Mad for it: AMC serves up another cult phenomenon

It's not just the Emmy award judges who love TV's 'Mad Men'. Fashion designers are falling over themselves to recreate its 50s chic. David Usborne reports on a cultural phenomenon
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The Independent Culture

In their millions, men and women across America are clearing their diaries for the rest of this week, and possibly beyond. Never mind those dinner invitations that have already accepted; send regrets. The first presidential debate on Friday can go to hell. They have some serious television catching up to do. If bullet bras and Brylcreem really are coming back into fashion, they don't want to be the last to know why.

There is a lot that was remarkable about the fastidiously costumed drama Mad Men, which is set in the smoke-filled offices of a fictional advertising agency on Madison Avenue circa 1960, winning two of the most coveted prizes at the Emmy Awards on Sunday night. For the first time, a minor cable network took top honours. It was also the first time so much praise has been showered on a show watched by so few.

Smug are those who were savvy enough to have cottoned on when the programme first began airing in the United States in July of last year. AMC, the cable channel once dedicated to showing only classic full length feature films, was merely following most of its competitors into developing its own drama (just as the traditional broadcast networks were becoming increasingly fixated on filling primetime with reality programming). But, boy, if the critics were snobby about AMC, they set it aside when Mad Men surfaced.

"This is a place TV hasn't visited before, where you want to linger, with people you haven't seen on TV before whom you want to know better," raved Robert Bianco of USA Today, "And it's another basic-cable breakthrough in a summer in which the broadcast networks have gone stone-cold." In its first season, Mad Men drew fewer than one million viewers per episode. That's abysmal, though it has been doing almost double that in the second season, which debuted in July this year.

Industry bods will ponder the significance of its triumph. It confirms that the era of domination by the broadcast networks in prime time entertainment is truly over. Second, the premium cable network that started the challenge to the networks, HBO, may now itself be threatened by competitors further down the channel food chain. That AMC could have pulled this off would have been unthinkable until recently. It is the fracturing of the television landscape taken one step further.

History tells us that winning awards does not automatically translate into bigger audiences. NBC's consistently amusing 30 Rock, with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, cleaned up, with six awards on Sunday. But it did almost as well last year and is still struggling with ratings numbers.

Nor are these the first gongs for Mad Men – it won two Golden Globe awards at the start of the year, as well as a prestigious Peabody Award, and still most of us failed to tune in.

But Mad Men already has its cult following, and an audience explosion may well be in the offing. The Sopranos – the greatest thing ever given to us by HBO – was barely watched when it first came out. Indeed, Mad Men, period though it may be, has already been seeping into contemporary culture in ways most of us haven't noticed.

With its consistently witty writing and acute observations, why shouldn't it? Such recent history – some of us were even alive in 1960 when America was making its nervous transition from Eisenhower era neatness into the cacophony of women's lib, the Beatles and the Vietnam War – inevitably will have resonance for us today. We can be shocked by the shenanigans at Sterling Cooper, the fictional ad agency headed by the chisel-chinned Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, and his boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery). But in this office, where steno-pool girls are appreciated more for the curves of their calves than their shorthand, we may recognise glimmers of instincts that have been buried under the blankets of political correctness but wriggle for our attention still. And some of us remember when chain smoking in the office was not only permitted but was de rigueur (ad men and reporters have some things in common).

Mad Men's creator, Matthew Weiner, wrote the pilot for the show in 2000, and waited seven full years – most of which time he spent perfectly profitably, penning episodes of The Sopranos over at HBO – before someone eventually took his idea seriously. In Don and Roger, as well as in the main female characters, he had weaved a tapestry of collisions between cultural mores that are just as relevant now as they were then. He pits macho against male vulnerability, lustful against respectful, decent against corrupt. Ad men (and women) today cannot say, moreover, that the issues about their relationship with us – consumers – do not still pertain. To persuade, cajole or dupe? It is cigarettes that Don must peddle in the first series, in an age when the first evidence that smoking kills was just coming into view.

Mr Weiner and his crew, moreover, have created something preternaturally beautiful. Watch one episode and ask yourself in the morning if it was in colour or black and white. Colour, of course, but if you are not sure, it is a tribute to the authenticity of everything on the screen. Hamm and Slattery look like they were born to play roles from that era. Hamm's hair is Brylcremed to a helmet; Slattery's top pocket handkerchief shows barely a millimetre of itself against the breast of a charcoal grey suit.

Which brings us to the costumes. For fashion designers, Mad Men is an ice-cream sundae – sweet, yet sophisticated – and completely irresistible. They want to have what they see on the screen. Or create it.

It is why retro Fifties chic, a la Mad Men, is already upon us. Bloomingdales, the American department store, recently introduced shops within shops with a Mad Men fifties theme, and dedicated windows to the programme and its fashion sensibility at its flagship store on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. When Michael Kors, the fashion designer and judge on Project Runway, introduced his autumn line earlier this year, it was Mad Men that had inspired him to go all wiggle and pencil skirts, cashmere sweaters and cardigans – something he called "buttoned up sexy". Two other New York fashion labels, Theory and Peter Som, have also taken Mad Men as the inspiration for recent additions to their lines.

Mostly, though, Mad Men works because it is about more than nostalgia. It might be comfortable to imagine that the joys and disappointments displayed on the creative floor of Sterling Cooper are no longer relevant in our socially-aware early 21st century, but we would be kidding ourselves. A new study released yesterday by the University of Florida about earning-power and attitudes among men towards women found that men who have no qualms about dominating women and seizing the alpha role consistently out-earn the "modern-thinking" man. In fact, on average, these social dinosaurs earn an extra $8,500 (£4,600) a year.

How very Don Draper. How very Mad Men.

See a clip from Mad Men season two at: