Friday, July 20, 2007

"The fact is, even in our modern times, easy women don't find husbands.": Mad Men

Meet Mad Men, easily the best new show of the summer and probably the one that will have the hardest time surviving to season two. What seems to work in the summer for basic cable is light, fluffy escapism (see the USA network lineup), and this is far from that. It's a slow, reflective examination on how different the America of just 45 years ago feels from the America of today as well as a look at how that America gave way to the one we now live in. As someone who has a lot of misplaced nostalgia for the look, feel and sounds of the post-war U.S. (or at least, the post-war U.S. up until the late '60s, which is what we talk about when we say, "The '60s"), this was both intoxicating and a sobering reminder that the attitudes those things were based on (and, indeed, couldn't exist without) a system that kept the personal freedoms of people who weren't white men down. You can have the swanky, glamorous society of legend, or you can have a world where the American Dream actually means something to everyone.

Don Draper, the central character, is played by Jon Hamm, an actor I'm mostly unfamiliar with prior to this show, and he's got the look of the late '50s/early '60s man down pat. He's an appealing presence as a leading man, and he makes his occasionally scummy character (even if he's scummy because he holds attitudes everyone else does) something of a white knight. I'm surprised I haven't seen him at the center of a million pilots before this, and he's a great find for the show. Similarly, I've never been a huge fan of South Dakota native January Jones (one of the ten famous people from my home state) until this series, where she's got the look and submissiveness of a mid-20th century housewife down (though I think the decision to structure the pilot so it's supposed to be a "surprise" that Don is married is a bit odd, as I just assumed he was from the first -- wouldn't it be incredibly odd if he weren't?).

There's some stuff here that's clumsy and a little overplayed (some of the jokes and lines -- like the one about the machine that makes identical copies -- just scream, "Hey, guess what?! We're set in the '60s!"), and I'm not sure how I feel about the one ad guy's repressed homosexuality (they're making it a little too obvious what he's repressing, if that makes sense), but I'm, in general, on board with this show, simply because the pilot is so sumptuously filmed and mostly perfectly pitched (that opening scene, where Don asks an older black man why he smokes the brand he does, so perfectly encapsulates everything the show is trying to say that I was almost sold from that moment alone).

Mad Men is mildly famous as one of those great, unproduced pilot scripts that floated around LA for a few years. The script even got creator Matthew Weiner work on The Sopranos, which probably led to AMC greenlighting the show as a series. And it's easy to see why this script appealed to so many people, including David Chase. The show captures the casual racism and sexism of the era in so subtle a way that it never calls attention to itself for an instant (something you wouldn't see on most other dramas). And it gets most of the period details dead-on, even if a few of them seem to be winks to the audience.

I'm particularly interested in how Weiner views the women in this world. The main character is Don, but Peggy bears the eyes we see the office through (and it's always nice to see Elisabeth Moss get work). What's more, the number of regulars who are women outnumber the number of regulars who are men (unless I'm missing someone), and while the men are all playing variations on a type -- the glad-handing, backslapping backroom dealer of Madison Avenue -- the women are all struggling against the bonds that society has placed on them in different ways. Don's mistress is self-employed. Peggy is considering sleeping her way to the top (or to the country, where she won't have to worry about working, as her colleague explains). And Rachel is taking over the family business, always ready to undercut the sexism and anti-Semitism she experiences. Only Betty (Don's wife) doesn't emerge as a fully-realized character in this way in the pilot, and that's because she's only in five minutes or so of the episode. It looks like she'll have lots more to do next week, now that she's not being kept a secret from us.

Vincent Kartheiser (Angel's son on that series) plays Pete, and he uses his weird, nervous energy to suggest a hungry young man who doesn't yet know his own boundaries. Weiner uses the character of Pete to suggest everything that would bring the world the Mad Men were selling us crumbling down -- a rootless, relentless ambition that had little regard for the people outside of the self. Kartheiser's not the villain of the piece -- it could never be so simple as that -- but he does suggest the antithesis of the laid-back Don. Similarly, it was great to see John Slattery and John Cullum (one of my favorites) turn up in guest parts.

What's best about Mad Men (aside from how handsomely it's filmed by Alan Taylor -- also a Sopranos vet) is how it suggests that the world we desire and want so much was simply a creation by a bunch of upper-class white men in the '50s. Now, this isn't exactly a new notion, but Mad Men branches out, suggesting that the ideas we have of love and family and security all stem from a bunch of slightly bored men sitting in board rooms, smoking away their lives and harassing their secretaries. They built the America we believe in, until it was forcibly taken from them and turned into the America we live in. To watch Mad Men is to know this was a good thing, but it also acutely reminds you just how much you want that little island of security in the suburbs.


Justin said...

Easily the best new show of the summer?

Better than John From Cincinnati?

I still have not watched it so I don't know.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

I love JFC, and I doubt I'll see something as stunning as that Sermon at the Motel from last episode on television this year, but Mad Men is more instantly sure of itself, more in tune with its own vision from the get-go (I've seen a handful of additional episodes). JFC is a brilliant mess; this is a controlled slow-burn.

They're my two favorite new shows of the summer, but I prefer Mad Men by a ways.

Ben W said...

Chill review. I might watch now!

Bianca Reagan said...

I don't want a little island in the suburbs. I grew up on an actual little island. Besides, suburbs are boring. I do like Mad Men, though. The second episode was even better, more conflicted. I watched it on my ON DEMAND.

Anonymous said...

I know everyone's drooling over this show, but I thought it was boring. Competently executed in every way, but not exciting. It's too "old" for me. Maybe it'll catch on with the part of CBS-watching demographic, but what happens when their regular, easier to follow procedurials return in the fall?