Mad Men is a fantasy world, and its fans are nerds in the true sense, connecting with the codes and customs of a world that doesn’t exist. Instead of speaking Klingon, they just happen to be nerds for dapper dress, cigarettes and institutional sexism.
The fifth season of Mad Men begins March 25, which will lure those of us smitten with its ultra-detailed recreation of ’60s-era Madison Avenue back to our television sets.
While the show certainly trades in wistfulness for a bygone era, Mad Men actually has less in common with the broad nostalgia-baiting you see on something like That ’70s Show than the meticulous world-building of, say, Star Trek. Mad Men is a fantasy world, and its fans are nerds in the true sense, connecting with the codes and customs of a world that doesn’t exist. Instead of speaking Klingon, they just happen to be nerds for dapper dress, cigarettes and institutional sexism.
Mad Men has created and simultaneously satisfied an appetite. People Don Draper’s age are now pushing 90 and watching Little Mosque on the Prairie, not hunting for a trendy cable show that cleverly recalls their younger days. That Mad Men awakens something even approaching nostalgia in the 20- and 30-somethings who watch it is a credit to show-creator Matthew Weiner’s famous attention to detail.
Unfortunately, the show’s best accomplishment—creating an entirely new strain of nerd where there was none before—may also be the source of its most unpleasant consequence. The throwback charm and popular success of Mad Men has television execs churning out pandering nostalgia-porn, like the immediately cancelled The Playboy Club and the now-basically-cancelled Pan Am, stale copycat projects that treat “stylish, sexy, mid-20th-century period drama” as a genre while ignoring the underlying passion project.
Mad Men certainly benefits from stylishness, but its success is tied to our implicit understanding that Weiner is acting on an actual fixation. It’s his obsessive recreation of the object of his pseudo-nostalgia that makes it possible to mistake a little bit of that mistiness for our own.