It’s a rewatch for the ages … Mad Men, the wildly popular Netflix series, was first aired in 2011. Almost from the start, it was hailed as highly original TV, with creativity long missing from the genre.
And that, according to The Ringer’s Alison Herman, is exactly why the show is having a burst of renewed interest.
“It seems highly unlikely—per the widely circulated, then mocked, then debunked sentiment—that the ongoing pandemic will produce another King Lear, Herman writes. “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,” she continues.
She soon realized she wasn’t alone, as the zeitgeist of mid-century America began to trickle into the social stream.
“By the time Vanity Fair critic Sonia Saraiya tweeted about a rewatch of her own, it was clear further investigation was necessary,” she explains. “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?”
Saraiya believes the popularity stems from our collective need to feel something deeply, to remove us from our immediate anxieties.
“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 told Herman.
”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,” Herman adds. “With its engrossing period detail and scenes layered with cultural and thematic meaning, Mad Men is just mindful enough to be effectively mindless.”
To a large extent, I believe we all need something engaging enough to take us out of our current concerns… and out of the nonstop scrolling of our social feeds. We need to disengage with the surface noise and reconnect with something much deeper.
It’s the same reason that lifestyle spending is up, and we are subscribing to more magazines that cover what we love. And with so many of us missing the “normal” office routine, Mad Men offers that additional return to the familiar… even if it is the familiar of the mid-last century.
Particularly for those of us in the creative arts, the appeal is obvious, as Herman notes. The show helps us set aside reality for a while in a way that just feels good to us. It might not be the new King Lear… but it certainly deserves this second round of popularity.