When someone asks me what the TV show Mad Men is about (after hearing me rant on and on about its utter genius), I usually say something like: it's about the cultural shift of the 1960s, backed by the history of its time and the extremely pertinent New York advertising age. Natasha Vargas-Cooper says it a bit better:
"It's about the culture clash and contradictions that occurred during the twilight of the Eisenhower era, the great societal shake-up of the 1960s, and how that pressurized time in history formed modern America, its families, its consciousness, and its consumers."
It's because of that overwhelmingly detailed, yet spot on, prose that I was attracted to Vargas-Cooper's writing. Although an unauthorized guide to the show, it's a fantastic companion piece (and I highly Matt Weiner hiring her as a researcher for the show). Separated into different sections (The Ads and the Men Who Made Them; Style; Smoking, Drinking, and Drugging; etc...) the book delves deeper into everything the show represents, giving a grander understanding to each ad, each character trait, and each decorated home.
It's not just an ode to Mad Men - it's a cultural study of the time period (or, as the book says, "a romp through 1960s America"). It uses Mad Men as a backdrop to discuss what was really going on, from fashion to politics. Those who are intrigued by the age would be just as interested in the literary work.
The first chapter, which discussed actual advertising from that time period and the movers and shakers that made it happen, was actually my favorite. It overviewed the historic ad campaigns (Marlboro Man, Volkswagen Think Small, Western Union, etc), showing the actual ad and how it was thought up. After each company and product was discussed, it showed how some Mad Men ads were similar, and how the characters mirror some of the real high power people of that age. It shows how Sal's art was at turmoil due to the fact that many companies started to turn to photographs; how shops were re-designed, much like Menken's. My personal favorite, it showed the start of the font Helvetica, and how it was used as an "everyman" sort of font that people could understand despite size and wasn't too fancy or too bold.
Other chapters went into the style, movies, literature, and decor of the time period, showing where Betty may have gotten her fashion influence. It shows how the times are changing, and how the characters must evolve with it (tighter waists like Joan, fuller skirts like Betty's). Or, how certain movie actors of the time were very similar to some of the leading characters (the Cary Grant/Clark Gable/Humphrey Bogart/John Wayne sexual alchemy of Don Draper). Or, the books the characters read, and how they showcase another side of the character's life.
Indeed, the book is completely inclusive, discussing every aspect the 1960s and show both represent. It offers a fuller look into the program, but more so, a deeper look into the time period and what the characters were up against. It was a book I purchased and figured i'd read on and off throughout the holiday season, as it wasn't a page-turning fiction novel, but greedily devoured in around three days. The chapters are short and too the point, with enough detail piled in that it had me repeatedly wanting to share the information with others. I'm excited to see what Vargas-Cooper has in store next.
Is it time for season five yet?