Beyond loving Mad Men for the excellent writing and acting, a whole lot of devotees love the show for its slavish, uber-geeky dedication to accurately recreating the era in which its set. You'll never see a bottle of Grey Goose, or hear a character call someone "Dude," or see wide ties and bell-bottoms in the office (at least not yet). My father worked in advertising on Madison Ave. during the Mad Men era, and the only quibble he has with the show is the amount of in-office drinking -- "We'd rarely drink in the office. We went out to lunch and got bombed, and that usually held us over until dinner."
The Drapers and the Sterlings and the Campbells may not be the happiest folks in the world, but the way they dress, smoke and drink looks like the epitome of retro-cool. That is, until you scratch the surface. There's a lot about the New York trod by the real Mad Men back in 1966 -- the year in which we assume season five will be set -- that would send even die-hard Mad Men retroheads scurrying to set the time machine back to 2012.
For starters, let's check out a local watering hole near the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices at the Time & Life building on 6th Ave. in midtown -- perhaps the Monkey Bar on East 54th, or Jilly's on West 52nd. Try ordering a Macallan on the rocks, or a Knob Creek Manhattan, and even the most sophisticated barkeep won't have any idea what you're talking about. Small-batch and single-barrel bourbons and ryes were still unheard of. So were the micro-distilleries and artisanal spirits that cocktail fashionistas hold dear today. Even single-malt Scotches were a couple of decades away from breaking into the U.S. market -- if you drank Scotch, you drank it blended, and if it was aged for more than five years, that was some pretty high-end stuff.
OK, no single malts or single-barrel whiskeys. How about an Old Fashioned, Don Draper's favorite drink? Don has been known to have his Old Fashioneds with rye, but by 1966 that'd be very out of step with the times. Both rye and bourbon are in the midst of a decades-long downslide, supplanted by lighter Canadian blended whiskeys (Draper himself is a Canadian Club man). That's anathema to a lot of today's drinkers, who like their whiskeys robust and flavorful. And what's the bartender pouring on top of your Canadian Old Fashioned -- club soda?! Hey, that's how Old Fashioneds were made in '66. In fact, that's how Draper himself made one in season three.
How about a martini instead? OK, but if you're thinking of having it with gin -- as any self-respecting 21st century cocktailian would -- you might as well write "square" on your forehead. Vodka is all the rage in martini-mad Manhattan in '66, and in fact it's about to supplant gin in U.S. sales for the first time. Hey, if a vodka martini is good enough for James Bond, it's good enough for Roger Sterling, who's gone so far as to score a case of then-unavailable-in-the-States Stolichnaya a couple of seasons back.
Well, maybe the cocktails aren't so great, but how about the food? Well, it's not much better. The iconic New York restaurant The Four Seasons already exists, and there are other noteworthy NYC eateries such as the over-the-top Forum Of The Twelve Caesars. But you say you want some Szechuan food? Sorry pal, that's still a decade in the future. Nobu? How about Benihana instead? Maybe some tapas? Nouvelle cuisine? Northern Italian? No, no, and no. Also no pan-Asian, pan-Latino, or pan-anything-else cuisine, unless pan-fried counts. More oysters? Another steak? I guess so....
I've always wondered why sports aren't mentioned more on Mad Men. I mean, a good chunk of the cast are men, after all. But for season five, there's no need to wonder why Don and Roger don't go out to more ballgames. 1966 is the worst year for New York sports franchises since the NBA came into being twenty years earlier. Not one of the city's six teams (Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, Knicks, Rangers) made the postseason, and only one, the Jets (of the upstart American Football League, featuring a young quarterback named Joe Namath) so much as finished with a .500 record. Even the mighty Yankees, who'd won 14 pennants in 16 seasons from 1949-64, finished in last place for the first time since 1912. At one home game in September, they drew a total of 413 paying customers. Rest assured that nobody from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would be among them.
But hey, surely you can't quibble with the music scene, right? 1966 is remembered by rock fans as one of the greatest in pop music history, if not the greatest. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding and too many others to count were all at their peak. But can you imagine Don Draper digging Revolver, or Pete Campbell getting into Blonde On Blonde? (OK, I can see Peggy Olsen getting into Dylan...). Back then, all that long-haired stuff was for kids. The over-30 crowd was into decidedly different sounds, like Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, whose peppy, quasi-mariachi instrumentals made them far and away the top selling act of the year. Or Frank Sinatra, who scored three Top Ten albums along with a brace of hit singles including "Strangers in the Night" and "That's Life." Or Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Mantovani, Percy Faith, or any number of adult-oriented easy-listening artists who still hit the charts regularly even in this legendary year.
I could go on -- I mean, I haven't even mentioned New York City's soaring crime rate, the transit strike, racial tensions, or other woes that beset Noo Yawk during 1966. But I won't. Just because Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner tries to recreate the Mad Men era down to the tiniest detail doesn't mean we, the viewers, have to. He and his staff get paid to do it, after all. Unless you're getting paid to drink crappy Old Fashioneds, it's better to recreate the '60s the way it was in our fantasies, with the best elements of back then combined with all the stuff we love today. So pour a snifter of that 18-year-old Glenlivet, order in some General Tso's Chicken, and enjoy the season premiere of Mad Men on your computer or your HD TV. Not everything was better back then, after all.
Follow Tony Sachs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RetroManNYC