When the current season of Mad Men premiered, we picked up the characters in the summer of 1966. Right away, the OCD/fanboy part of my brain wondered if we would see little Sally Draper running home from school to catch Dark Shadows (which premiered in June of 1966) at 4PM. Several hours later, the cynical/marketing genius half of my brain wondered if someone at Warner Brothers was smart enough to guarantee such a scene by ponying up for what's doubtlessly a valuable and clever piece of in-show placement for their upcoming film. Mind you, the series' (and movie's) central character Barnabas Collins doesn't turn up until March of 1967, so Mad Men couldn't tie into the film all that closely, but seeing the original show's title sequence wouldn't be out of the question.
It made all kinds of sense, but show creator Matthew Weiner tends to go the less obvious route, so I wrote it off and forgot about it. But then a friend pointed out to me the title of episode nine of this season: "Dark Shadows." And it airs two days after Tim Burton's film opens in the States.
So now, of course, my mind is racing. Will Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce be tasked with a campaign for one of the soap opera's sponsors? Will Betty be obsessively watching while strapped to a belt massager? Maybe Weiner turned down the in-show placement, then perversely lifted the title for an episode about racism (as another friend mentioned)? They could go anywhere or nowhere.
But as I wondered how the show might incorporate the creaky daytime soap, I realized it sort of already has. Quick: play this game I just made up called "Mad Men or Dark Shadows?"
We're introduced into an unfamiliar, private and privileged world through the eyes of a young woman on her first day at work:
We meet a large ensemble cast of characters, each full of mysteries and secrets:
The central character hides his true identity and starts a new life pretending to be someone else, and wins our sympathy despite his sometimes monstrous compulsions:
The show follows this character as he wars with his demons in an off-and-on attempt to regain his humanity. He rejects the love of a psychiatrist who wants to help him with his cause...
...choosing instead to chase down a pretty young thing who represents something he's lost:
There's an entitled figurehead named Roger who lives and spends foolishly, and whom no one takes seriously:
(I mean, come on!)
Better writers and legit critics have pointed out that one of the reasons for Dark Shadows' success is the way the show's story and characters exist in a bubble, independent of (and safe from) the outside world. There are no references to pop culture, politics or current events (I think the moon landing MIGHT be mentioned a month after it happens, but that's it). Where Star Trek and The Twilight Zone served up allegories on racism, war and other social issues of the time, Dark Shadows did the opposite, offering an escape from a world that was changing too quickly for its viewers, providing thirty minutes of respite from the chaos of the decade. That aspect of the series ties into Mad Men this season more than ever, as the outside world literally barges into the front doors of SCDP and demands to be recognized.
Admittedly, a lot of the surface narrative similarities I listed have a lot to do with the inherent soap aspects of Mad Men (and contemporary prime time drama in general), but I think there could be some fun commentary in there as well. As a veteran of The Sopranos, Weiner must be keenly aware that lots and lots of his fans are watching for cheap soap opera thrills and not necessarily getting every nuance. For every thoughtful deconstruction of any given episode there are thousands of tweets along the lines of "OMG PETE GOT KTFO BY LANE!" I'm just as guilty, and if the show wasn't flat-out fun to watch, many people wouldn't. But it's easy to see how (and even easier to see why) this rhetorical, possibly completely imaginary integration of Dark Shadows into the show might provide Weiner with an opportunity to give a wry nod to how his masterpiece (and I think that is a safe word to use regarding Mad Men at this point) is consumed by the masses. Whatever he's got in store, I'll be
running home from school setting the DVR to find out.