My mom kept an old VHS copy of Bye Bye Birdie, recorded from a television broadcast, complete with commercial interruptions. I watched it at least once a month in junior high, so the opening moments of the second episode of the third season of Mad Men was a sense-memory jolt back to my childhood. The advertising executives and writers of Sterling Cooper sit around a long table in the projection room, watching the opening number of the Bye Bye Birdie film: Ann-Margret (born Ann-Margret Olsson) sings the title song, running towards and away from a camera that pushes in and pulls back on her, like the girl and camera are engaged in a coquettish, flirtatious dance.
The clip from Bye Bye Birdie, and the subsequent discussion of Ann-Margret’s allure, provide a framework for the episode of Mad Men. Pepsi wants Sterling Cooper to design a Birdie rip-off to advertise their new diet cola product. However, that advertising-related story is simply the element that pulls Bye Bye Birdie into the character’s lives. What the characters do as a result of watching provides their emotional story arcs for the episode.
Most television shows incorporate some popular books, movies, music, and even other television shows into their story lines. But most of the time, those references are shallow. In The O.C., loveable geek Seth Cohen would rattle off the names of whatever indie band was the new cool thing; in an episode of Six Feet Under, an ill-fated day-player read the then-hot book Fast Food Nation as a golf ball struck her in the head. She died and the book, a glorified prop, fell out of her hands.
A popular trend of this type is for geeky characters to use the word “Frak,” a minced oath developed in a burst of genius by Glen Larson, the creator of the original version of the geek-popular sci-fi series Battlestar Gallatica. Kudos to the other writers, who realized they could use it as an FCC-approved profanity too, so long as it was coming out of the mouths of geeky characters. (And doesn’t Seth Cohen just wish he were around to get a piece of that action!)
One reason these references are used is to tie a television show’s characters or world to our world, the “real world,” and to trick us into believing they live in it. Another reason is to trick us into thinking a character is cool, because they consume “cool” media. Pop culture references are an easy way to write quick characterization. A guy walks into the room and mentions the new issue of Green Lantern, you know what kind of guy he’s going to be.
These references are sometimes cloddish or clumsy, and work against the writers by calling attention to themselves. However, I love it when television shows reference other television shows. I enjoy the mixing of media, watching a world where the geeks say “frak” for fun, right after watching a world where “fuck” would be the strange-sounding replacement profanity.
Mad Men does something different, though, something better. The show’s writers use media references not just in passing, not just to create basic plot lines, but to develop emotional arcs for the characters. The characters in Mad Men react emotionally to the media they consume, just like we do in real life.
After seeing Bye Bye Birdie with a gang of salivating boys (and one closeted homosexual pretending to salivate), the only female copywriter at Sterling Cooper, Peggy Olson (same surname as Ann-Margret) goes on a related emotional journey, trying to find herself in the world of alluring women. Peggy Olson tries, and both fails and succeeds, to be sexy.
Peggy, dancing in front of her mirror Ann-Margret style and failing to entice, breaks your heart. Later, Peggy picks up a college kid at a bar using a joke stolen from the always sexy office manager, Joan. The kid is lame, a messy eater, and assumes she’s a secretary – but we know why Peggy goes home with him. Though part of us is silently begging her not to bag the loser, we are also elated that she’s able to.
And as viewers, we know how Peggy feels. All the books and movies and music and TV around us help to define our relationships with others and our views of ourselves.
The characters of Mad Men seem more like real people because their relationships with their pop culture are deep and emotional ones, because what they watch and read and buy affects the course of their lives and the way they see themselves. Even if I didn’t care about Bye Bye Birdie, Peggy’s emotional reaction to the film means more to me as a viewer than another character name-checking the year’s coolest new band.