Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The tao of Don: 17 pop-cultural predecessors to Mad Men

Cary Grant in North By Northwest (left), Jon Hamm in a Mad Men promo

When Mad Men premiered in the summer of 2007, it was greeted as the new standard for innovation and inventiveness in TV drama. But as its advertising executives would attest, the work is never without its inspirations and influences. Just as Bye Bye Birdie begat “Hello Patio,” dozens of pieces of pop culture walked into the offices of Sterling Cooper (and its subsequent permutations), closed the door, took a seat, and walked out as wholly new creations of Mad Men. And though Don Draper might be reluctant to acknowledge the shoulders upon which he stands tall, creator Matthew Weiner and crew have never been shy about revealing the list of ingredients that went into the Mad Men cocktail.

1. Saul Bass


Quick: Identify the source of the following quote. “I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.” Is it Peggy Olson? Nope. Michael Ginsberg, maybe? Wrong again. Don Draper? As if Don would ever speak so clearly and plainly about something he wants. No, the proper attribution goes to Saul Bass, the man behind the poster and title sequence for Anatomy Of A Murder (among dozens of other films), the AT&T globe, and countless other pieces of unmistakable visual identity. Bass would’ve been more than a contemporary of Don, Peggy, and Ginsberg’s—he would’ve helped to shape their shared philosophy that a vulgar and treacherous form like advertising can still produce pieces of great beauty and truth. Despite its commercial roots, Bass’ finest work endures to this day, in textbooks, galleries, remastered films, and the work it inspired—like the 36 seconds of Vertigo-riffing animation that opens every episode of Mad Men. [Erik Adams]

2. North By Northwest (1959)

When The Museum Of The Moving Image programmed a film series about Mad Men’s cinematic influences (as cited by Matthew Weiner), it kicked off with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic wrong-man thriller North By Northwest. As Weiner points out, Cary Grant plays an advertising executive who gets mistaken for another man in North By Northwest—though he’s named Roger rather than Don or Dick, and he hasn’t chosen to pose as someone else. Mad Men uses its own twist on the mistaken-identity narrative for slow-burning existential questions, while North By Northwest is one of Hitchcock’s less psychologically fraught narratives of this period, coming right between Vertigo and Psycho. But part of Mad Men’s initial effectiveness has to do with the way movies like North By Northwest make Manhattan around the ’50s to ’60s transition look glamorous and bustling, even as the protagonist gets tangled up in dangerous international intrigue. [Jesse Hassenger]

3. John Cheever

By Matthew Weiner’s own admission, every episode of Mad Men strives to find the balance of “irony and comedy and pain” that flows like a quietly desperate, boozy river throughout the works of John Cheever, an author whose work captured the same duality and discontent of the ’60s while he was living in the nicotine-thick of it. Weiner name-checks Cheever frequently—and he even reread the preface to John Cheever: Collected Stories before beginning each new season—all while keeping Cheever’s influence hiding in plain sight on screen. After all, Don and Betty Draper first lived in Ossining, New York, the real-world town where Cheever wrote the bulk of his work (earning him the sobriquet “Ovid Of Ossining”). The Drapers’ house resided on the fictional Bullet Park Road, named after Cheever’s 1969 novel. Less tangible is the shared sense of suppressed suburban alienation and generational gap displacement that both Cheever and Mad Men capture so well, in deeply flawed characters who drink and smoke and ruminate too much. [Sean O’Neal]


4. Revolutionary Road (1961)

When Sam Mendes released his cinematic adaptation of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road in 2008, nearly every review made mention of its similarity to Mad Men—not only in its midcentury period detail, but in its story of a couple chafing against corporate drudgery and suburban conformity. It was a somewhat ironic comparison, considering Mad Men itself can be traced to Yates’ 1961 novel, even if Matthew Weiner says he didn’t read it until three years after he wrote the show’s pilot. “Yates was there. This is what he was writing about,” Weiner told The New York Times, saying he might have abandoned the idea altogether had he known that Yates, like John Cheever, had already captured it first, and from a much closer viewpoint. But Weiner came to embrace the similarity, reportedly handing out copies to cast members to have them get a feel for the tone. And the two may be even more directly linked: According to former AMC senior vice president Christina Wayne, it was she who first turned Weiner on to Revolutionary Road, and that gesture convinced Weiner to go with the then-fledgling network that so nurtured the show. [Sean O’Neal]


5. The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit (1955)

Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit quickly became a phenomenon—alongside the Gregory Peck-starring film of the same name—by capturing an American spirit that was already slowly being crushed by corporate conformity. And though they’re set a few years apart, the similarities between Mad Men’s Don Draper and the book’s protagonist, Tom Rath, are undeniable. Both are former soldiers struggling to return to “normal” life, who adopt identities as suburbs-dwelling, Manhattan-commuting ideals of the American businessman—Don in advertising, Tom in PR—and succeed thanks to a knack for keen insight and convincing speeches, even as they feel like frauds on the inside. The main thing separating them is that Don, at least at first, seems to seek out and relish the armor that’s provided by looking and sounding just like everyone else, while Tom worries about disappearing into it. But as the seasons have worn on, Don and Tom seem to be hewing closer in agreement that that’s not who they want to be: Witness the time comedian Jimmy Barrett greeted Don with, “Well, if it isn’t the man in the gray flannel suit,” and Don promptly punched him in the face. [Sean O’Neal]


