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How the Past Ended

My best TV-watching decade was the 1980s, though this was by no means the best decade of TV.  Indeed, not much was innovative, and looking back now, with the compression of memory and in view of the many rather more interesting things I’ve seen since, that entire decade of TV-watching might be emblematized by Fred Savage’s twelve-year-old face.  His hit show, “The Wonder Years,” was a staple of my juvenile boob tube.  But that show gathers its sense of iconicity for me in part because it kept company with what felt like an endless and historically backward-looking media blitz: dramas like “China Beach,” Oliver Stone’s films, documentaries about the Summer of Love, the Nickelodeon network’s aggressively marketed reruns of ’50s and ’60s sitcoms, and the endlessly unrealized but no less ominous prospect that bee-hive hairdos would “come back in.”

My parents were Boomers, and this programming was for them.  They consumed it with interest, discussed it with their friends, related to characters and experiences, and even compared ages (thus I happen to know that Karen, the oldest sister and a comparatively minor character on “The Wonder Years,” graduated high school in 1968, the same year as my mother).  What my parents’ interest produced in me was a kind of nostalgia.  I yearned strongly for a past that I had no experiential access to.  Growing up adjacent to San Francisco, we kids heard tales of the Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love, the electric Kool Aid acid test and the free concerts that the Grateful Dead played in Golden Gate Park.  And boy, did we feel like we were missing out.  In high school my friends and I nursed a sense of injury for being born too late.  Surely the love would be freer, the responsibilities fewer, the drugs better and cheaper, the people nicer, and the flowers more firmly in your hair, had we been our parents’ ages.

It never occurred to us that this wish was stunting, if not also a bit creepy.  It did occur to us that “you had to be there,” but never that our parents weren’t actually.  (When, for example, my father spoke without regret about a pair of Woodstock tickets he turned down, offered as repayment by a friend who owed him money, I simply rued that I would have taken the tickets if I had been there.)  And it certainly never occurred to us that we were cultivating a nostalgia that our parents didn’t truly have.

At least, it never occurred to us that they could hardly miss something that was still present to them.  Though I was looking to 1968 as the-time-before-I-was-even-thought-of, they were looking back over scarcely half their lives.  A show about 1968, viewed from the perspective of 1988, is an experience of the recent past.  A show about 1968, viewed wistfully from oblivion, is a far more distant thing.  What I experienced was a longing.  What I think my parents experienced was a sense of continuity.

It seems clear to me now that this sense of continuity, such as it was, gained some potency from the very nostalgia that my friends and I exhibited.  We couldn’t access our parents’ experiences, but we lived in a world that was a consequence of those experiences.  I mean this both blandly (in the sense that temporal events happen more or less in sequence) and materially (the young Fred Savage would undoubtedly feel less iconic to me without the televisual apparatus of “The Wonder Years”).  Nostalgia is a backward-looking thing, but what I mean to describe is a version of it that functions more as a feedback loop.  The ’80s version of nostalgia for the ’60s was shockingly uneven in its application, because it effectively targeted both adults who lived through the ’60s and their children who didn’t.  We kids consumed the world our parents made and reflected it back to them as an object of desire.

For many children of Boomers—children of an upwardly-mobile and abundantly individuated generation born amidst unprecedented economic prosperity—this kind of reproduction of values and experiences looked something like The Plan.  My youth was (to be) an extension of their youth.  As a result, their youth lasted longer, accrued more value, achieved more meaning.  They benefitted from our nostalgia in a way that we did not.  It may be the case that these circumstances are neither true for everyone of my generation, nor desirable for all of their parents.  But, in my case, such was indeed the effect of my parents’ attempts at child-raising, and I have reason to think they liked it very much.

Given this pernicious version of nostalgia, it was with some delight I recently, if quite belatedly, encountered “Mad Men.”  That show hit me with a jolt of sparkling apperception.  Here was a series about the 1960s, produced more than twenty years after the spate of ’60s nostalgia on which I had cut my juvenile teeth.  But its characters are not the children of the ’60s, who commanded narrative attention on “The Wonder Years.” Instead, they are adults.  Rather than my parents’ generation, the characters of “Mad Men” would be my grandparents’ contemporaries.  And in this and other ways, for whatever else can be said about the show, its project is emphatically not to grant its viewer a sense of continuity with the recent past.  Instead, its project is to make the past into undiscovered country.  The styles, the language, the foods, the habits, the décor, the social order, the gender roles, and even the undergarments are unbelievably, ineluctably different than those of our own contemporaries.  Watching “Mad Men,” one gets the clear sense that the 1960s are unequivocally, completely, and irretrievably over.

