Sunday, March 18, 2012

We're All Mad Men Here

"But I don't want to go among mad people," said Alice.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the cat. "We're all mad here."
(Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)

There have always been those shows whose true popularity is not reflected by the ratings. Star Trek was one of example of this. Even while it was in its first run the show had already infiltrated American pop culture. Mad Men, which returns to AMC next Sunday for its fifth season, is another prime example. The ratings for Mad Men are much lower than even shows on the broadcast networks that received only average to middling ratings, yet it has an impact on American pop culture since its debut in 2007 that even the highest rated shows on the broadcast networks have not had.

Perhaps because it is a period piece set in a time generally known for its fashion, the first impact that Mad Men had on American pop culture was probably on fashion. It was in 2009 that men's suits began to take on a more retro look, resembling modern versions of the clothing on the show. In women's fashions dresses and skirts started to make a comeback. It was that same year that Banana Republic, of all stores, partnered with AMC to create window displays featuring clothing inspired by the show as part of a promotion for its third season. Also as part of a promotion for the show's third season, Brooks Brothers offered a "Mad Men edition suit" designed by the show's costume designer Janie Bryant. It resembled a similar suit sold by Brooks Brothers in the early Sixties. Even such accessories as tortoise shell glasses and skinny ties have made a comeback because of the show. The impact of Mad Men on fashion has continued to be felt to this day. In fact, it can even be seen on other series. The suits worn by Neal Caffrey on rival cable channel USA Network's White Collar have a classic look to them not that far removed from the suits worn by the male characters on Mad Men. In the end Mad Men could have enough impact on current fashions that decades from now people might look back at the Teens as a time when fashions resembled those of the Sixties.

While I agree with the mainstream media that Mad Men has had a huge impact on fashion, I must strenuously disagree that it is responsible for making curvy women, such as the show's Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), more fashionable. Okay, perhaps curvy women were out of favour with the fashion industry and Hollywood, but they have never been with men. I can guarantee that at no point in the past seventy years would any heterosexual male have chosen Kate Moss over Christina Hendricks. Indeed, there is a reason that you don't see pin ups of fashion models in locker rooms--they are far too skinny. Mad Men then did not bring curvy women back into fashion with heterosexual men, although it might have made the fashion industry and Hollywood re-evaluate what they have been thinking for the past thirty years.

 In both the 2010 and 2011 seasons Mad Men may have had an impact on Broadway. Those seasons saw revivals of Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying  (one of the possible sources of inspiration for the show), as well as the musical Catch Me If You Can (based on the 2002 film of the same name, which was set in the Sixties). Indeed, while Promises, Promises was set in the late Sixties in its original run, the revival was set in 1962, a time closer to that of not only Mad Men, but its source material (the classic movie The Apartment, another possible source of inspiration for Mad Men).

Of course, the medium upon which Mad Men  would have the most obvious impact would be television. In 2009 TNT debuted a show that was set in an advertising agency in Chicago, albeit in modern times. Trust Me ran only one season before being cancelled due to low ratings. In 2010 HBO premiered Boardwalk Empire. Although set in Atlantic City in late Twenties and early Thirties, it seems quite likely that HBO could have given the show the green light because of the success of the period piece Mad Men. While Boardwalk Empire may have happened with or without Mad Men, there can be little doubt that two shows that debuted on broadcast networks this season were the result of the success of Mad Men. The Playboy Club debuted on NBC in September2011 and lasted only three episodes. Set in Chicago's Playboy Club in the Sixties, not only was the show poorly written, but it was also very historically inaccurate. Pan Am debuted on ABC in September 2011.  The series centred on a group of pilots and stewardesses working for the airline Pan Am in 1963. It is not known if it will be renewed for next season or not. The latest show that may have emerged because of the success of Mad Men is Magic City, a show set to debut on Starz on 6 April. The series is set around a hotel in Miami Beach in 1959.

The impact of Mad Men upon British television is less clear. The British broadcasting organisations have always been more amenable to period pieces than the American broadcast networks. That having been said, it would seem likely that the success of the BBC's show The Hour in the United States may have been due to Mad Men. Indeed, the show, set in the BBC itself in 1956, was even described as "a British Mad Men" even though the two series are very different. Similarly, while ITV's Downton Abbey is set in the years before, during, and after World War I, it seems likely that its success in the United States could also be due in part to Mad Men. Mad Men may have created an appetite in the American public for shows set in the past, thus paving the way for the success of Downton Abbey.

Compared to the broadcast networks' top series, NCIS on CBS, the ratings for Mad Men would seem negligible. While NCIS has maintained an average of 19.91 million viewers this season, Mad Men only managed 2.92 million viewers in its last and highest rated season. Despite this, it is clear that Mad Men is much more popular than its ratings actually reflect. After all, the show has already had a good deal of influence on pop culture, everything from fashion to Broadway plays. And if the hoopla surrounding its fifth season is any sign, that is not something that is going to change any time soon.

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