At some point last week, I came across on Facebook a quote from a New Yorker article on Mad Men that Noah put there. This reminded me of a post that I have written here more than a year ago about the wonders of Mad Men popularity. The main thing that puzzled me back then was not why people watch Mad Men, but more interestingly, why now? Would this show be popular in the nineties? Or even, 7-8 years ago? Is there anything in the current time + the state of media & advertising that provided a set of circumstances for its topics to be popular right now?
Perhaps. At first, I thought that Mad Men popularity may be accidental. (It never actually is). I mean, the show that takes place in the 60's, depicts professional+private relationships on the time long gone (and not particularly missed), and is set is set in a traditional advertising agency world, is so popular right now when that same world has almost been transformed beyond recognition?
Well, maybe precisely because of this transformation. The narrative pretty clearly reflects the "glorious past", "legendary times", and (currently considered) "mythical events" (think yapping gender inequality).
Every group (professional, generational), culture, and nation has these legendary times and events. That's not new. More interesting is when and why they start to dig them out. Usually, it's at the times of overwhelming uncertainty.
This uncertainty can precede some giant turmoil, a dramatic break with the past, or the final stages of one kind of order and its replacement with something else. For example, 1930s Germany rediscovered its mythical past at times of incredible economic crisis and wounded national pride just before WWII and the crash of the Weimar Republic; Churchill frequently recalled memories of Lord Nelson before difficult and bloody war battles; and the current New York has been trying really hard to remind us of the old New York amid all the new condos via, for example, last year's movies "The Wackness" and "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist." Hard times indeed call for the glorious past.
But so do the uncertain ones. Uncertainty does not need to signify some impeding change; it can also be the result of continuous, volatile, and unpredictable changes. In this case, uncertainty actually becomes an enduring condition - a state of affairs in itself and by itself. When people loose footing - when they face things they can't easily explain with what they know, when they are forced to think about doing things differently, and when they can't really rely anymore on the established rules, they need to cling to something.
Usually, this something is "good old times". And if history offers any lesson, epic memories come forth when they need to help us cope with change.
p.s. I suspect that a show set in a digital agency would be way less popular. But I may be wrong.