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Debarchana Baruah, "21st Century Retro: Mad Men and 1960s America in Film and Television" (Bielefeld: transcript, 2021), 244 pp.:


Debarchana Baruah, 21st Century Retro: Mad Men and 1960s America in Film and Television (Bielefeld: transcript, 2021), 244 pp.

Beginning in the late 1990s, prestige television dramas like The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007), The Wire (HBO, 2002-2007), and Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015), ushered in a new phase in so-called “Quality TV” as they combined complex serial narratives and characters with the high production values commonly associated with motion pictures. These shows contributed to the perception of a “new golden age” in television and have spawned unprecedented academic interest in exploring the aesthetics, narrative complexity, and cultural work of television series. Debarchana Baruah’s book, 21st Century Retro: Mad Men and 1960s America in Film and Television, belongs to the impressive number of publications that analyze Mad Men’s negotiation of the 1960s, memory and nostalgia, the show’s take on politics, race, gender, and intergenerational conflict as well as its intermediality, signature style, and cultural legacy. Over the course of seven seasons, Mad Men unfolds the story of its central character—advertising executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm)—and the people around him, creating a complex and contradictory world on screen that resists the “grey flannel suit” or “counterculture” stereotypes prominently inscribed in the cultural memory of the 1960s.

In her book, Baruah focuses on Mad Men’s distinct retro sensibility: she argues that Mad Men—along with films like A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2010), Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan and Joel Cohen, 2013), or Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015), and television series like Pan Am (ABC, 2011-2012), The Playboy Club (NBC, 2011), or Masters of Sex (Showtime, 2013-2016)—opts for an “irreverent” representation of the past that “is not committed to grand narratives” but features “irony, self-reflexivity, generous intertextual references, juxtapositions, de-centered narratives, moral ambiguities, and exploration of pasts through inter-generational conflicts” (13-14). 21st Century Retro in the book’s title denotes a departure from earlier manifestations and understandings of “retro” as a non-historical, detached, postmodern mode of recycling the past (Guffey; Jameson; Baudrillard), and instead posits that recent American retro films and television shows engage with the continuities between past and present, as they focus on the mundane and on non-events within familiar historical settings.

The book is divided into three parts: Part I puts the spotlight on nostalgia, history, and contemporary uses of “retro.” Chapter 1 begins with a historical detour via Chile under Pinochet and the German occupation of France during World War II. In order to map out the importance of temporal distance as a key element of revisiting the past in the retro mode, Baruah connects Pablo Larraín’s 2010 film Post Mortem that is set during the 1973 Chilean military coup and Louis Malle’s 1974 film Lacombe, Lucien about a farm boy, who is recruited as a Gestapo aide in a provincial French town during World War II, where he seeks access to a Jewish family in hiding. In Baruah’s account, the French mode rétro emerges as a precursor to what she calls “21st century retro,” and Mad Men as one of its prime examples. Chapter 2 zooms in on the historical moment in which the series is set—the 1960s—and contrasts its representation of this period with popular historical productions, including Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994) and Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998) against a theoretical framework of cultural memory studies. Baruah foregrounds the “memory boom” that began in the late 1980s, after the end of the Cold War, and situates Mad Men in a contemporary trend that privileges individual memories and “individualistic ways of representing the past” (79) that “are subjective and marginal, preferring impressions over historical truths” (81).

Part II is interested in the various pleasures that the retro mode holds in store for viewers. Here, Chapter 3 deepens the discussion of memory by turning to televisual memories and the importance of intertextuality. Chapter 4 then focuses on paratexts and how they add to the complexity of Mad Men. Baruah argues that by providing behind-the-scenes information about the show and insights into creative decisions and constraints, “authenticity is being reinvented, where craft is favored over realism, and the process is as important as the end product” (33). She contends that, as a result, “the suspicion of being a simulation no longer hangs over [the] head” of a show like Mad Men, because “[t]he retro experience is as much about indulging in cinematic realism as it is about being informed of the practical details, the constant negotiations that bring the retro text to life” (33). Part III contains Chapter 5, which draws on Actor Network Theory (ANT) to trace the cultural impact and legacy of Mad Men across the show’s producers and self-descriptions but also retro sets, costumes, furniture, and fashion. The conclusion returns to and expands the concept of “21st century retro” that Baruah develops expertly in the course of the book.

Overall, 21st Century Retro offers a refreshing and smart take on Mad Men, as it tackles highly relevant issues. How does the past haunt the present? How do history, memory, and nostalgia come together in pop-cultural representations of the past? And how does the retro mode resist nostalgic fabrications of a time that never was? Baruah’s book provides answers to these questions and it achieves much more than that. By repeatedly extending the discussion of her concept of retro to other ideas (history, memory, nostalgia) and her analysis of Mad Men to other films and television series, she succeeds in shaping and refining her own contribution to the research field. That she consistently uses “retro” as a noun requires some getting used to; and, though Baruah points out that the individual chapters of the book can function independently (28), the larger argument would have benefitted from an even more coherent structure and stronger connections between the chapters. Her discussion of Mad Men could have profited from a more thorough engagement with existing literature on the television show, and her own contribution to these discussions could have shined even brighter if it had been situated more effectively in the existing discourse. Yet, this book is undoubtedly a great achievement and presents a valuable resource for everyone interested in the “retro” mode, nostalgia, memory, and, of course, in Mad Men and its retro perspective on the United States in the 1960s.

Kathleen Loock (Leibniz Universität Hannover)

Works Cited

1 

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. Print.

2 

Guffey, Elizabeth E. Retro: The Culture of Revival. London: Reaktion Books, 2006. Print.

3 

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. Print.

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