Frankk Rich: 'Mad Men' Crashes Woodstock’s Birthday

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[Frank Rich is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.]

IN our 24/7 mediasphere, this weekend’s misty Woodstock commemorations must share the screen with Americans screaming bloody murder at town hall meetings. It’s a vivid reminder that what most endures from America, 1969, is not the peace-and-love flower-power bacchanal of Woodstock legend but a certain style of political rage. The angry white folk shouting down their congressmen might be — literally in some cases — those angry white students whose protests disrupted campuses before and after the Woodstock interlude of summer vacation ’69.

The most historically resonant television event this weekend, however, may be none of the above. Sunday night is the premiere of the third season of “Mad Men,” the AMC series about a fictional Madison Avenue ad agency in the early 1960s. The first episode is to be simulcast in Times Square after a costume party where fans can parade their retro wardrobes. This promotional event is Woodstock, corporate style, with martinis instead of marijuana, Sinatra instead of Shankar and narrow ties supplanting the tie-dyed.

Woodstock’s 40th anniversary is being celebrated as well — with new books, a new documentary, a new Ang Lee movie and the inevitable remastered DVDs and CDs. But it’s “Mad Men” that has the pulse of our moment. Though the show unfolds in an earlier America than Woodstock, it seems of far more recent vintage, for better and for worse...

... What makes the show powerful is not nostalgia for an America that few want to bring back — where women were most valued as sex objects or subservient housewives, where blacks were, at best, second-class citizens, and where the hedonistic guzzling of gas and gin went unquestioned. Rather, it’s our identification with an America that, for all its serious differences with our own, shares our growing anxiety about the prospect of cataclysmic change. “Mad Men” is about the dawn of a new era, and we, too, are at such a dawn. And we are uncertain and worried about what comes next.

In his new book “1959: The Year Everything Changed,” Fred Kaplan writes about the forces that were roiling America in the year before “Mad Men” begins. It was in 1959 that Berry Gordy founded Motown, that G. D. Searle applied to the F.D.A. for approval of the birth-control pill, and that Texas Instruments announced the advent of the microchip. The year began with a Soviet technological triumph, the launching of the spacecraft Lunik I, and ended with an embarrassing capitalist fiasco, Ford Motor’s yanking of the ignominious Edsel. Along the way the first two American soldiers were killed in South Vietnam. “By the end of 1959,” Kaplan writes, “all the elements were in place for the upheavals of the subsequent decades.”...

...In the world of television, “Mad Men” is notorious for drawing great press and modest audiences. This could be the season when the viewers catch up, in part because the show is catching up to the level of anxiety we feel in 2009. In the first two seasons, the series was promoted with the slogan “Where the Truth Lies.” This year, it’s “The World’s Gone Mad.” The ad hyping the season premiere depicts the impeccably dressed Don Draper, the agency executive played by Jon Hamm, sitting in his office calmly smoking a Lucky Strike as floodwater rises to his waist.

To be underwater — well, many Americans know what that’s like right now. But we are also at that 1963-like pivot point of our history, with a new young president unlike any we’ve seen before, and with the promise of a new frontier whose boundaries are a mystery. Something is happening here, as Bob Dylan framed this mood the last time around, but you don’t know what it is. We feel Don Draper’s disorientation as his once rock-solid ’50s America starts to be swept away. We recognize his fear that the world could go mad.

It’s through this prism we might re-examine the raucous town hall eruptions this month. Even if they are inflated by activist organizations and cable-TV overexposure, they still cannot be dismissed entirely as made-for-media phenomena made-to-measure to fill the August news vacuum. Nor are they necessarily about health care. The twisted distortions about “death panels” and federal conspiracies “to pull the plug on grandma” are just too unhinged from the reality of any actual legislation. These bogus fears are psychological proxies for bigger traumas...

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