I’ve become a big fan of Mad Men. Its style and writing has captivated me in a way I haven’t been since I started watching The Wire or The O.C.
But Mad Men is arguably much darker than both shows. Sexist, racist, and socially imprisoned characters play out plot after plot of sexy deceit against stylish yet drab modernist office spaces and claustrophobic suburban vignettes. It can start to grate on you, but in a way, these components create the substance of the conflict of the show.
Mad Men’s characters and plots are set against the strict constraints of early 1960s upper-middle class white society. Our pleasure in watching the show derives predominantly from anticipating the brief flashes of modern conscientiousness in characters, or at the least, observing their reckless treatment of situations and other characters in contrast to how we would have handled it today.
These are mores that American culture has since shed and evolved from, and it now gives us pleasure to reminisce about them in a removed way. We take pleasure in fictionally distancing ourselves not only from others, but our past, and the substance of Mad Men hinges directly on this desire.
That’s not to say that other shows haven’t tried or succeed in similar conceit before. It’s just to say that our pleasure in Mad Men is not merely nostalgic nor viciously voyeuristic, but both, at once, and that is precisely why it is such a good show.