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Dead Tree Alert: Mad Men—Now in Color!

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Michael Yarish/AMC

My column in this week’s print TIME (subscription required) is a midseason update on Mad Men. In it, I look at how the show’s (literally) brighter, bolder 1966 color palette reflects (figuratively) the less subtle times it’s dealing with as well as the show’s bolder, more formally daring–and sometimes also less-subtle–storytelling this season. The show, like the American culture it’s set in, seems to be entering its baroque period.

I’ll leave the analysis of Mad Men’s narrative for the column and for future posts. For now, I just want to talk about the colors. Good God, those colors! Mad Men has always been strikingly art-directed, but as it’s moved from the cool-tone modernism of the late-Eisenhower Era to the full-flourish of 1966, it’s had a hell of a good time with the bold colors that marked the era’s fashions, art and design. The plaid! Megan’s dresses! I swear, when I stare at a white wall, I can still see a reverse-color-imprint of all the orange on screen in the Howard Johnson’ scene from “Far Away Places.”

The color, obviously, is just reflecting the fashion of the times. (Having a character like Megan to show them off must have been fun for the costume department, since Megan is both very of-the-moment stylistically and has the money, through Don, to afford to dress like a 1966 Vogue photo spread.) And I’m sure there were a lot of cultural reasons the mid-’60s were so colorful: reaction against the ’50s, the emerging aesthetic of psychedelia, the spread of Eastern/Indian elements in Western culture, and so on.


But one interesting parallel, on a media-centric TV show like Mad Men, is that TV itself was becoming more colorful at the time. Literally. The mid-’60s were a watershed time for color programming. Color televisions were still in the minority, but primetime programming was increasingly being made for them, with many popular shows switching over in mid-run from black-and-white to color. (The parody series Police Squad, in its titles, mimicked the “In Color!” announcement that many TV shows of the ’60s used in their credits.) In fall 1966, NBC became the first TV network to go to an all-color, all-day lineup, though all the networks would soon follow.

In other words, if you were a media consumer around summer 1966, you were literally seeing more color–more bright, supersaturated color–in your world than you used to. I’m not a fashion scholar, so I don’t know if the switch to color TV actually influenced the design of the time, or if it was just a fitting coincidence. I do know that if you watch sitcoms of the era, the use of color to show off the new technology is striking–just look, say, at all the bold clothing (and Endora’s bright-red hair) in the Bewitched clips above.

If nothing else, the ad-agency folks in Mad Men would be aware of this cultural shift, because another thing that changed in the show’s fifth season is that TV has become much more central to the ad business. Compare the kind of pitches Don Draper and his colleagues are making now to what they were doing in the early seasons. Back then, it was largely print campaigns–often black-and-white, and focusing heavily on slogans and text (“It’s Toasted,” the famous Carousel pitch, &c.). Gradually, TV ads started to become part of the mix as well (e.g., Don’s Glo-Coat floor wax ad).

Now, when we see a pitch on Mad Men, it’s almost always for a TV spot: dancing baked beans, fake Beatles, a couple bantering about Cool Whip. There’s much more emphasis on animation, action, sound–this is one of the reasons, maybe, that Don feels confused and alienated by his clients’ sudden insistence on very specific types of pop music, something, he says, that never used to be so important before, something he still doesn’t really understand.

It’s a cliche by now to say that Mad Men is about change: change in personal lives, change in the culture, change that’s so gradual that you don’t notice until you look around and all at once, there it is. Among those changes: it’s become much more of a visual culture, an auditory culture–a TV culture. Along with that, Mad Men is becoming a much brighter show visually–even if the mood, the times and some of the characters’ lives are only getting darker.