Monday, May 14, 2012

Mad Men Turns Mind-Blowing

Jon Hamm as Don in His Madison Avenue Office with Dexter

     Last year, I wondered how long Mad Men, the show about a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the ‘60s, should remain on the air.  This was in the middle of Creator Michael Weiner’s contract negotiations.  After going through budgetary and financial issues myself lately, I’m a little more sympathetic.  Mad Men is about halfway through its fifth season, which is set in 1966, and it’s WILD.  It’s been the most
literary show on television and while it seemed like the John Cheever/John Updike novel finally making it to television, the latest season seems like something John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Tom Wolfe might have dreamed up while TV was presenting East Side, West Side and The Beverly Hillbillies.  Those disparate influences inform the heady and unsettling texture that has made up the most recent episodes.

Jessica Paré as Megan
    “Who is Don Draper?” has been the raison d’être of the series and this year he’s facing an uncomfortable middle age with a younger, glamorous, and perhaps smarter wife than he’d expected.  A friend of ours is not too enamored of Jessica Paré as Megan because of how she moves as an actress, but I think her awkward coltishness is appropriate for this character.  Don doesn’t get The Beatles, the tip of the music explosion iceberg that was the clarion call for the generation that refused to trust anyone over 30.  The irony of the agency scenes so far has been that the folksy, middle-aged squares from Heinz presciently understand the significance of the cultural shift that the sophisticated New Yorkers don’t.  

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy
     For viewers that haven’t kept up with the show, it might be difficult to grasp that Peggy has had an equally tempestuous character arc as Don.  Right now, she’s a career girl sort of on her way up and considering moving in with her younger, Jewish boyfriend.  Her Catholicism and her five-year old son sired by Pete and being raised by her sister have been dropped.  Betty, Don’s confused, desperate former wife has been moved to the sidelines, though January Jones looked simultaneously poignant and authentic in her fat suit.  Kiernan Shipka has been giving an Emmy worthy supporting performance as their adolescent daughter Sally.  Roger (John Slattery) has finally reassessed himself and maybe relaxed his cynicism and dropped his second wife.  Here’s hoping Talia Balsam (Slattery’s actual wife and Roger’s first wife) will make some more appearances since she’s the only female characters, grounded by her wit and wisdom.  Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), who’s been up and down the ladder at the agency, is pursuing a second career as a fiction writer that Roger enviously stymied.  Is Ken going to end up as Don DeLillo, who started in advertising during this period?

Vincent Kartheiser and Allison Brie as Pete and Trudy Campbell
     Pete and Trudy Campbell are the epitome of the prep school, Ivy League, landed gentry couple that has shrewdly maneuvered into the heart of the agency.  Pete’s Oedipal conflicts with Don, Lane, and this season Roger have signaled the emergence of a new generation, but will Pete remain a square hipster (Upper East Side with Beatnik touches) or will he tune in and drop out like a trust fund Hippie?  Last week, he had an affair with a neighbor’s wife and it felt like a Don or Roger move but unlike them he actually felt something.  Vincent Kartheiser is the most under appreciated younger actor on television.  He’s played a difficult, arrogant, incredibly sympathetic character with grace and intelligence.  He’s unafraid of looking like a fool and his timing and diction are impeccable.  He could turn into the linchpin character for this season and next season, which will be the last. 

     If you haven’t been watching, catch up on DVD.  So far, this season, we’ve had the fat suit episode, the female stalker/rapist turned murder victim episode, the LSD episode with a narrative structure out of Pulp Fiction and I hope a future Emmy win, the Family Award dinner which ended with an image out of Goya and the line “Dirty” that was searing in its context, and last week when Megan just threw everything upon which Don has staked his professional reputation.  What will happen next?  Will it examine New York’s Off and Off-off Broadway theatre movement?  Will we see the ascension of the Boomers?  Will there be dissension over Vietnam and “The Man” that the Men so vigorously and sarcastically present and represent?  

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