Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Mad Men: Season 1[TV]

Created by Matthew Weiner

Newsweek recently printed an article about the rise in popularity of the amoral hero. Characters included 24's Jack Bauer, House M.D.'s Dr. Gregory House, and Don Draper of AMC's first original series Mad Men. These characters all exhibit a certain callousness towards the laws of cultural and social ethics, often taking matters into their own hands rather than letting them falter and fail in the clumsy bureaucracy of their superiors. While House saves lives and Jack Bauer kills terrorists in order to protect them, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) doesn't exactly fit the stereotype of freedom fighter/life saver. There is something subconsciously selfless about the behavior of House, Bauer and almost every cop or detective on every major crime fighting show on television, while Don Draper, the creative director at the fictionalized Sterling Cooper advertising agency in downtown New York, and the protagonist of Mad Men, is at times almost gluttonously self-interested. While he certainly has all the earmarks for a morally depraved archetype of the ritzy, urban late 50s, Don Draper and many of his fellow employees defy easy categorization thanks to intelligent writing and an obsessive demand for blunt, sometimes uncomfortably future-oriented, honesty.

Every now and again, whether it be on television or in movies, we get a vision of the 50s that isn't sarcastically sweet, or overtly civil rights oriented. Take for instance Todd Hayne's beautiful rendering of the 50s in Far From Heaven . In it he depicts the breakdown of the nuclear family, while simultaneously showing what could and could not have been done to prevent such a devastating occurrence. What made Haynes' film resonate in 2002 is the same thing that makes Mad Men so popular 5 years later. Some things in life are just timeless. My mother once postulated (yes, my mother 'postulates') that every great book or movie basically did one thing: it showed how, despite great periods of time and large leaps in the fields of science, medicine, philosophy, etcetera. people inevitably face the same kind of problems. Any piece of art that can capture that is destined to be timeless. The key is being able to identify these problems. David Chase, creator of the HBO's award-winning drama The Sopranos said about Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner “Here was someone [Weiner] who had written a story about advertising in the 1960s, and was looking at recent American history through that prism." I think it'd be more appropriate to say that Weiner was looking at the 50s and 60s through the prism of recent American history. Despite all the drinking, smoking, schmoozing, and degrading of women and minorities that is captured so perfectly in the show, Weiner can't help but introduce plot devices and elements that help relate the show to audiences who weren't there to experience it for themselves. In season 1 this includes: gaffing about how a law suit regarding cigarette smoking's relation to cancer will never come to fruition, the Kennedy/Nixon debates and eventual election, and references to Volkswagon, Clearasil, and other products that, thanks in part to whatever ad agency they worked with then, are still household names today.

The motivation behind this move is not a bad one: attract a larger audience. In fact, its creative marketing that I'm sure ad men all over would approve of. However, an aspect of the show that is sometimes overwhelming and harder to swallow than others is the character Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss). To classify Peggy as a proto-feminist would be pigeon-holing. In fact Peggy, who is a new secretary when the show begins, is more like a visitor from the future, an alien in the office. She finds the chauvinist behavior of the men unbearable, and does not drink or smoke or sleep around. She merely wants to be respected and is sure that sleeping with a man is not the way to gain his enduring gratitude. While it is certainly not hard to believe that there were females in the late 50s and early 60s who were strong and independent, it sometimes seems like Peggy has too much foresight. She is almost too reminiscent of how a shy, bookish, girl from the 21st century might react to Mad Men the first time she watched it. Hell, even I reacted that way: a mix of intrigue and disgust. Still, Mad Men is designed to bait the viewer with the foreign, behind-the-scenes world of advertising during what could arguably be called its peak period. From there the season builds gracefully and steadily to an emotional, ambiguous season finale.

I said before that Don Draper wasn't an easily categorized character. None of the principal characters in Mad Men are. This is becoming the status quo as the standards for quality in television programming climb higher every year. Flat, simple characters don't sell anymore. Mad Men creates a unique set of complex characters with questionable intentions, in a world as false and vain as it gets. As far as original series premiers go I'd say AMC has sold themselves pretty well with Mad Men.

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