become less playful and more sinister in the liberal feminist reading of publishing history with Paper Giants. In the speak-easies of Boardwalk Empire, we see wealth that depends on the schism between races. Underbelly: Razor might have airbrushed the gonorrhoea from its Sydney bordellos but made honourable attempts for a commercial network production to demonstrate that it is not always terrible people but terrible poverty that gives birth to a life spent in crime. 

Post-Edenic and post-Kevin, this sort of TV looks like we have started to diagnose the sickness of the past. But Mad Men goes further and diagnoses the sickness of nostalgia itself. We are not only denied the pleasure of looking back warmly into the past; we are not for a minute permitted to think that our present is any better. 

Mad Men is, of course, great nostalgia porn; and not just in the heavenly yin-yang of Christina Hendricks’ progressively shorter skirts. Matthew Weiner’s dedication to vintage repro is not only obvious to mid-century freaks but to his crew. A story retold in Vanity Fair, Time and all over the fandom, has Weiner shouting “cut” when he decided that the apples in the Drapers’ home looked too big and shiny for a Kennedy-era kitchen. Filming, so the story goes, only resumed when the fruits of agribusiness were authentically shrivelled. 

Weiner is as pernickety in reproducing the ugly sights and morality of his era as is Downton’s Julian Fellowes. Fellowes’ take on class and sexuality is unflinching and as particular as the mansion’s table settings. But this anti-nostalgia allows us a moment of, “Thank fuck things aren’t like that anymore!” Downton, good as it is, offers us a comfort through a nostalgic reversal. In decrying its instances of servitude to sexual norms and to nobility, we become nostalgic for our present.

There’s no such luck in Mad Men.

Of course, Weiner continues to brutalise our romance with the past. We’ve seen fingers of premium whiskey turn to delirium and vomit, awful abortions and this 1969 season, an African-American receptionist is relieved of her duties at the front desk for her “unprofessional” skin colour.

This isn’t just a nightmare of dead history. It’s the dawn of the era of the spectacle under whose 100Hz sun we try to avoid the glare of our own ugliness. Weiner, however, gives us no refuge in the shadows of the past and gives his ad men and women still-living brands – Coca-Cola, Clearasil, Playtex – to sell. Corporate connections to the past are as active as moral ones. 

A sweetie-pie underdog whose victories in the male-dominated game of advertising are hard won, Peggy Olson has mentored other young white women who sat in the secretarial chair to which she was once consigned. On Valentine’s Day 1969, she sees a bouquet on her secretary Shirley’s desk. Although she has no suitor, she sweeps them up as though they are intended for her. It does not occur to Peggy that this dark woman has a life beyond taking her calls. Peggy, who explicitly recognises and has reproduced her taste of liberation for other women, is blinded by nostalgia. She doesn’t imagine the bad old past can exist anymore. And so it creeps undetected into a putatively liberated future. 

Weiner gives us no cause for happiness in our present as the same old shit is sold a hundred different ways by a good Madison Man. Or woman.

With his conflicted revulsion for the past, Fellowes gives us hope for the future. Downton gives us back the dream of progress. Sterling Cooper & Partners take it away again.

Nostalgia, at last, ain’t what it used to be. In the hands of Matthew Weiner, it takes its proper place once more as a terrible disease.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 3, 2014 as "The past imperfect".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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