Work on TV: “Mad Men” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”


I’m about to sound like a geeky professor, but I’d like us to compare and contrast two television programs, one currently airing, the other a vintage classic.

Here are two American television shows portraying early-to-mid 1960s families, featuring a husband who commutes from Long Island to Manhattan every day to a job doing creative, well-compensated work, a beautiful work-at-home housewife, and adorable children.

We’re basically talking about the same programs, several decades apart, right?

Yeah, right.

Mad Men

First there’s “Mad Men,” AMC’s one-hour drama about the lives of Manhattan advertising executives in the 1960s, currently one of the most talked-about shows on the small screen.

In “Mad Men” you have the tortured, manipulative Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) and his troubled, ice princess wife, Betty Draper (January Jones).

In the world of Madison Avenue advertising, Don Draper and his colleagues create ad campaigns, compete with other agencies for accounts, and spend a lot of time drinking, smoking, and carousing.

The Dick Van Dyke Show

And then there’s the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” a classic sitcom from the 1960s centered on the lives of writers for a television comedy/variety hour, “The Alan Brady Show.”

In the “Dick Van Dyke Show” you have the boyish and klutzy Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and his wholesome beauty of a wife, Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore).

In the world of producing a network television show, Rob Petrie and his colleagues write comedy sketches, spend time with each other’s families, and sometimes perform at the boss’s parties.

Representations of work and society

Is there an objective truth about the worlds of high-stakes creative work at that time and place, and if so, does either television program accurately reflect it?

“Mad Men” is dark and brooding, both at work and at home. It can be fairly brutal in portraying the experiences of women and other “minorities” (racial, religious, and sexual) in that world of advertising.

The “Dick Van Dyke Show” presents an idyllic world of fun at work and almost picture-perfect suburban bliss at home. Occasionally the show delved into issues of difference, especially the changing roles of women and religious diversity (mainly through the Jewish faith of fellow comedy writer Buddy Sorrell, played by Maury Amsterdam), but almost always with a light touch.

My verdict? Both are brilliant, entertaining shows. But while the world of the “Dick Van Dyke Show” is a happy, fun place to be, the world of “Mad Men” is a lot closer to the truth.


You can watch both television shows via cable networks, DVD sets, and Netflix subscriptions. For “Mad Men” especially, I recommend starting from the beginning of the series to understand all the story arcs.

2 responses

  1. What I find most interesting is how each production reflects the time in which it was written and produced. The 60’s were a time of opportunity, growth, and optimism; at least for the white majority. That was reflected in the writing and production of sitcoms like Dick Van Dyke. The 2000’s are a time of cynicism, shelfishness and depression –you have Mad Men.

    Just as shows like Gomer Pyle, Seargant Bilko and later MASH represented what former draftees knew to be the idiocies of military life and may have been a reflection the fears all those former draftees may have had of the military industrial complex ( and passed that information along to a future generation through the humor in the shows?); todays shows are highly laudable of the military maybe too laudable? So which was the realistic view? We tend to see the past through the ideological glasses that we wear in the present, hence the danger of rewriting history to reflect our present day values. It shows most clearly in our popular culture if you look.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: