Mad Men and Wonder Years: history, nostalgia, and life in The Sixties

Promotional image for Season Five of Mad Men

By Jay Young

Like many people, I anticipated the return of Mad Men (AMC, Sundays, 10 pm EST), one of television’s most acclaimed series of the past decade.  Now in its fifth season, the show looks at the life of Don Draper and other workers in the New York advertising industry during the 1960s. At the same time that I became reunited with Don and his gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, I also began to re-watch The Wonder Years.  Running from 1988 to 1993, the series told the coming-of-age story of Kevin Arnold, a teenage boy living in an unnamed American suburb during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  What struck me as I watched Mad Men and The Wonder Years is the different ways in which both shows explore history, nostalgia, and life during the turbulent decade of the 1960s.

Mad Men and The Wonder Years share many of the same overarching historical themes of political, social, and cultural change during 1960s America.  Specifically, both shows illustrate how the everyday lives of people at the time intersected with the events and trends that have become engrained in popular memory of the decade.  The civil rights movement, feminism, the Vietnam War, and the emerging counterculture – to name a few of the major forces of the era – serve as subtext for both series.

Despite their similarities, both series employ different historical chronologies, geographies, and narrative techniques in order to dramatize the transformations of the decade.  Season One of Mad Men is set in 1960, and the current season is set in 1966.  This periodization allows the show to emphasize a gradual transition from the conservative 1950s to the liberal 1960s.  From the open drinking in the morning office to the overt sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, adultery, and homophobia of its characters, the series’ chronology also enables it to illustrate the negative side of an era perceived by some conservatives today as a simpler time before the emergence and influence of liberal and radical social movements during the 1960s.

My guess is that Mad Men will end in 1968, the year that many historians see as the high point of 1960s radicalism.  The year 1968 is the starting point for The Wonder Years, which concludes in 1973Although the values of Kevin’s parents – especially his father – often seem like a caricature of 1950s conservatism, the series takes off as the changes of the 1960s are already well underway.  Whereas Man Men emphasizes the continuities between the early 1960s with the 1950s, The Wonder Years does the same with the early 1970s and the late 1960s.

Different geographies and social classes also mark both shows.  Many of the characters in Mad Men, such as Don Draper, are jet-setting elites who work (and in some cases live) in Manhattan.  Of course, the characters do not directly witness all major historical events of the time, but they seem closer to the epicentre of change.  For example, Don’s ad firm seeks to represent Richard Nixon in his failed presidential run against John F. Kennedy in 1960.  Later on in the series, Don realizes the business opportunities from the changing tide of social perceptions against smoking, so his new ad firm publicizes in newspapers their opposition to tobacco advertisements, despite his own chain-smoking habit.  Similarly, Season Five begins with a civil rights demonstration outside a rival ad agency that ultimately leads to Draper’s firm hiring its first black employee.

In contrast, The Wonder Years is set in middle(-class) America.  The big events of the era directly affect the Arnold family.  To recount one instance, in the show’s first season we learn that the older brother of Kevin’s childhood friend, Winnie, has died in Vietnam.  Yet the geographical position and the ordinary status of characters in the show often make them seem like respondents to major historical trends, rather than agents themselves.  As such, major events come into the Arnold home most prominently through visuals and sounds of the nightly news that emanates from the family’s kitchen television, often simultaneous to their discussions of the mundane details of their own daily experiences.

Paul, Kevin, and Winnie from The Wonder Years

A striking feature of The Wonder Years is its distinct storytelling method.  Viewers will remember that the show features the narration of an adult Kevin, who looks back on his youth with not only a sardonic wit about the idiosyncrasies of his family and the contradictions of the era, but also a sense of nostalgia for his youth.  Along with the use of Arnold family home films interspersed with dramatic scenes, Kevin’s adult voice gives the show a sense of realism.  Adding to this realism is the fact that I suspect the show’s main viewer demographic consisted of baby-boomers, who watched in part because of their own nostalgia for the idealism of the 1960s.

Much has been made of the sleek aesthetic style of Mad Men: its suits, dresses, cars, furnishings, and music of an era long gone.  Such characteristics, along with Don’s own hidden past identity, makes the show feel more like fantasy than realism, more like the dream-world of television advertising than grainy home films.  And unlike the baby-boomers who might relate to Kevin Arnold, Mad Men draws its audience from not only members of that generation, who never worked in an office building during the early 1960s (although their parents may have), but also members of Generations X and Y, who never even lived through the era.

