18 September 2008

"Small Screen" Savour: Mad Men Season 1 (2007)

Created by Matthew Weiner / Channel: AMC / 13 episodes, 616 mins.

Although the focus of this blog is film criticism, with the Emmy Awards this weekend I couldn't resist discussing the AMC original series Mad Men, one of the most cinematic television shows I've seen in a long time. (And besides, the differences between film and television sometimes can feel like the differences of name and medium only; when a television channel devotes itself to the production of a well-crafted and intelligent series, the result is certainly worth its weight in savour and can be considerably more entertaining than most of the fare hitting theaters. )

Perhaps the connection between Mad Men and the movies is drawn most clearly by the series' creator, Matthew Weiner, who has openly acknowledged the visual style of the show was influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The opening sequence of the series is certainly inspired by the Saul Bass title sequences in Hitchcock's works of the late 1950s, particularly Vertigo and North by Northwest. The cinematography emulates Robert Dirks's glossy Technicolor work, and the show's theme song – "A Beautiful Mine" by RJD2 – is oddly reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann wrapped in electronica.

But more than its mere visual elements however, Mad Men is also concerned with many of Hitchcock's favorite themes: manhood (particularly cowardice versus bravery), mistaken identities, manipulation, guilt, betrayal, and objectification. Office politics are bloody, brutal, and highly sexual. In fact, setting the series at an advertising agency almost begs of the question: Is this what would have happened to Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest if he had just stayed in his office instead of running cross country?

Set in early 1960 when the series opens, the show centers around Sterling Cooper, a fictional advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York (thus one of the many interpretations of "Mad" in Mad Men). The cast is mostly unknown and mostly spectacular, letting the show pulse as a compelling character-based drama. The protagonist, if you can call him such, is Don Draper (an amazing Jon Hamm), the creative director at Sterling Cooper. Draper faces conflicts at his office, particularly from an ambitious sycophant named Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), and at his home, where his passive wife Betty (January Jones) is raising his kids while remaining oblivious to his extra-marital affairs. Other characters in the supporting cast include a woman who goes from secretary to copywriter (Elizabeth Moss), the numerous men in the office, and the agency's namesakes, Roger Sterling (the silver-haired John Slattery) and Bertram Cooper (the timeless Robert Morse).

Weiner drafted the pilot episode in 1999, but the production of the series was sidetracked by his involvement with The Sopranos (hired there by David Chase, who had read the pilot script). Much of the show's success depends on the adherence of irony to its plots. It's no secret (and hardly an original conceit) that the 1950s and early 1960s – the years in the last century of U.S. history most closely associated with traditionalism and family values – was just as dirty as any other time in history: adultery, murder, lies, blackmail, substance abuse, misogyny and sexism, homophobia, and racism. We grin and grimace as the irony weaves its way through nearly every element of the show, including excessive smoking (in one episode a young child says, "My eyes are burning, mommy," and as she waves her cigarette she replies in a snotty tone, "That's impossible"). The series is rich in satire and dark elements; many of the plotlines grow and deepen as if they had been given film noir as a fertilizer. At their strongest, the plots of Mad Men allow developed themes to transcend every layer of the story, but at their weakest they have a tendency to be as neatly ordered, and predictable, as the well-oiled hair on Don Draper's head.

In the last year Mad Men has been honored with a Golden Globe for Best Drama and a Peabody Award, as well as numerous honors from the Television Critics Association, the Writers and Directors Guilds, and the American Film Institute. It is set to make history this weekend as the first basic cable television show to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama, and indeed, it should win. In 2007 it was one of the best shows I watched on television (but, granted, I don't watch much television). The second season, which began in July, has unfortunately been less engaging and more lethargic due the "complicating" all second-season plots seem to require; but this doesn't diminish the power of the first season.

What it evident now more than ever is that we are ready to click over into another era, as each post-war decade in U.S. history has demonstrated. The stiff-lipped men who returned from World War II in '40s became adults in '50s, which begat the loose rebellion of the '60s, which then begat a pessimistic and drug-filled '70s, which then begat the clean optimism of the Reagan '80s, which then begat the rinse-cycle tech-liberalism of the '90s, which has culminated in the shaky, truth-splintered, terror-filled reactionary tension of the 2000s. Entertainment of the last few years has focused us on varying degrees of this post-WWII America nostalgia – most prominently through VH1's I Love The ... series – and even current events seem to expose our desire to fill empty holes (Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama draws endless comparisons to that great shepherd of the sixties, John F. Kennedy).

