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Sharp Writing, Acting Are Selling Points of ‘Mad Men’

July 27, 2008

By Verne Gay, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

Jul. 27–Back at the dawn of Camelot, a famous historian had this to say about the year 1960. “The American citizen,” Daniel Boorstin wrote in “The Image,”"lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent. … We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.”

At the time, Boorstin was writing about the world of Eisenhower’s America as it lurched into the 1960s. He was describing a consumer culture dominated by TV, advertising and spin, but he also could be describing a modern show that just earned 16 Emmy nominations and may well be the best program on American television, although it’s still struggling to find a large audience.

Talk about prescience.

What makes a show like “Mad Men” — the first season was in fact set in 1960 — superior is that it almost makes you forget you are watching TV, and instead make you do something unexpected, like think. Who are these Madison Avenue dream weavers — the Don Drapers and Roger Sterlings and Bert Coopers? What lies in their hearts? What do they believe? What do they talk about to their wives at night? Are these guys at Sterling Cooper a reflection of the culture? Or the mirror? (Or both?)

Besides the fine acting, writing and an attention to period detail that borders on the obsessive, what makes this show so ambiguous and pleasantly iridescent is narrative tension — that old literary device that keeps you hooked because you’re always wondering what’s going to happen next. With “Mad Men,” we — the viewers — are more omniscient than the show’s characters. We know what happened in the ’60s and they don’t. We know of the tragedies and triumphs that are still in the future. Wondering how this monumental decade will affect each and every of them propels the show. Sunday’s second-season premiere (10 p.m. on AMC) begins on Valentine’s Day 1962, or 15 months after the debut season ended, on Thanksgiving, 1960. The Kennedy administration is a little more than a year old, now, and the youth culture is sharply ascendant.

We also know that JFK will be dead in a year and a half while the escalation of the Vietnam War is three years in the future. We also know that the youth culture will shortly break over America like a series of tidal waves, followed by racial upheaval, and two more world-shaking assassinations.

In 1962, monumental change is out there, just over the horizon. Bored housewife Betty Draper (January Jones) is beginning to understand the politics of power — female power. Hotshot advertising executive Roger Sterling (John Slattery) finds himself even more isolated, if not marginalized, from the world on the street below. “Have you been out there,” he snarls to a colleague. “It’s rotten with kids.”

Leader of the packs

And what of the show’s protagonist, Don Draper (Jon Hamm)? The ad man is now two years older, his health is fine but not perfect. Two packs and five hard drinks a day usually has some impact. We know what happens to two-packs-a-day people.

We also know, as Boorstin observed, that the era trafficked in illusion and delusion. Advertising’s obsession with youth began here. Soaked in consumerism, we were told to look young, think young and buy, buy, buy young products. Look younger! Be hipper! Get a better sex life! And forget your worldly problems — notably that enveloping horror called the Cold War. (Sound familiar?) The era was ambiguous, and it was pleasantly iridescent, and was also on the dividing line between the Eisenhower era and the social upheavals to come. Advertising — and advertisers — reflected and exploited that division.

Naturally, comparisons are drawn with our own era. At the recent TV critics’ press tour in Beverly Hills, creator Matthew Weiner was asked how the early ’60s and 2008 are similar. “I felt very much that 1960 was very much like” 2008, he answered. “You start looking at the culture and what we are interested in and what mood it is right now, and I think you will see a lot of overlap.”

A loss of innocence

Weiner also said the show now has a five-year plan. Each season will hopscotch forward two years until the series (probably) wraps right around 1969. He explained, “I don’t think people change, [but] the world was definitely in the process of changing, and this device gave us a chance to sort of accentuate” that cultural change.

“When you watch the first episode of this year, you will immediately look back at last season and think that … do seem more innocent.”

The reason, of course, is that the age of innocence was dying.

Here’s something else to think about as “Mad Men” strings its narrative tension across this tumultuous decade. If Don and Betty Draper are in some way the way we were, how will their changing lives reflect the way we are?

“Mad Men” is just a year old, but give it some time. The answer to that question — along with a glorious future — awaits us.

The ‘Mad’ season-opener has lots of good selling points

MAD MEN

Season premiere, Sunday

at 10 p.m. on AMC

REASON TO WATCH The show that’s a lock to win this year’s best drama Emmy demands attention.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Sunday’s episode picks up on Valentine’s Day 1962, or 15 months after the end of the first season finale. The office (and staff) at Sterling Cooper seems the same, but the world doesn’t. Technology has moved ahead — office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) has ordered a balky new copier, but has no idea where to put it. And the youth culture — tonight’s episode is called “For Those Who Think Young” — has begun to creep up on the place.

Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) has grown a beard because he’s started a flirtation with downtown Bohemia. Account chief “Duck” Phillips (Mark Moses) is about to land Martinson’s coffee, but young people, he is told, drink only Pepsi, so the coffee company insists young creative types develop the campaign. At 36, Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) callow youth is evidently long gone: “Young people don’t know anything,” he snaps, when told to add youth to the agency. “Especially that they’re young.”

But Sterling Cooper’s cynical co-chief Roger Sterling (John Slattery) wonders, “Isn’t it possible the recently weaned have something to offer? Joy, enthusiasm …?”

Meanwhile, Don takes Betty (January Jones) to a luxury hotel for the holiday, while Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) gets his wife (still trying to conceive) a box of cheap chocolates. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is back at the agency, apparently after a hiatus at a “fat farm” (per Pete). Viewers, of course, know she had Peter’s baby in last season’s finale. Peggy’s at work on a new account for Mohawk Airlines, debating whether sex or family values or both should be used in the copy. That debate tells viewers that the show this season is astride a cultural fault line.

BOTTOM LINE There’s an achingly beautiful, gorgeously staged, set piece in the middle of Sunday’s episode that captures the magic of this series — a sense that while time passes and the world changes, there are little moments in each life that are preserved in amber forever. An elegant Betty Draper descends a staircase and glances at Don, and a deep melancholy — too deep maybe even for words — spreads over the scene. Times they are a-changin’, and for this couple, you suspect they are not changin’ for the better. A lesser show would turn this into schmaltzy slop; “Mad Men” turns it into the meaning of life. A perfect episode. All hail the great new series of American television. -VERNE GAY

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Copyright (c) 2008, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

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