Thursday, July 17, 2008
First off -- on the remote chance that anybody was missing this blog and wondering when it was ever going to be updated, please accept my apologies. I've been sick, unwell enough that even my TV brought me little joy.
I'm back with this quick note about the AMC original series, Mad Men, which was among my Top 5 shows last year. For those already in the know, season two starts Sun., July 27, but lemme make a pitch for the uninitiated. You CAN catch up on season one right now, and join the fun. It's out on DVD; you can watch full episodes at www.amctv.com; or you can power-watch (or set the VCR/DVR) the whole season starting at noon, Sun., July 20.
I admit when I heard about the show -- a look at a Manhattan advertising firm in the late 1950s -- I was leery. Another office show? And TV does retro so poorly. Either it's sloppy and rife with anachronisms -- or it's a cheap excuse to hang a bunch of jokey costumes and slang on. Also, the words "AMC original series" didn't exactly inspire confidence; HBO has made us all snobby, and I was coming down off The Sopranos and The Wire with a frantic itch for more quality serial programming.
But my fears were unfounded and my expectations far surpassed. Mad Men ended up being among the better scripted shows out there, at once fresh, reflective, funny and melancholic, and with plenty of big themes to unpack after screening. The show is penned by Matthew Weiner, who did some scribbling for The Sopranos, and it's obviously the project he's been nursing for years.
Wiener's genius is to set the show in 1959 -- in what we know from hindsight is the decline of a certain age. These are the last hurrah days for the American Way, for men, for conformity, the primacy of print media, old-boy ties in the face of ambition ... everywhere are the teeny harbingers of impending trouble whether it's the lacquered but unhappy suburban wives, or the guffaws generated by a funky car called the VW Beetle.
Wiener's primary character is Don Draper, ad man on the move, but not quite part of the club, a deeply troubled and conflicted man who remains an intriguing cipher throughout much of the season. John Hamm does a great job portraying Draper as the "perfect man" who nonetheless is cracking up behind his smiling shell. And he's hardly alone: The sprawling ensemble cast which includes the office -- ad executives and their female staffers -- as well as various families and assorted clients, are all floundering to some degree. Look good and present well -- these are after all public-image professionals -- but what to do with all the unburdened anxieties?
The writing is so sharp, the acting so great that I'd have forgiven Mad Men for lesser sins of décor, costume and set design. But the care taken here is extraordinary -- from the tiny clothing details (one possibly gay man wears a tie that's just a shade louder ... or is it?), to the getting the big picture right: All secretaries would not wear the same clothes, and Mad Men accounts for differences in the ladies' personal styles, ages and position within the office. Homes are neo-Colonial, not "crazy 50s" and set decorators have done their homework on real-life items like The Relaxicizer and the Chip-and-Dip.
There are plenty of winks for us watching in 2008 -- it takes a bit to get used to all the smoking and drinking at work -- but even these are presented in context. Among my faves last season was a child who came running through the kitchen wearing a full-sized dry-cleaning bag as a play-costume. The mother freaked out and got angry -- not because of any modern concept we understand such as safety -- but because the child might have messed up her freshly laundered clothing.
OK, so much for my quick note. I ramble forever about Mad Men. Get caught up, and then come back for season two.