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Mad Men, Mad World looks at the 60s through smoke-colored glasses

In a new collection, Mad Men gets the academic treatment.

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Created by TV auteur Matthew Weiner and positioned somewhere between period piece and soap opera, Mad Men inspires loyalty and scrutiny in equal measure. It's also inspired blogs, books, clothing lines, theme parties, college courses, a Mad Men Yourself web app, and countless Halloween costumes—and now a collection of academic essays. In Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s, editors Lauren M.E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert A. Rushing—all University of Illinois professors—have compiled the writing of 16 humanities scholars on everything from women's reproductive health in the 60s to why exactly Don Draper owns that type of house he owns in Ossining.

A chief debate of the book reflects an overall debate about the show: How accurately does Mad Men represent the 1960s? Many weigh in—one drawback of a book by 16 authors is that, not having collaborated, they tend to repeat each other. And they generally come to the same conclusion: that while the show's portrayal of the era's racism, sexism, and economic disparity is accurate and compelling when it's there, it's not always the point. As Dana Polan puts it here, the show's depiction of the 60s is "a deliberately partial and incomplete picture of how some people lived some parts of those times"—a document from a narrow, privileged vantage point.

That's an important argument to make in any serious discussion of Mad Men. But making it several times, the book comes across as overly anxious to convince us of the fact that Matthew Weiner isn't Ken Burns—he can write whatever he wants. That out of the way, most of the authors agree that Weiner's treatment of the 60s is richly instructive.

"The show is often presented as a kind of historical re-creation, but its real investment is in the power of forgetting," Robert Rushing writes in the essay "It Will Shock You How Much This Never Happened," which compares Mad Men to the work of the Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni. "Its larger project is tracing the disappearance of a set of economic, sexual, and racial relations that seem unimaginable to many of today's spectators."

It's those factors, swirling in the background of Don Draper's story, that the book examines. "Mad Space," by Dianne Harris, looks at the architecture of Mad Men's various settings—midtown Manhattan, suburban New York, and California. Mabel Rosenheck's "Swing Skirts and Swinging Singles" shows how Betty, Joan, and Peggy's wardrobes illustrate their characters.

"The Writer as Producer; or, The Hip Figure After HBO," by Michael Szalay, steps back to look at Mad Men's place in television history—specifically as a product of the golden age of cable, and from a man whose previous job was writing for The Sopranos. Two of the best essays look through the lens of a single episode: Irene V. Small's "Against Depth" examines the element of nostalgia in season one's "The Wheel," in which Don pitches the Kodak Carousel, and editor Kaganovsky's "Maidenform" uses an episode of the same name—in which Peggy's femininity works both for and against her when she's the only woman on a Playtex bra campaign—to talk about gender identity.

Taken alone, each essay is thorough and astute. Together, they form an incomplete view of the show. The aspects of Mad Men that are specifically rooted in the 1960s—topics that most interest these academics—are examined most thoroughly; other elements, just as meaningful in the universe of the show, are passed over. Hollis, the black elevator operator who appears in only a handful of episodes and has speaking roles in even fewer, is scrutinized in a number of essays. Roger Sterling, on the other hand, is rarely mentioned. Don's choice of cigarette is discussed at much greater length than Don's role as a father.

Whatever this book's gaps, it doesn't fail to take on the show's central premise, Draper's "masculine mystique" and his upper-class angst. The television-viewing public seems never to tire of watching powerful, unhappy men, and, as Jeremy Varon writes in "History Gets in Your Eyes," with Don it's "as though Mad Men's creators have, as a thought experiment, stacked the deck in favor of male fulfillment." And yet, in a show where every demographic but his own is routinely trampled on, the rich and handsome protagonist may be the unhappiest character. Varon suggests one function of Mad Men's 60s setting is to highlight Draper's incapacity for happiness even in a world catered to him.

A few authors here bring up what one of them calls Don's "happiness problem," but it's usually a detached appraisal—as if the problem were another of the show's set pieces. But in a book that's occupied mainly with the set pieces—the clothes and cars and cigarettes—it's probably wise not to delve too far into the complex interior world of the main character. That's what the show is for.

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