Arts and Culture

'Mad Men' Still Crazy Good

What's that cheater Don Draper going to sell us next? Maybe his downfall.

By Steve Burgess 28 Aug 2009 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Jon Hamm as Draper: Yesterday's man?

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner clearly has plenty of themes in mind for upcoming episodes of his award-winning AMC series. But one of season three's early lessons may have been imposed on Weiner by show biz circumstances. Whether planned or not, the return of Mad Men provides a reminder that happily ever after usually isn't.

Season three started with executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm) -- surprise -- cheating on his wife. And yet dramatically it was indeed a surprise. The season two finale showed a contrite Draper returning home from exile as Betty Draper (January Jones) grudgingly took him back, announcing that she was pregnant. The implication was that philandering Don had finally learned his lesson. Yet here he is again, bedding a stewardess (they were not yet flight attendants in 1963), just hours after heating up milk for the expectant Mom. It's a development we might never have seen if things had worked out the way they nearly did.

Mad Men, the TV serial set in the early '60s at Madison Avenue advertising firm Sterling Cooper, debuted in 2007 to near-universal critical acclaim and carried its momentum on through a second season. But there seemed to be trouble in paradise -- at the end of season two, AMC did not instantly trumpet a prospective third season, and many of the story lines that had continued throughout the show were more or less resolved in the season two finale. Contract negotiations dragged -- at one point AMC actually announced production of season three despite not yet having reached a deal with the show's creator. Mad Men without Matt Weiner? A little like green-lighting Annie Hall without Woody Allen. It looked as though Mad Men might follow in the footsteps of other acclaimed but expensive TV productions and disappear too soon.

Happily, lingering issues were resolved, hands shaken, contracts inked, and Mad Men is back, trailing Emmys in its wake. Had we never been treated to a third season, we would have been left with last year's tidy Don and Betty reunion, but given another chance, Weiner gleefully blew that up right off the hop. For that alone we should be grateful.

The revenge of Peggy Olson

Mad Men has been a critic's darling and now there are signs that the public may be catching up to the critical buzz. Ratings are way up. Naturally the old fans are getting snippy. recently reported one fan's take: "Watching Mad Men is all about the nostalgic pleasure of remembering a time when no one else watched Mad Men."

(See also the popularity of Mad Men Yourself, a website that allows you to create a cartoon Sterling Cooper-style self-portrait. Results range from the so-so to the startlingly accurate. The website may be an effective yardstick of one's capacity for honest self-appraisal. On the other hand it seems to work best for white people -- but then, that's Sterling Cooper.)

Part of Draper's appeal is his masterful aura and cool confidence. But part of Mad Men's mystery is figuring out whether Weiner actually has faith in his central character's judgment. In last week's episode, Draper and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) discuss the launch of Pepsi's new diet drink, Patio (an actual product, old-timers may recall). Peggy questions the sexy, Ann Margaret-style approach planned for the ad campaign, recommending an emphasis on the low calorie angle; Draper scolds her in patronizing fashion. "You're not an artist, Peggy," he says. "You solve problems. Leave some of your tools in the tool box."

We know Peggy's right (and in fact Patio cola would be relaunched as Diet Pepsi shortly afterward.) Is Draper a master of the universe? Or yesterday's man?

On the other hand there seems little doubt that Peggy is the future. She may have doubts about her ability to match the sexual allure of secretary Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) and it was indeed painful to watch her in front of the mirror last week, mimicking the despised Ann Margaret. But Peggy's character arc is definitely an ascending curve. As for Don, has he anywhere to go but down?

Here comes the president's car caravan

Although Draper stands squarely at the centre of Mad Men, the show is a true ensemble piece. It allows Weiner the luxury of throwing a lot of stories out there and letting people fasten onto their faves. The ad business scenes are personal favourites -- advertisers must be somewhat conflicted about placing spots in a show that attempts to pull back the curtain on their tricks. But the distance of four decades may be enough to convince viewers that it's only those 60's yokels who are being shamelessly manipulated -- just before the Viagra ad comes on.

The New York headquarters of Sterling Cooper are roiling with office politics. But Mad Men also works the domestic angles, the cultural, the interpersonal. Someday perhaps there will be another website that allows you to customize your Mad Men experience, pulling out your favourite characters and story lines. You'll be able to follow Peggy Olson or Joan Holloway or even creepy little Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) through their personal battles. Hard to imagine spending a whole hour with Pete, though.

The multiple story lines are a strength but also a challenge. Thus far, Mad Men has operated on a lofty creative plane, elevated by its writing and beautifully observed period detail. Weiner and his team have demonstrated an impressive ability to inhabit the different worlds of their cast. But it wouldn't take too much slippage for the series to slide into the stratum of the expensive soap opera. There have been some danger signs so far this season -- a personal revelation resulting from a convenient fire alarm gave off the stink of contrivance, and a flashback to the circumstances of Don's birth seemed rather odd, considering that it was apparently being recalled by the newborn infant himself. Then there was last week's too-cute revelation that a big wedding has been scheduled for November 23, 1963. We know the wedding will be cancelled lest the bride's outfit should be overshadowed by Jackie Kennedy's brain-splattered Chanel suit in the newspapers. Those little coincidences are a facile trick for historical dramas.

Mystery sells

It's not much of a stretch to compare Mad Men with an earlier TV phenomenon. Twin Peaks was also driven by compelling detail and fascinating characters. David Lynch's surreal series depended more upon its central mysteries, and therefore collapsed badly when it came time to strip away the red curtain and start 'splainin. But Mad Men also draws power from the air of mystery that surrounds its central character. Weiner's challenge will be to keep drawing us into Draper's world without giving away too much.

Slips aside, bet on Mad Men to keep delivering the goods. Given the people involved it's easy to have confidence in the future. That is, unless you're Jack Kennedy.  [Tyee]

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