From the start, it was clear that a significant literary influence on Mad Men was the short stories of John Cheever, master of Post-War American suburban ennui. Cheever’s main themes and tropes, that putting on a suit and tie was putting on a disguise, that a person’s job was a second and pretend life in which he acted out a part handed to him but without also being given a script or any idea where his “story” was meant to go, and that his “real” life, his “real” self, was banal, tawdry, full of disappointment and sexual and emotional frustration, and basically the reason that kept him putting on the suit and tie and going out the door in the morning to play at being someone else, dull, boring, and contemptible as that someone else may be describe the first three seasons of Mad Men in a nutshell.
The difference was that in Cheever’s stories there were moments of physical beauty and emotional uplift that took his characters out of their private purgatories for an instant and then made the prospect of their return to either of their lives and selves heartbreaking.
Don Draper and his cohorts were rarely graced with such moments. All that ever took them out of their sad presents were memories of even sadder pasts.
Way back then, I thought the Cheever influence was problematic. Not just because the differences between Cheever’s and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s visions and where and how they parted ways resulted in episode after episode being bleak and humorless, but because in the early going it was an ongoing question whether or not Mad Men was meant to be an historically accurate depiction of the times.
Among the group of over-thinkers I’m proud to be part of and call friends, there was a forcible contingent of those who thought it was. They thought that’s what the show was about, in fact, the end of an era, and, by the way, good riddance to it. It was as if they saw Mad Men as having competing zeitgeists as its main villain and hero. (Heroine, actually.) The gray, oppressive, repressive hyper-masculine 1950s would be vanquished by the colorful, liberated, feminist 1970s.
I didn’t care for this idea. If they were right, I felt, it meant Mad Men was a show I did not want to watch. I didn’t want to see the history of the 1960s reduced to the curing of the hang-ups of white suburbanites. But their evidence for the show’s being an accurate depiction of what was happening to and among those white suburbanites included how faithfully Weiner and his writers and directors and designers recreated the world of John Cheever. Which meant they saw Cheever’s stories as works of realism. As you can guess, I disagreed. I thought their misreading of Cheever was causing them to misunderstand Mad Men.
At least, sometimes I thought that.
Other times I wondered if it wasn’t Weiner himself who was misreading Cheever along with his other literary, cinematic, and television influences. I wondered if Weiner thought he was being historically accurate based on his mistaking fictions for non-fictions.
Now I think that it was the case that the show was struggling to establish itself and Weiner and his colleagues finding their way. Whatever Weiner’s original intentions were regarding Mad Men’s relation to history, by Season Four history was there to give the characters things to react to and define themselves by and against and not as a force creating characters by itself. And the show had shaken itself loose from its aesthetic influences and had become its own chief influence. Mad Men is about Mad Men. It’s the Tragedy (or maybe the Comedy) of Don Draper. The Cheeverishness has faded…or maybe it’s that I grew used to them to the point of not noticing anymore.
At Salon, novelist Rebecca Makkai has posted about her own recent and belated discovery of Cheever’s short stories and her happy sudden awareness of their influence on Mad Men: “Mad Men’s” great influence: A show’s secrets, hidden in plain sight.
I’m still a season or so behind and haven’t watched any of this season’s episodes yet. But I heard that last night’s mid-season finale ended with a musical number featuring Robert Morse as Bert Cooper showing that he’s still got the stuff and, not incidentally, making a connection between Mad Men and and a certain Broadway classic: