Last summer a young friend asked me if I had ever watched the critically-acclaimed AMC series “Mad Men.” My simple “no” was followed by a list of reasons for never tuning in, not the least of which is that I really don’t have the time or interest in getting hooked on something that would require my attention on a regular basis. I’ve been down that road with “24.” My “no” wasn’t enough, so he proceeded to excitedly tell me about how the show reveals what life was like in the early 1960s, along with the development of the ad industry and Madison Avenue. I’m not sure what he said that eventually caught my interest, but I think it was when he described the old days as lacking seat-belts, while being filled with things like cigarette smoke and lots of alcohol. His descriptor sparked enough memories of life in my 1960s suburban-Philly neighborhood that I made a mental note to someday give “Mad Men” a shot.
A few weeks ago, after recalling that conversation, I sent the “Mad Men” Season 1 DVDs to the top of my Netflix Queue and we started watching. I got hooked. . . for several reasons. The writing’s great. Numerous moments have taken me back to life as a child. Blink, and you’ll miss a host of subtle visual and scripted cultural references that are sometimes just plain funny. There’s the not-so-funny elements of excessive tobacco-use, alcohol abuse, philandering, and work-place sexual harassment. While still present in today’s world, those things worked themselves out in different ways back then. And while the story sometimes feels like a soap opera, it does capture the realities of the human condition, our brokenness, and our deep yearning for redemption. Lead character Donald Draper is a tragic figure who knows that’s the case.
As a youth culture watcher, “Mad Men” has grabbed me because of the way it documents the rise of consumer culture and marketing. For the most part, we have no clue at all how pervasive and compelling the marketing soup that we swim in everyday really is. Watching “Mad Men” is like taking a step-back away from the soup to see what the original marketing-chefs were doing when they were creating the recipe. We not only see the universal human longing for wholeness – something that can only come through Christ – but the ways in which marketing makes redemptive promises it can never fulfill. . . over, and over, and over again.
When watching a string of episodes of any show on DVD, one is tempted to fast-forward through the opening credits and theme. If you’re going to watch “Mad Men,” don’t do that. Instead, give it a look every time. Over the course of Season 1 my repeated viewing of the opening sequence became somewhat haunting. Give it a look. The abyss that so easily swallows so many is filled with empty promises that we keep on believing. And the more we keep believing, the further we fall.