Though many critics and scholars and bloggers have poked at the history of the show, my immediate interest is not in the show’s historical accuracy, so much as in its historicity.  What strikes me, in other words, are the ways that “Mad Men” constitutes history as so many varieties of difference and distance—but hardly, I think, in a manner whose pay-off is merely the kind of self-congratulation that says, “We know so much they didn’t.”  It may be the case that the viewer’s constructed distance from the realities depicted in the “Mad Men” version of the 1960s generate fertile grounds for nostalgia.  (A show about 1961, viewed wistfully from oblivion, is, well, you know.)  But for any viewer who has already suffered through ’60s nostalgia in the ’80s, the show’s lavish generation of details that alienate and estrange feels remarkably (dare I say) new.  Any nostalgia that we might feel will shore up no one’s sense of continuity.  My grandparents are dead.  From where I’m sitting, the show’s backward-looking orientation has an evenness that surprises and delights.

I don’t mean to imply that “Mad Men” is therefore an unqualified good, and its astounding and hyper-syndicated multi-media product placements and tie-ins begin to suggest exactly what the show’s nostalgia (and perhaps my own anti-nostalgia) are in fact shoring up in the historical present.  Yet, for good or ideological ill, the point remains that the 1960s of “Mad Men” are not drawn in such a way that they feel like the enabling condition of our present at all.  Instead, the show’s creation of a foreign past in our own present feels like a powerful attempt to think through history apart from continuity or progress.

And what I find most promising about “Mad Men” is exactly this: its interest in a past that does not generate the present but that does not evacuate it either.  Indeed, the appeal of watching “Mad Men” and experiencing some estrangement from events that we have long been taught to recognize as recent history is the ways that doing so forces a recognition that the recent is never entirely or simply recent.  Instead, the recent history is haunted, obliquely, with history—with past experiences, residual ideas or structures, vestigial institutions, and older modes of being that hang-on or insist, despite needing to have expired, or even despite having done so.  For my part, I love this kind of haunting.  Ghosts have a lot to teach us.  And, I would aver, that learning begins in earnest, once we start to see that things are over.


J.A. Stein is not always the theory guy.

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  1. The pleasure I’ve taken in ‘Mad Men’ has to do not so much with the starkly convincing otherness of the sets (the ashtrays! the rhinestone pins!), but with the partial foreknowledge of what’s to come. From S1, Ep 1 a viewer can calculate how old Sally and Bobby will be in 1968, and speculate on where they will be then, and how the sweeping changes to come will mark them as the bridge to our present. Will Sally be at the Summer of Love? Burn her bra in public? Will Bobby be killed in Vietnam? Or will either, both, end up as lost souls? That seems like the major difference between MM’s hyperspecificity and the vaguer historical settings of other nostalgia dramedies like ‘Happy Days’ or ‘That 70s Show’: we know that an earthquake is coming, we know it’s inevitable, and that makes us more powerful than the characters. We know something really important that they don’t know; we can pity them, want to protect them, or root for them–I’m gunning for Megan to help start Ms. Magazine–but we still get to feel superior to them. It seems like a very particular experience of serial fiction, one I can’t think offhand of any analogies for. (Of course, we’re still less powerful than the showrunner…)

  2. I really agree with Kirsten’s comment about the power of the historical specificity of Mad Men, and the way it puts viewers in a position of rooting for the characters (especially Peggy and Joan, of course, in my case rooting for them to discover feminism). My analogy is weirdly, Dr Who, which I’ve been watching a lot of with my 9 year old. Mad Men is also a time travel narrative, and time travel narratives, and counterfactuals, are big these days (for I think obvious reasons– because late capitalism is getting harder to inhabit, etc). Thanks for starting such a great conversation, Jordan!


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