Mad Men- A Study in Liveness

Set in the ever-evolving 1960s, Mad Men is a fictional, historical drama based around Sterling Cooper Advertising Firm in New York, and subsequently the lives of those who work there. Based in such a period of social instability and a significant rise in commercialism, the show deals with the unexplored experience of ‘liveness’ and uncertainty of the role of television within the household.

Typically associated with broadcast news, ‘liveness’ can be described as being “the perceived simultaneity of image capture and reproduction at millions of geographically dispersed locations”, (Allen).

In presenting the rise of technology in an ever-modernising world, Mad Men explored this concept most powerfully through the penultimate episode of season 3. This episode focused on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the massive reaction to the news by the American population. Despite some historical inaccuracy of the way this news was shared around America (the show presenting television as the main information source for the public where it was more likely radio), the episode explored the compulsive news-viewing of Americans (as represented by the lead characters), analysing the regulation of one’s behaviour around television.

So over-wrought and shocked by the event, the television became a source of knowledge and guidance for the characters of Mad Men, many becoming compulsive consumers of its ongoing ‘updates’ (namely, Pete Campbell and Betty Draper). Characters stayed home from work and ignored social obligations, such as Pete Campbell and Trudy Vogel choosing to not attend a wedding in preference of watching the news, reflective of the nation-wide grief felt by the American population. This scene reflects the sense of union live television evokes, typically covering an event of mass-audience interest, as supported by academic Ellis, who suggests the “immediacy of the image” and sense of ‘liveness’ work to evoke a “relationship of co-present intimacy” (Ellis, 1992).

Further, as initiated by the introduction of the concept of ‘liveness,’ (and in the experience of the JFK assassination as re-produced by Mad Men, having ongoing news coverage), the show also explores the idea of television and the home. The show adopts a dystopian perspective of television as a cultural technology, subtly presenting it as encroaching on the familiar dynamic of the household (in accordance with the 1960s setting).

Where previously protagonist, Don Draper, assumed the absolute authoritative role within his family and house, in this episode he returns home to find his wife and children staring at the screen, watching arguably ‘unsuitable’ content. However, despite his orders, they do not stop watching- the TV assuming the power. In this sense, the television is presented as being disruptive unto ‘traditional’ family power structures, interfering with the private sphere of society, as were concerns held by society at this time of unfamiliarity with this technology.

Ultimately, historical drama Mad Men intelligently explores concepts of ‘liveness’ and the relationship between television and the home throughout its series as it draws viewers in to its re-imagination of the 1960s. This exploration is most notably demonstrated through multiple character interactions in the penultimate episode of series three.