Is Madmen Science Fiction?

Now work with me here. I know its a leap, but I’m starting to think that the hit television show Madmen is a work of science fiction.

I’ve been geeking out over Madmen season two for the last fortnight. And when I say geeking out, I mean obsessing. Having watched season one three times (friends kept wanting to see it, so I had to rewatch it with them) I decided it was time to move on to the second season. Partly its the soap opera aspect of the show, once you get me hooked on the life stories of a good ensemble of characters, I’m likely to keep coming back for more and more. But Madmen goes a long, long way beyond the simplistic writing of most soap operas, and even exceeds the spate of recent excellent TV series including The Sopranos and The Wire. In an era when the TV series has become our strongest storytelling vehicle, Madmen is telling the best stories of all.

It’s on the thematic level that Madmen really triumphs. Through the lens of the advertising industry, Madmen is able to look at individual facets of our modern, ever more materialist society. Each character in the show is in someway complicit in the construction of the amoral society that they are also a victim of. From the lead male Don Draper who harnesses the pain of losing love to sell products even while his own family is slipping from his grasp, to junior copywriter Betty Olsen who understands every sin she is committing even whilst she is committing them. As a beat poet charcater says to draper in season one, the characters in Madmen ‘are making the lie’, and then they have to live in it.

And its because of its critique of materialist culture that Madmen is creeping over some line in my thinking to qualify as science fiction. Not in the rockets and rayguns way of course. No, Madmen is a much more interesting kind of SF than that. Imagine if Philip K Dick had been given free reign to write a television show, with the provision that it had to be entirely realist and mainstream. And imagine that J G Ballard and Harlan Ellison were asked in to consult. They might have come up with something not dissimilar from Madmen. There is a thread of paranoia and hyper-realism threaded through the show, as though the materialist reality the characters are inhabiting is actually some artificial projection a la The Truman Show or a PKD novel like Ubik. In season 2 the show introduces an overt discussion of god and morality, which culminates in the heavy symbolism of catholicism and the tarot playing out to the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, as though some greater power is trying to commune with the characters. Its tempting to think of madmen as the most subversive kind of science fiction, one that works by treating reality itself as the biggest fiction we have ever created.

I’m saving Madmen season 3 for a rainy day, so now what the hell do I watch?


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

7 thoughts on “Is Madmen Science Fiction?

  1. I’ve never been sure exactly what science-fiction is, whether it’s about technology or something more subtle (as Ballard seemed to hint). For me, one of the best science-fiction moods in a novel was Shogun, where the Elizabethan sailors were lost in a strange and dangerous new world; or the film Apocalypto, with the tribesmen seeing their first city, and the everything-changes ending. They were certainly more wondrous than, say, Moon or District 13.


  2. “Is Madmen Science Fiction?”


    OK, so that’s slightly glib, and I haven’t seen the show. The thing is, Ballard was on the edge of science fiction at best, from the 70s onward, and to call Mad Men, a show set decades in the past, without (I assume) any particularly anomalous technology or history (it’s the 60s of this Earth, in this universe, isn’t it?), and generally a lack of nonrealist elements, a science fiction show, is pushing things too far.


      1. That wasn’t my only argument. As far as I’m aware, there’s no time travel, there’s no alternate history, and there’s no McGuffin that couldn’t have existed in the 1960s. Sure, it might consider the 60s from the viewpoint of the present, rather than through a fake or filtered nostalgia, but that just means it’s a more realist form of Wikipedia’s chosen label, “period drama”.

        I just think that calling Mad Men science fiction because it considers social issues is like calling Star Wars a crime drama because, well, what Darth Vader does has to be illegal, right?


      2. None of those things are what define science fiction for me. But I guess they do for many people, no doubt. Lots of things that most people wouldn’t think of as SF seem like SF to me…Mad Men among them!



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