6. The Apartment (1960)

Matthew Weiner has cited Billy Wilder’s The Apartment as one of his favorite movies, and it’s easy to see its influence on Mad Men’s boozing, philandering executives, who treat women like cocktails to be grabbed after work (and tossed out just as easily). Even the show itself made the comparison, when Joan pointedly suggests to Roger, “How about a movie? I hear The Apartment is good,” before bemoaning how Shirley MacLaine’s vivacious elevator operator was similarly passed around the movie’s married men “like a tray of canapés.” But beyond just the obvious parallels in the depictions of New York office life, adulterous liaisons, and the desperate corporate-climbers who jump to facilitate them (if only Pete Campbell had had Jack Lemmon’s apartment to offer…), The Apartment’s balance of dark subject matter and light gallows humor inspired Weiner as well. You can trace a direct line between a movie that uses a popping champagne cork being mistaken for a suicide and a show that wrings morbid laughs out of a guy losing his foot to a riding lawnmower. [Sean O’Neal]


7. Profit (1996)

Network television isn’t typically in the “ahead of its time” business, but this 1996 Fox drama clearly arrived a few years too early, well before the “antihero” trend in general and the Don Draper-like “amoral impostor” character in particular. Adrian Pasdar stars as Jimmy Stakowski, who overcomes a miserable childhood—raised by an abusive father, who kept him imprisoned in a cardboard box with a TV for a babysitter—by becoming “Jim Profit,” a corporate executive who finds out his colleagues’ biggest secrets and uses them to scheme his way up the company ladder. Not only was Profit ratings-challenged, it drew actual protests from viewers who couldn’t believe that a major network was airing a show with such an awful person as the lead. Critics and TV writers, though, were excited by what Profit co-creators David Greenwalt and John McNamara were up to. Before long, television was heavily populated with lying sociopaths—including the sharp-dressed alcoholic formerly known as Dick Whitman. [Noel Murray]


8. Bewitched (1964-72)

Long before Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, TV viewers got some insight into the inner workings of advertising agencies via the adventures of Darrin Stephens, a Madison Avenue adman with the agency McMann & Tate. Darrin’s life and career is complicated by his wife Samantha, a witch whose family keeps interfering in their lives. But magic aside, Bewitched is really a sitcom about a young married couple in the ’60s, dealing with rapid cultural changes and conflicting ideologies. It’s a proto-Mad Men, in other words, and a show that helped acclimate the television audience to the high-pressure world of client-acquisition and campaign-pitching. Frequently, episodes ended with Darrin pulling a Don Draper (often with Sam’s help), coming up with an idea for an ad that would tap into the zeitgeist without offending an older, more conservative generation. Bewitched proved that there was a market for these kinds of stories—witchcraft or not. [Noel Murray]


9-12. The Best Of Everything (1959), Desk Set (1957), The Thrill Of It All (1963), and Lover Come Back (1961)

A string of brightly colored midcentury movies undoubtedly helped to shape office life at Sterling Cooper. For festivities that rival the forced office-party mania in “Christmas Comes But Once A Year,” check out the holiday party in the 1957 Hepburn-Tracy vehicle Desk Set, which offers a different cocktail in every office. Desk Set also features a giant computer that threatens to take over a whole department, just like “The Monolith” on Mad Men. Doris Day portrayed a sassy single ad exec with an enviable figure like Joan’s along with Peggy’s earnestness in 1961’s Lover Come Back, battling Draper lookalike Rock Hudson for a major account. Then Day was a housewife (married to Draper lookalike James Garner) who gains fame through modeling in 1963’s The Thrill Of It All, resembling Betty Draper’s Coke excursion in “Shoot.” Even Matthew Weiner admits that for his office-hierarchy blueprint, he went with 1959’s The Best Of Everything, the story of three publishing-house secretaries (Hope Lange, Diane Baker, and early supermodel Suzy Parker) driven by ambition and romance. Weiner told Vanity Fair: “The workings of the office, the romantic complications, and the living situations all smacked of the truth… it helped to inform our characters.” The soapy film features elements familiar from the Mad Men secretaries’ point of view: the all-important coffee and lunch breaks, the agonies of getting involved with married men at the office, the perils of trying to climb the corporate ladder. Like Peggy Olson herself, Lange’s character is an executive at the end of the film, but she still pines for love. [Gwen Ihnat]