But the best television shows and films that look back on bygone eras do so while poking us in the ribs. Good Night, and Good Luck, the canceled comedy Freaks and Geeks, and now Mad Men are complex enough to evoke our nostalgia and courageous enough to ask, "What was it exactly that you liked about this time period?" Their respective creators draw our eyes backward through the illusion of comfort and irony, and once we're there, the subject matter is all too relevant to our contemporary culture. We're doing what humans have done since history began to be recorded: looking into the past to see the direction of the future. And any form of entertainment that can accomplish this deserves to be commended.

(Mad Men: Season 1 is available on DVD.)


darkcitydame4e 19 September, 2008  

"Perhaps the connection between Mad Men and the movies is drawn most clearly by the series' creator, Matthew Weiner, who has openly acknowledged the visual style of the show was influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock."

Wow!...I am one of Director Alfred Hitchcock's biggest fans.
and after reading your review of the AMC show "Mad Men" and how the creator, of the show Matthew Weiner, clearly makes a connection between the influence of Director Alfred Hitchcock's style and his show "Mad Men."
I really do think that it's time for me to give this show a "second look!"

Farzan 19 September, 2008  

Good post, I havent seen the show, but I heard it was really good.

FilmDr 20 September, 2008  

"Mad Men" makes me jealous. Compared to its world of three martini lunches with oysters and bountiful amounts of cigarettes and bourbon in the office, our era is far more constrained due to health concerns and political correctness issues. Also, back then, they just dressed better than we do now. I understand that the morality of the show is deeper than that, because it often shows the negative consequences of their behavior, but still.

"Mad Men" also reminds me of "The Last Picture Show" in the way it complicates our response to a different era by looking at it through a more contemporary lens. It's very strange, for instance, to compare "Mad Men" with an actual show of the period, such as "The Dick Van Dyke Show," to see how much the perspective has shifted.

Eric 20 September, 2008  

Mad Men is an excellent, very cinematic. It is a shame that many television productions don't live up to their potential, partially due to the rushed, weekly schedule. But shows like this prove that it can, and should be done. Nice article.

darkcitydame4e 22 September, 2008  

According to Fancast, "The sleek
60s drama Mad Men made history Sunday as the only basic-cable show to win a top series award..."
Wow!...the show creator Matthew Weiner won a emmy for best drama series on television.
Now, I know for a fact, that I have to give the show a second look!

T.S. 22 September, 2008  

@FilmDR - Ha! I empathize with your jealousy. All the fun things in life will either kill you, incarcerate you, or get you sued. Sigh.

I like the comparison to The Last Picture Show, and that complicated view of the past really makes Mad Men so enjoyable in my eyes. (Well, it's almost getting a little old in the second season...)

@Eric - Thanks for the kind words. I agree that too many television shows feel mass-produced in the worst sort of way. The Mad Men season is only 13 episodes long, which makes me wonder if that might have something to do with its superior quality ... as if the cast and crew have time to breathe and (God forbid!) actually think. The quality just seems like it can't be there when a network is producing an hour-long show for 22 episodes in a season; the likelihood of becoming far too derivative seems unavoidable.

Tony D'Ambra 30 September, 2008  

Excellent introduction to the show, which I have followed avidly since the first episode. I agree the first half of the second season has been slow, but the episodes aired since your review have upped the dramatic ante considerably.

There is a vague film noir under-current, with Don Draper trying to escape an inescapable past.

The episode aired on Sunday night was particularly cinematic: the opening tracking shot of the Draper living room; the low-angle shot taken of Betty up the stairs as the kids leave for school with the maid; the farewell scene in the alley outside the casino, and the hip-high shots in Don Draper's office with his secretary. Also, intriguing is the introduction of black characters with depth - the maid in the Draper home, and the wise elevator boy, who has the deepest lines in the episode.

T.S. 30 September, 2008  

Tony - Ha, that's just like me to complain about something right before it starts to get good again.

I do agree with your comments on the show's black characters (and other minority characters). The writers have such commanding control over the show's content that they can recreate an atmosphere keeping with the times and continually subvert their own creation with a more realistic portrayal and a more realistic cross-section of society.

darkcitydame4e 17 October, 2008  

Correcting a "Slight" Oversight
T.S. said, "It is set to make history this weekend as the first basic cable television show to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama, and indeed, it should win."

You were right!...and the show "Mad
Men" was the first basic cable show to win an Emmy Award and it did win!

dcd ;)

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