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How ‘Mad Men’ Became the Perfect Show for the Pandemic

Nearly five years since its series finale, the prestige TV drama has seen an uptick in viewers—old and new—since quarantine began in March. It might sound weird, but there are several reasons. 

AMC/Ringer illustration

It seems highly unlikely—per the widely circulated, then mocked, then debunked sentiment—that the ongoing pandemic will produce another King Lear. Constant dread and anxiety do not pair well with creativity. Quarantine is, however, the ideal time to revisit other people’s King Lears, weighty masterpieces one has neither the emotional nor logistical bandwidth to accommodate in calmer times. The need to consume time in isolation is an ideal match for the time-consuming properties of television, and in my professional, highly specific opinion, TV’s creative peak is Mad Men, the period drama rapidly approaching the five-year anniversary of its 2015 finale. A year and a half ago, I’d rewatched about half the show in a fit of procrastination. Within weeks of Los Angeles imposing a safer-at-home order, I’d returned to it once more.

It turns out I wasn’t alone. Screenshots of mid-century interiors and Brylcreemed hair helmets started to fill my social media feeds; texts trickled in from friends freshly amused by Pete Campbell faceplants and Roger Sterling one-liners. By the time Vanity Fair critic Sonia Saraiya tweeted about a rewatch of her own, it was clear further investigation was necessary. Yes, Mad Men has always had a disproportionate following among members of the media who can relate to a story about the awkward bedfellows of creativity and corporate culture. But was quarantine bringing it back to a slightly wider audience than its core demographic?

Netflix notoriously declines to share viewership numbers, and Mad Men has yet to break through on the service’s internally circulated Top 10 of popular shows. According to third-party research firm Parrot Analytics, however, demand for Mad Men has increased dramatically over the past two months, spiking almost 30 percent in March relative to the year prior and almost 75 percent in April. (Parrot attempts to gauge series’ overall cultural footprint through data points like social media posts and peer-to-peer file downloads.) The show is part of an overall boost in content consumption, as evidenced by record subscription numbers and stock prices for streaming services like Netflix, which has hosted Mad Men since 2011.

Accessibility and idle hours have obviously contributed to the uptick, but they’re the same conditions driving more traditional comfort watches: your Golden Girls marathons, your endless loop of The Office. There’s something both specific and paradoxical about going back to Mad Men in a time of crisis. I have the same attachment to Peggy, Pete, or Joan that I do to any fictional character I’ve spent more than a decade of my life with, but that fondness plays out against a darker emotional backdrop of ennui, anxiety, and mounting despair, whose indicative opening image is that of a man tumbling into the abyss. Isn’t that how we all feel these days?

“You want something that’s hefty enough that it feels like it’s grappling with the world when you are also grappling with the world,” Saraiya tells me from her home base in Brooklyn, where she’ll be for the foreseeable future. More classical comfort TV can leave a little too much mental space for the outside world; 20 or so minutes into a more downbeat episode of Real Housewives, it’s hard to resist checking the push notifications on your phone. With its engrossing period detail and scenes layered with cultural and thematic meaning, Mad Men is just mindful enough to be effectively mindless.

Mad Men, as dark as it can get, is, I would say, a show that has a really light sensibility about it,” explains Matt Brennan, TV editor of the Los Angeles Times. “It has a sense of humor. It is willing to engage with the absurd. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny in a plain, brilliant comic dialogue sense. All of that makes it a little bit easier to swallow when you want something that is compelling enough to distract you from what’s going on outside, but is also not adding to the feelings of stress and despair and fear that you’re having because of what’s going on outside.”

Such ease of viewing also appealed to Sarah Hagi, a freelance writer in Toronto completing her second full Mad Men watch in less than a year. (I contacted Sarah after responding to an F/M/K poll on her Instagram story with Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove, and Pete Campbell. I married Pete.) Hagi contrasts Mad Men’s relative levity with other Golden Age shows she finds harder to binge, including creator Matthew Weiner’s previous professional home: “It’s so easy to watch, and also less heavy than something like The Sopranos, which just makes you feel like actual shit if you watch more than two episodes in a row.”

Mad Men’s engrossing effect is directly tied to the density that fueled legions of recaps while it was still on the air. The show isn’t exactly subtle—one character’s death is foreshadowed by another staring down an elevator shaft; Don Draper, a Freudian fever dream, scoffs at psychoanalysis in the pilot—but it is intentional, meticulous, and multifaceted. “Everybody who makes a television show likes to delude themselves into thinking that their work operates on multiple levels simultaneously, but in the case of Mad Men, it happens to be true,” observes New York TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, whose writings on the show are augmented and anthologized in the companion book Carousel.

“On a personal level, it’s always been a show that can take me out of whatever is going on,” says Julia, a fan reading Carousel alongside her current rewatch. (Julia asked her last name be withheld to preserve her anonymity.) “I can just think about the show and focus on the show, and not be thinking about whatever else is happening. There’s so much to watch and think about and experience as you rewatch it.”

Amanda Mull is a staff writer for The Atlantic, where she currently reports on the ongoing effects of the coronavirus outbreak. A recent piece on so-called “disastertising”—those eerie missives urging you, “now more than ever,” to keep buying products “in these uncertain times”—was partly inspired by an ongoing rewatch of Mad Men. Mull first came to the show after she moved to New York in 2011 with a limited budget and social life, finding it to be “something soothing while I was going through a lot of life changes.” It’s a situation somewhat similar to her current scenario. “There are some parallels between sitting on my couch and watching Mad Men versus sitting in my very first tiny New York bedroom and watching Mad Men because I literally do not have anything else to do, or any other way to spend my time.”

