'Mad Men' Gets It Right: Booze, Sex, Secrets

"I think the show is absolutely historical, and it gives me the creeps," said Darnell, now a state public policy director. "Sometimes it's painful to watch."

Though her parents were not big drinkers, their social circle included many who were "functioning alcoholics."

When Darnell's father died and she inherited his furniture, she remembered the lingering smell of smoke. "We spent weeks getting the nicotine out," she said. "My parents smoked Camel filters."

"Mad Men" also reminds her of the shame of divorce. When the Drapers separate, Betty tells her children that their father is on a long business trip, even as they visit him in a hotel suite.

"I can remember in the seventh grade keeping that a secret a long time," said Darnell. "Then you felt ashamed and felt responsible, like it was something you did."

Her mother was more liberated like the ambitious copywriter Peggy, but still she advised her daughter to "learn how to type and you can be a secretary on the way up."

Darnell became one of the first female insurance company executives in the 1970s, when sexual harassment was openly alive and well. She wore a gray wool "cocktail dress" with white gloves to her first job interview in 1972.

"The affairs and sleeping around of businessmen in the show is very right on," she said. "Women being used as sexual objects and the perfect wife at home with the kids was still going on in the corporate world of the '70s."

"It took decades to change," she said. "It took me 20 years to find myself because I felt I had grown up in two worlds.

Those worlds -- of postwar America and the social revolution of the 1970s -- created a cultural tension that began in 1963, according to Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, author of "Bob Dylan in America."

That year the civil rights movement was in full swing, and murdered Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers appears in Betty Draper's twilight sleep as she gives birth to baby Gene.

That movement was "a cultural resonance gripping the country," said Wilentz, as the '50s beat generation gave way to folk singers like Dylan, who set the stage for hippies.

With five episodes left before the close of the third season, JFK's assassination looms large. Viewers have already seen the wedding announcement date -- Nov. 22, 1963 -- for Roger Sterling's daughter. One can only imagine what follows.

"Suddenly Kennedy is killed, and everything is blown away culturally," said Wilentz. "It had a profound effect on everything. It was the most important event in the second half of the 20th century, and only now are we taking full measure of how it affected the nation, not just politically but socially."

And now, viewers have a front row seat as history unfolds, in a way that was impossible on the "boob tube" of the era when shows like "Leave it Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" showed a "sanitary" version of how lives were lived.

"It's a brilliant idea," said Syracuse University's Thompson.

"What's so fascinating about this period between the lingering post-war Eisenhower era and the total chaos of the late 1960s is that in a matter of just a few years, it gets completely annihilated on a fundamental level," he said.

"The definition of a woman gets changed, race gets changed and so far, 'Mad Men' has been able to do this in a way that's not preachy," said Thompson.

And, said Thompson, who watches television for a living, "Tell a really good story really well and generation be damned. Everyone will like it."

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