Tuned In

Mad Men: How Long Can They Keep It Up?

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No new Mad Men this week, but here’s a post anyway. I’m obviously a big fan, but as I’ve watched it lately, I’ve been wondering how long the show can keep up its quality and sense of surprise. I don’t mean in terms of real time; I mean in terms of fictional time.

Part of the reason that the show has (mostly) been able to avoid the cliches of period pieces is that it picked a relatively undercovered milieu for TV, and a time setting–1960–that pop culture hasn’t done to death so much as others. It falls in between two periods, the birth of rock’n’roll and the turbulent later ’60s, that by now make easy fodder for hackery and lame cultural shorthand. (For instance: “the birth of rock’n’roll” and “the turbulent ’60s.”) 1960 is relatively unexplored territory, and the show has done a good job of making even the more-familliar signposts of the era seem strange and new. (It was a nice touch, for example, that our one glimpse of Jackie Kennedy was that unsettling film of her speaking Spanish.)

But I have to wonder how far the show can move forward in time without falling into those period traps. Once Kennedy is elected, you’re moving into dangerous New Frontier territory. Once you get to the Cuban Missile Crisis, things become even more familiar (Pete gets rid of his Bob Newhart records and starts playing Lenny Bruce in his office, etc.) And once JFK gets assassinated–pa-BAM!–all of a sudden, you’re in pop-culture-cliche quicksand. You’re in Mermaids/Wonder Years/American Dreams territory, and nobody wants that. From there, it’s just a hop and a skip to the soundtrack playing Turn Turn Turn and little Sally running away to Haight-Ashbury for the Summer of Love.

I suppose the writers could handle all these challenges as well as they’ve done in season one, but you tell me: am I worrying over nothing? Do you want Mad Men to stay in its 1960 cocoon forever too? Or is the show a mess of cliches already and I’m just in denial?