New media are still a long crawl from putting “old media” to bed. But they do talk back. In the age of the empowered amateur, already in progress, any programming worth its spotload will awaken many megs of praise, criticism, feedback and annotations. In Century Twenty-One, no TV show can blow up like AMC’s pop-cult phenom “Mad Men” without generating a vast, rambunctious rapid-response system online. There are uncritical plot summaries. There’s star gossip. And there’s the bitter, hypercritical inverted fandom of nerdy cellar-dwellers, nitpicking, adding little of value. “Mad Men” ain’t perfect; the web has smugly exposed its flaws. But the show is uncommonly rich. It deserves more.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a different, more charming breed of nerd. Her playful, expansive tribute blog madmenunbuttoned.com spots the many details the series nails. She treats “Mad Men” like a webpage full of hidden hyperlinks, researching minor points in depth, fleshing out the show’s broad sketch of its historical context. Any embedded Freudian slip in the dialogue might spawn a well-researched micro-essay about the times.
Advertising is America’s most definitive indigenous artform. The vacuum-sealed fiction of “Mad Men,” based on the ad biz’s early sixties “creative revolution,” animates not only the interpersonal customs and conflicted inner monologues of the day, but the collective anxiety of a booming baby empire headed for intense turbulence. For a social-studies dork like Vargas-Cooper, it’s not just an engrossing story; it’s a phalanx of jumping-off points. She hardly exhausts the show here—”Mad Men” continues to unfold, getting darker and the blog still updates—but if there’s a “Mad Men” focus in the history department, this is the basic text. Come as a fan; stay for the footnotes.
“Mad Men Unbuttoned” assumes a basic knowledge of the show’s workings, characters and storylines. It invokes them less as subjects than as structure. It speculates a bit (particularly in the section on “Style”) about the characters’ backgrounds and awkwardly concealed motives, but that’s not the focus. It almost completely ignores the writers, cast and crew. And yet, it is non-fiction.
Instead of Pete Campbell, Matthew Weiner and January Jones, we meet real-life industry kingpins Leo Burnett (the guy who had the bright idea to put cartoon characters on cereal boxes), David Ogilvy (the ascetic Scot whose “Confessions of an Advertising Man” remains one of the most blunt and entertaining books on American business), and Draper Daniels, the inspiration for the cryptic, saturnine alpha-male creative director known to his people as Don Draper. The era’s conformist fashion sense is scanned for hints of repressed anxiety. Quietly ambitious secretary Peggy Olson’s birth-control prescription inspires a wink at sexual double standards and a succinct history of Trojan condoms. Closet queen Sal Romano’s rejected Lucky Strike campaign detours through a Frankie Goes to Hollywood namecheck. And we wrap up with a fleeting, lyrical riff on Reno, Nevada as America’s “divorce colony.”
The book is a creature of the blog. It’s a collection of “blog writing,” a pithy, rambling new idiom inspired by the distinct realities of publishing and reading online. Short paragraphs, like sans-serif fonts, look friendly on a screen. Odd syntax? Not an automatic DQ. The style is informal and conversational—trading on personality rather than AP Stylebook precision. Guest contributors pop in frequently from other quarters of the blog world, pitching their perspectives with no obvious concessions to NVC’s house style. Based on an episodic drama, drawn from a wandering conversation taking place over months and years, this is a book more fit for casual dipping than front-to-back reading. That’s its strength. That’s the fun. It’s a “romp,” as advertised.
The characters in “Mad Men” read long-form literature. They reflect on their shifting world through the works of Frank O’Hara, D.H. Lawrence and Ayn Rand, as-yet unacquainted with the quick-cut sensory overload of the web. By contrast, Vargas-Cooper’s observations are clipped, scattershot, info-drunk and blatantly timely. The subject matter is retro, the presentation contemporary. “Mad Men Unbuttoned” is a mashup. It’s got layers. If we’re still kicking in 2060 and someone writes a story about the ‘net, it’ll make the reading list.
“Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America”
By Natasha Vargas-Cooper
Collins Design, 256 pages, $16.99