Ever since Mad Men debuted on AMC in 2007, the 1960s has been as integral a part of the show as John Hamm’s shadowy and conflicted Don Draper. Both because the characters react to what would’ve been happening in the real world at the time as well as the embrace of the style and swagger of the early ’60s — when cocktail hour was as important to business as having a good steno pool. These elements have helped to define the series’ look and feel.
Mad Men does perhaps as good a job as any show ever in recreating a very specific period in American history, delving into storylines that don’t try to shy away from the social norms of New York during that time, which would include a lot of smoking and drinking to go along with institutional sexism and racism. The show also impeccably recreates the ’60s fashion trends, lending an air of authenticity to what we’re watching. (The writers occasionally slip with business phrases that are more ’80s than ’60s, but why quibble?)
Because it was such a defining decade in the history of the country, the ’60s have been used as a backdrop for any number of series over the years. The Playboy Club and Pan Am both tried unsuccessfully to match the feel of Mad Men, and both suffered in comparison lasting for just a season each. So, what other shows besides Mad Men have done a good job of capturing the era of Vietnam, Kennedy, and the Beatles?
The drama set at a Vietnam military medical way-station earned a Best Drama Golden Globe and Emmys for acting for Dana Delany and Marg Helgenberger. While another series at roughly the same time — Tour of Duty — was covering the combat aspect of the Vietnam War, China Beach excelled at showing the human side of the war, as characters mourned those that were lost and reacted to news that they received from back in the States. The show attempted to comment on how the war affected more than just the people fighting it, and even occasionally showed real interviews with people who had been at the real China Beach.
There might have been no greater change during the ’60s than the dynamic within suburban families, and The Wonder Years showcased that. While at heart it was just a family sitcom with panache for melodrama, it did a wonderful job of both showing the frustration of the parents over the changing times and the confusion mixed with optimism of the children. Fred Savage’s Kevin dealt with normal early teen issues, but one of his friends (Danica McKellar’s Winnie) had a brother who was killed in Vietnam, and his sister (Olivia d’Abo) was more interested in protesting the war than in listening to their parents. The show moved into the ’70s as it went along, but the first couple of seasons showed a slice of ’60s suburbia that no one else has quite captured before or since.
Laverne and Shirley/Happy Days
Both sitcoms began in the late ’50s before migrating into the ’60s (Happy Days by the sixth season and Laverne and Shirley by its third… although, really, each frequently had trouble deciding which decade they were in at any given time). Garry Marshall’s pair of sitcoms never pretended to be an actual historical representation of the times that they were set in, but both managed to capture the vibe that American Graffiti —set in 1962 — had previously… namely in the optimism of young adults at the beginning of Kennedy’s America. Neither show was trying to do much more than make people laugh, but thanks to the music that was employed throughout the runs of both shows they each managed to do it just the same. Of course, if you want us to try and explain why Scott Baio’s Chachi had a very ’70s blown-dried and feathered haircut for much of Happy Days’ ’60s years… well, you’ve got us there.