Ultimately, both shows struggle with the meaning of the Sixties, the effects of historical forces on everyday life, and the legacies of such forces on more recent times.  Communications scholar Daniel Marcus has written that during the early 1980s political actors in the United States – such as Ronald Reagan – began to use the dichotomy between perceptions of the 1950s and the 1960s in popular culture as “a primary way … to shape (and reshape) public memories according to their own needs.”  Conservatives, for example, have rejected social movements that arose out of the 1960s as an unfortunate turn from what they conceive as the golden years of the 1950s.  Mad Men and The Wonder Years show how popular culture can complicate our impressions of these decades.

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7 thoughts on “Mad Men and Wonder Years: history, nostalgia, and life in The Sixties

  1. Sean Kheraj

    Great post, Jay. Readers might also be interested in looking at Adam Gopnik’s recent article in The New Yorker about nostalgia and popular culture:

    Regarding The Wonder Years, I always thought that show was set in suburban California. In this sense, the show captures the epicentre of political change in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s with tax revolts and the emergence of Richard Nixon’s Californian suburban conservative base (“The Silent Majority”).

  2. Jay Young

    Thanks for reading it, Sean.

    I heard about Gopnik’s piece after I wrote this post. I’m a bit skeptical about his “Golden Forty-Year Rule”, in which the “prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past.” It seems too formulaic and really doesn’t relate nostalgia of a past era to the particular contexts within the present that seems to foment nostalgia. I also remember the rekindled nostalgia for the Beatles and all that was late 1960s that emerged in the 1990s, with the release of the Beatles anthology. I guess we’ll have to see if the next couple of years will have an even greater sense of nostalgia for the late 1960s to see if Gopnik’s theory has legs.

    Great point about The Wonder Years being located within the Southern California tax revolts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The landscape gives off the impression of this locale (for example, there are mountains in the background in the Arnold neighbourhood, and apparently a license plate in a later season says ‘California’). However, some fans think the suburb was based in New Jersey, because Kevin wears a New York Jets jacket during the first few seasons. I haven’t rewatched past Season Two yet, but the tax revolt and the rise of sun-belt suburban conservatism hasn’t yet intersected with any of the episodes.

  3. AWatson

    My grandfather was an illustrator who worked for a New York advertising agency in the 1960s.
    His memories of that period aren’t fond, because when I mentioned he might enjoy the show, he said something along the lines of ‘I have no interest in that sort of thing.’
    I don’t know whether I learned more about my grandfather or Mad Men from that brief exchange.

  4. Jay Young Post author

    Thanks for your comment, AWatson! It seems your grandfather has the opposite of nostalgia for the New York advertising world of the 1960s. I don’t know of a term that expresses the opposite of nostalgia. Maybe no-stalgia?

  5. Juliano Dupont

    Hi, i’m brazilian, and i would like to give a peripheral point of view of this series. (Excuse me if my english sounds a little idiossincratic.) I mean peripheral not beacause i think USA is the center and Brazil the province, but peripheral only because i saw the series with a stranger eye.
    Wonder Years went on air in a public television in Brazil, in 1995. A lot of websites says that this period was the only one in history of Brazil that a public television had more audience than the commercial channels. By this information you can measure the importance that Wonder Years had in teenagers in our country (by the way, the show went on air in the evening, around 19h – seven o’clock.). I watch it all over again, almost 20 years after. And occured a coincidence – Mad Men begin to be shown in Brazil now, by the same channel that telivisioned Wonder Years in the 90’s – TV Cultura.

  6. Juliano Dupont

    The peripheral is central not only to my way of view, but also to stablish the differences beetween the series – Mad Men appears to be made in the center of the events; Wonder Years is, as Jay Young said, occurs in both ways, is the peripheral beeing inffluenced by the main events of the times, like history beeing told in the minor characters, the common people. History told in the microhistory. Vietnam occuring in the american living room.

  7. Juliano Dupont

    Mad Men has the illusion that may be a very newyorkian allucination – the belief that Manhattan is the center of the world. Maybe Arnold family is more universal (not to say more human) than powerful Publicists that beliefs to create e change History by their offices. But, the most important difference (i only see, until now, 4 episodes of the first season of Mad Men) beetween than, is that WOnder Years deals with people sincere, honestly dealing with their emotions. Mad Men is all about dissimulation. The nostalgia is vere cinical, opposed to ingenous nostalgian of Wonder Years. Salute from south of Brazil. Sorry for sendin 3 reply – i had a problem with the site

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