13. Douglas Sirk

Roger Ebert has a justly repeated observation about the melodramas of ’50s filmmaker Douglas Sirk: “To appreciate a film like Written On The Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, because Bergman’s themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message.” Sound familiar? In films like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation Of Life, Sirk used the high artifice and exaggeration of Hollywood contrivances to mask a deeper fascination with the hollowness at the heart of middle-class American lifestyles. People have criticized Mad Men for not seeming like an “accurate” facsimile of its time period, but that’s clearly by design. Matthew Weiner’s show often employs the same pulpy tropes as Sirk, and is equally attuned to people enjoying it on a surface level—something that isn’t an insult to either artist. If you’re there for Mad Men’s illicit affairs and boardroom back-stabbing, great; if you want to look below the surface, to investigate the satire, the absurdity, and the deconstruction of the American dream, that’s all there, too. Like the best fantasies, Sirk’s and Weiner’s creations don’t detach us from our reality. They help us to see it more clearly. [Alex McCown]


14. Atlas Shrugged (1957)


“Take $1.99 out of that $2,500 and buy yourself a copy,” Bert Cooper advises Don Draper in season one’s “The Hobo Code.” The book being recommended is Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, the urtext for her libertarian philosophy, Objectivism, which places selfishness at the core of human virtue. Cooper elaborates on that notion of superiority, calling Don “a productive and reasonable man, and in the end, completely self-interested. It’s strength. We are different. Unsentimental about all the people who depend on our hard work.” Beyond Bert’s blatant (and at times comical) embodiment of Rand’s ideas, Mad Men as a whole might as well be a repudiation of Objectivism, one that cleverly exposes the contradictions and hypocrisies in a philosophy that purports to despise contradiction and hypocrisy. When a reporter asks, “Who is Don Draper?” at the start of the season-four opener “Public Relations,” the echo of Atlas Shrugged’s recurring question—“Who Is John Galt?”—is as unavoidable as it is ripe for a question of its own: Is Matthew Weiner subtly trolling today’s fanatical Rand Paul followers and Tea Party types? If so, he’s done it masterfully. [Jason Heller]

15. Becker (1998-2004)

Mad Men is on the opposite end of the TV spectrum from the traditional CBS sitcom, full of broad characters and crude jokes. Yet, without one of those shows, there’s no Don Draper. Matthew Weiner cut his teeth on the second, third, and fourth seasons of Becker, Ted Danson’s post-Cheers show, in which the actor played a misanthropic Bronx doctor. Between the second and third season, Weiner took the idea that had been germinating in his head since before he started working on the run-of-the-mill sitcom—which he later called “a tough experience”—and wrote a script that would become Mad Men’s pilot. “I trash this experience frequently because in the most dark sense it drove me to write Mad Men because I was so miserable with the idea that this was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life… but on the other side of things [Becker showrunner] Dave Hackel was great at running the company and we really didn’t have an awful life there,” Weiner said in an interview with Archive Of American Television. On Becker, he also learned the importance of casting (Weiner praised Danson’s precise work to the Archive), and saw how many funny things were coming out of the writers’ room that never made it to TV—foreshadowing his desire for creative control. [Molly Eichel]


16. The Sopranos (1998-2007)

The Mad Men pilot script is what got Matthew Weiner a job writing for The Sopranos, but The Sopranos would turn out to be a blueprint for much of early Mad Men. Some of the features overlap, like Betty seeing a psychiatrist or Peggy negotiating with Catholicism, but what’s really striking is the structural similarities. Both series are built on narratively discrete episodes rather than a long movie chopped into installments like The Wire or a this-then-this serial like Breaking Bad. Instead of plot arcs, Sopranos episodes enrich previous ones by layering symbolism and mapping out psychologies. Epiphanies dawn and fade. Mad Men is similar. Think of the way Don and Peggy touching hands develops as a symbol over the years, or any scene with Peggy and a child since season one. But what most distinguishes The Sopranos and its heir is a deep, abiding sense of irony. Almost every success on Mad Men is tainted with some measure of dishonesty; every admired artwork cannibalized to sell something; every coworker bonding undermined by the narrowness of the relationship. The difference is Mad Men’s periodic moments of total honesty—Peggy telling Pete about their baby, Don showing his kids where he grew up—offer hope for a happier ending than Tony Soprano got, no matter what that turned out to be. [Brandon Nowalk]


17. Michelangelo Antonioni

When Don cites Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte as a favorite foreign film, Bobbie Barrett is overcome with sympathy for its characters. “Why is it so hard to just enjoy things?” That’s one of the central questions of Mad Men, and it’s not just an intellectual concern: Ennui gives rise to isolating imagery, portentous moods, and periodic abandon. But Antonioni’s marital odyssey isn’t his only influence. Mad Men has The Passenger’s identity swap, Blow-Up’s philosophical dialogue, L’Avventura’s balance of dissatisfaction, distraction, and cathartic grace. Don and Betty’s trip to Italy complements a season full of Antonioni-like images of ancient wonders overtaken by the new and shiny. Antonioni even ended the decade in Southern California with Zabriskie Point, which ends with a fireworks-like show of a luxurious house stuffed with consumer crap repeatedly exploding. It didn’t open in the U.S. until 1970, but Don’s going to love it. [Brandon Nowalk]


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