Friday, July 24, 2009

Mad Men — Season 1

It's rare enough to get a show with natural character development, but even they are fueled ultimately by plots. After all, what would Buffy be without her vampires to slay? If President Bartlet's administration ran smoothly and without incident, we'd still have wonderful characters, but would we care so deeply about them? Mad Men takes a bold new step; it is, quite possibly, the most slowly paced drama in television history. This, of course, could have heralded a disaster, a turgid piece of self-involved pablum that promoted its aimlessness as "art."

Instead, it might just be the best show on television in the massive wake of The Wire. A meticulously and gorgeously crafted recreation of 1960s America, Mad Men not only commits to the look of the era but depicts the sexism, racism, nationalism and rampant capitalist greed with frank honesty. The creator, former Sopranos writer and producer Matthew Weiner, does not inject an anachronistic character who reflects the P.C. views of today to let the audience know that he doesn't believe what these chauvinist men are saying. He's secure enough not to taint his art with numerous pleas that insult the audience's intelligence. (Then again, Joss Whedon's Dollhouse came under fire as misogynist for not clearly taking a side against the organization, even though anyone with half a brain could tell you that the Dollhouse is full of villains, albeit villains with redeeming characteristics. Stop make our head goo overhot, Joss!)

The title derives from the self-professed nicknames of the advertisers who worked on New York's Madison Avenue throughout the decade. Set in the fictional company of Sterling Cooper, it charts the lives of the company's employees through the '60s. This first season starts in 1960, and Weiner says that he will advance the timeline two years each season for a planned five seasons. If this season is any indicator, a major historical event will factor into the story; the Nixon/Kennedy race forms the closest thing to a recurring, purely narrative plot in the entire 13-episode run.

Central to the show is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a ruggedly handsome, deep-voiced, high-ranking executive at Sterling Cooper. He knows just what buttons to push to get potential clients on-board, and he can find a way to market just about any product to the masses. Rarely does he lose an account, but his ratio of success to failure ensures that he never gets too down about it. At home, he has the perfect postwar wife, Betty (January Jones), and two adorable little family units. The only way life could be any better is if he climbed that last rung on the corporate ladder to the top.

Yet he is anything but happy. His interactions with his family appear stiff and insecure, far removed from his relaxed, commanding demeanor in the workplace. It's not that he doesn't love his wife and children, but he looks as though his only experience with dealing with a family comes from magazines and movies, as if he watched a training film before some unseen entity handed him his very own collection of people. Eventually, we're given shards of a dark past that he's spent the last decade or so burying from everyone.

Complementing Draper is a rich cast of characters that make Sterling Cooper a microcosm for the social climate of 1960 America. Draper is at a position where he still has something to strive for without having to push himself constantly. Providing him with a nice foil is Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheister), an up-and-comer who sets his sights on Draper's job from day one. Whereas Draper destroyed his past and made himself on his own (even when we see snippets of his background, they show a poor upbringing), Campbell exploits his family's wealthy ties to get his job; heck, if it weren't for their ties to some big clients, Campbell would have been quickly almost as soon as he joined. Kartheiser, who of course most know as the insufferable Connor in Angel, is marvelous as this oily snake in the grass; he spends all of his time trying to conquer Draper (not to mention any of the secretaries in the office), but underneath he's insecure about both his family and his new wife's wealth, and he wants to make his own way without living off of their "charity."

Most interesting, however, are the women. Caged in by a glass ceiling so low they practically must crouch to get around, most of the ladies of this world consider finding a well-off husband as their primary job, with the only promotion being a doting wife and mother. The secretaries are sexually harassed in such an open manner it'll turn your head, but they know how to play the game. In a world of gray flanneled suits, the women wear garishly bright colors, and it drives the fellas crazy.

Three women in particular showcase the narrow yet subtly shifting confines of the decade. Betty does all of the household chores, but she, like Don, is slowly unraveling. The pressure of turning a blind eye to Don's own issues and her inability to do anything in life other than clean and cook are taking a toll, and early in the season she begs her husband to let her see a psychiatrist. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) rules over the den of secretaries and instructs them in the ways of flirtation. If Betty is boxed in by all the constraints, Joan knows how to play the game and bend those prison bars enough to get what she wants.

Most importantly, however, is new secretary Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss). Introduced as a plain, timid, assumed virgin, Peggy falls under Pete's spell and enter in an on/off relationship dictated by Pete's sense of guilt over cheating on his wife. Joan gets her to buy nicer clothes, and she has a breakthrough when she suggests an idea for marketing lipstick to a group of men who can sell something to anyone in America, as long as it's not the 50 percent who are female. She finds herself placed in a position of importance no woman at Sterling Cooper has ever held, making her the character to watch as the show progresses through the '60s.

If I've neglected to discuss plot by this point, it's because I can't find one. This is a show entirely about character, in which the only major developments are insights or status changes. This makes the show move like molasses, but that only makes it all the more interesting. Watching character arcs form not only the heart of the show but the brain makes for television that rewards multiple viewings.

Everything about this show seems to be just right. The perfectly recreated sets, dapper suits and flashy dresses pop off the screen, especially on Blu-Ray. The falsity of American confidence in Draper's mannerisms make for an interesting allegory for the tumult that was about to explode in the country, while Peggy's slight social mobility also hints at what's in store for these blind chauvinists. While it could do with a bit of speeding up and some plot to move the episodes, Mad Men sets a new standard for period television, and I can't think of a show still on the air that can compete with it.

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