Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pre-Game Warm-Up: Mad Men

OK, it's not a movie like the stuff Mike's been watching, but it's at least as good and probably better. Besides, if Chris Connelly is right in his thought (expressed a little while ago on The Sports Guy's podcast, which is a must-listen for any fan of sports and pop culture) that the defining films of the first decade of this century have not been movies at all, but rather television shows (The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire), then talking about Mad Men in the context of a film series on Liars, Thieves and Cheats should be perfectly appropriate.

Mad Men is set in the early 1960s and stars Jon Hamm as the creative director of a Manhattan advertising agency. The show is famous for its fastidious attention to period-detail, not just in wardrobe (though the costumes, by Deadwood costume designer Jane Bryant are stunning) and cultural references, but in its commitment to showing just how politically incorrect that time was. Often the casual drinking, sexual harassment and chain smoking the characters engage in is played for laughs (sometimes very dark ones), and this gives the show a much needed sense of humor, considering how serious the show is about exploring the psyches of profoundly damaged and depressed people (mostly Draper and his wife Betty, played by January Jones).

The show's relation to our upcoming series should be obvious enough. It's Season One tagline was "Where the truth lies" a simple statement with a dizzying array of possible meanings in the context of the show (advertising is often lies, Draper lies constantly to his wife and co-workers and himself. Yet Draper's so good at his job because his ads don't lie: his schtick is to connect emotionally to the product in question (often relating it to a crisis in his home life) and then give a powerful monologue that conveys the truth of his experience to everyone in the room. He uses advertising to connect people to universal truths about the human condition. Or, conversely, he's so good at his job that his lies are indistinguishable from his truths: he uses emotional appeals to tell profound lies about the human condition, helping to build the edifice of the society that allows people like him to lie and cheat their way to the top.

In addition to being a professional liar, Draper is also a cheat, carrying on a number of affairs with women who are very different from his wife (a Greenwich Village artist, a Jewish businesswoman, etc). Adultery is common at his workplace, and most of his married co-workers are or have been engaged in some kind of extra-marital relationship. As his wife becomes more aware of Draper's cheating, her life begins to fall apart. From the beginning of the series, we see she is suffering from some serious psychological issues, and we guess long before she does that her husband's philandering is a primary cause of it. Draper is like North By Northwest's Roger O. Thornhill (a great looking suit with nothing in the middle). In fact, Cary Grant's Thornhill, which he plays a slight variation on in the upcoming Charade, was a major inspiration for the character's style. The first two seasons of the show revolve around first Don's, then Betty's realization of this void and their attempts to fill it with something more satisfying than adultery and lies.

The show has some Thievery in it too, but I won't go into that here for fear of spoiling anything. The first two seasons are on DVD now (the show looks fantastic on Blu-Ray) and Season Three starts in the middle of August.


Mikey said...

Addendum: A Talk of the Town piece in the latest New Yorker follows the advertising staff at AMC who supervise the Mad Men commercial blitz. It's interesting to see the contrast between the two advertising worlds.

Mikey said...

After months of people pestering me, headlines proclaiming its greatness and a billion Emmys bestowed, I just finished Season One of Mad Men. May I politely inquire as to what the hell the big deal is with this show? Sure the sets and costumes are great, some of the supporting cast is a delight (Bryan Batt in particular) but that's about it. The intersecting plots manage to be both obvious and entirely unbelievable, many of the relationships I don't buy for a second, and frankly the other half of the cast is not good at all (I'm looking at you January Jones). If it's a soap opera with great production design that I'm looking for I'd rather watch an Almodovar movie.

Most of the subplots barely hold my attention because there is no one on the show that I can honestly say I sympathize with or root for. Draper's allegedly sordid past, which the series built up over several episodes, isn't entirely earth-shattering (and yet to have the whole thing waved away by Cooper when Campbell tries to blackmail Draper feels like a betrayal, why did we devote so many scenes of Draper/Campbell agonizing over this crazy secret to just dismiss it three episodes later?)

Speaking of, Pete Campbell is at best a one-note villain and most of the time I find him simply annoying on a visceral and aesthetic level. Great slimeballs manage to pull off being creeps you love to hate (i.e. Farnum on Deadwood) but Campbell just exists to make me roll my eyes. His incessant pettiness is so over-the-top that I cannot manage to suspend disbelief long enough to provide myself the appropriate dosage of emotional investment to give a hoot over what conniving he has gotten himself into.

I don't need clear cut villains and heroes but I just don't give a shit about what happens to any of these people. So you slept with someone that wasn't your wife, who cares??? Also I simply fail to see the density that the show is purported to have. One episode of the Wire has more ins and outs than this whole season. Hell, an episode of Arrested Development has more twists and turns... and its twenty minutes shorter. I know it's a tad unfair to have such high expectations but they were thrust upon me by the show's rabid fanbase.

Like Wes Anderson's films before it, what pray tell am I missing from Mad Men??

sean said...

I don;t even know who you are anymore.

sean said...

Are you similarly perplexed by The Great Gatsby?