Mull’s experience mirrors that of many rewatchers who see in Mad Men not just a distraction from a slow-motion disaster, but a model for how to live through one, or several. Mad Men is principally about an advertising agency in the 1960s, but it’s also about the ’60s, and how they felt to those with a front-row seat to the decade’s most memorable milestones. In the first half of the series, such disruption takes the form of singular occurrences like the Cuban Missile Crisis or JFK assassination; by the end, the shift is more cultural, and therefore universal. Advertising executives are the establishment threatened by these changes, but they’re also tasked with processing it, articulating it, and selling it back to the American people in the form of products to soothe their unease.

“More so than a lot of period pieces, Mad Men is very attentive to the way that we move through time and the way that we experience history,” Seitz explains. “The idea of history as a dream that we’re all having at the same time is something that’s embedded into the show.” It’s a theme obviously relevant to 2020 viewers in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, though much more nuanced than the flood of Very Special Quarantine Episodes that’s already begun. Mad Men wasn’t trying to respond to the coronavirus, because it couldn’t have, but it channels the feeling nonetheless. “The tumult of the ’60s feels very much like an analogy for where we are now,” Seitz continues. “Every single day, there’s multiple things that happen where you go, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s too much.’”

Beyond catharsis, Mad Men’s depiction of historical chaos can be strangely calming. After all, it’s the past; not every fictional character got a happy ending, but society itself survived and moved on, despite the not-unreasonable feeling it was in the process of disintegrating. “It seems so valuable to know that people have endured all kinds of change and have felt just as stuck in something they can’t control,” Saraiya notes, “but then also wake up every day and make decisions.”

The characters of Mad Men aren’t in the driver’s seat of the upheavals they endure; they’re not in the situation room for the Cuban Missile Crisis, or in Chicago for the ’68 convention. Despite Don’s master-of-the-universe persona, they’re subjects, not objects, processing national or global events on a mundane, personal level Brennan calls “human-sized.” There’s no better show at demonstrating how a cataclysm that came to stand for a loss of American innocence can interface with one woman’s profound alienation from her own picture-perfect version of the American dream.

“On a macro level, what I really love about, say, an episode like ‘The Grown-Ups’”—the Season 3 hour depicting the JFK assassination’s fallout on the Sterling Cooper staff—“is how it shows people faced with something that seems completely inconceivable to them, and yet they manage to survive it,” Brennan says. “There’s some sense of comfort that I draw in watching, for example, Betty sitting in front of the TV, unable to tear herself away from Kennedy assassination coverage. That feels like me and Twitter.”

There’s also a more mundane appeal to watching a workplace drama at a time when so many workplaces are shut down or dispersed—particularly the white-collar offices Mad Men so artfully depicts. After giving a thoughtful explanation of why she wanted to re-experience Mad Men knowing where its many character arcs wind up over the course of a decade, Hagi added, “Also, I just wanted to watch people doing their jobs.”

Mad Men’s stance on capitalism in general, and advertising in specific, can be complicated. Left-leaning characters like Peggy’s journalist boyfriend Abe readily voice critiques of the industry; the compromises of success lead one agency partner to prostitute herself and another to die by suicide. But at the end of the day, Mad Men is about the enormous investment its characters put into their jobs, and the equally sizable dividends they get out of them. Advertising is how Dick Whitman turns himself into Don Draper, how Peggy Olson goes from shy secretary to path-forging professional, how Pete Campbell makes a name for himself apart from his WASPy New York dynasty.

“It’s like a love letter to the workplace,” Saraiya explains. “The characters are invigorated and empowered by working together.” That infectious enthusiasm comes through in the attention to detail, which revels in minutiae that now provoke an unexpected pang of nostalgia; imagine Don giving the Carousel speech over Zoom. “The show cares about negotiation. It cares about pitching. I can think of so many workplace dramas that don’t even get remotely as close into the nitty-gritty of what it means to be at work, to be a working person.”

For those fortunate enough to be able to do their jobs from home without risking infection to provide essential services, work itself can feel almost like a video game right now, an abstract object you can influence with a few strokes of your keyboard. Such distance can leave you feeling detached from day-to-day existence. TV characters have long been stereotyped as a substitute for friendships. Now, they’re taking the place of water-cooler banter and office gossip. Zachary Hetlage is a colorist in L.A. who’s worked with advertising agencies, some of them old enough to have been referenced on Mad Men. He’s taken to putting it on in the background during the workday. “I kind of felt like watching something in a workplace setting might be nice,” Hetlage says. “[Mad Men] in no way reflects what my office life is really like, but seeing people talk about my job when I can’t actually do my job is pretty refreshing.”

Mad Men portrays a very particular kind of work, one that’s arguably on the decline as postwar prosperity gives way to the 21st century gig economy. Such knowledge workers are overrepresented among Mad Men’s fan base, as they were when it was still on the air. Still, Mad Men’s specific insight into the art of accounts comes with a more general one into the cognitive dissonance of unprecedented events. We can’t all come up with an iconic Coca-Cola ad, but we can still search for our hilltop at Esalen.