Archive for the ‘Mad Men’ Category

Mad Men Note:
Contra Mendelsohn

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

David Mendelsohn launches his fond disparagement of Mad Men as an odious comparison to such shows as The Wire, The Sopranos, and Friday Night Lights. 

With these standouts (and there are many more), Mad Men shares virtually no significant qualities except its design. The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.

Once you’ve read this, you know that Jon Hamm is going to get hammered; the only question is, how soon. Mendelsohn takes his time: the bomb drops toward the end of his essay’s second section. 

The acting itself is remarkably vacant, for the most part—none more so than the performance of Jon Hamm as Don. There is a long tradition of American actors who excel at suggesting the  unconventional and sometimes unpleasant currents coursing beneath their appealing all-American looks: James Stewart was one, Matt Damon is another now. By contrast, you sometimes have the impression that Hamm was hired because he looks like the guy in the old Arrow Shirt ads: a foursquare, square-jawed fellow whose tormented interior we are constantly told about but never really feel. With rare exceptions (notably Robert Morse in an amusing cameo as the eccentric Japanophile partner Bert Cooper), the actors in this show are “acting the atmosphere,” as directors like to say: they’re playing “Sixties people,” rather than inhabiting this or that character, making him or her specific. A lot of Mad Men is like that.

I haven’t seen either The Wire or Friday Night Lights, and, on the basis of the few episodes that I watched, I found the world of The Sopranos to be distasteful — distasteful for the very reason why I’ve enjoyed Mad Men. Mad Men comes closer than any show that I’ve seen to portraying the world that I grew up in. I like to think that I’ve outgrown that world, but there are things about it that I haven’t put behind me, and one of them is a sniffy disdain for Italian-Americans with dodgy connections who live in New Jersey or on Long Island. I’ll watch a good movie about mobsters — Goodfellas has been a fave since the first time I saw it — but two hours is enough; I can’t take an interest in those people that brings me to the television set week after week. In short, I’m in no position to argue with Mendelsohn about the comparative merits of other TV shows. I have a hard enough time watching Mad Men, because it really is the only television that I watch (aside from not-enough TV5, the French-language channel), and I’m not in the habit of showing up for something on time in my own home. 

I do watch Mad Men, though, but not for the interesting reasons that Mendelsohn proposes. In his view, the popularity of Mad Men reflects the grave curiosity of the children in the show, whose real-world counterparts have grown up to form the bulk of its audience. As one of the oldest baby boomers, I’m a bit older than that; I started working at a summer job on Wall Street in 1964, a period that lay in the future when Mad Men began but that has since been left behind. And I’m here to tell you that Mad Men captures not only what that world looked like, but what it felt like as well. And what it felt like was a zizzing nothing, an anxious emptiness.

I watch Mad Men because it makes me feel lucky: I outlived that barren time! Although I disagree with Daniel Mendelsohn’s conclusions about the quality of Mad Men, I agree with many of his observations, only I apply them the United States of 1960, not to Matthew Weiner’s “soap opera.” “Remarkably vacant” is how I would describe the lives of the adults I saw in our prosperous Westchester suburb. We inhabited an atmosphere of phoney optimism that was sustained by overlooking and forgetting the facts of life. It was a time of deliberate inattentiveness to anything beyond the fetishistic palette of appearances, and oblivion about the past. People make silly exaggerated claims about the impact of the Internet on daily life now, but the late Fifties and early Sixties were ensorcelled by a pious devotion to the idea that baroque automobiles and domestic appliances would regenerate human nature. 

Mendelsohn speaks admiringly of the “darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures” of The Wire and The Sopranos. I can’t imagine anything that would be more out of place in a show about the advertising executives of fifty years ago than tragic necessity. He complains about the inconsequence of many of the narrative threads. I recall a period when just about the only dependable causal relationship was the one between showing up at work and getting paid. Everything else was variable: sometimes interesting but mostly boring — boring and small. You can recreate this world by following a jiffy recipe from one of the period’s many breezy cookbooks: you will wonder why you took the trouble to produce a dish with so little flavor. Insipid edibles were made appealing by exotic serving vessels — fondue pots, clever platters and bowls for dips for Jell-O salads, and outdoor grills. (That these are all still with us doesn’t mean that we need them as we used to do.) The world was painted in saturated pastels that spoke of summer on Mars. Grown men and women talked about nothing: golf and bridge and vacation and novelty. Earnestness of any kind was shunned: the ideal was a “fun” person, someone with a macaroni backbone. The adults of the Western World had annihilated themselves in the final paroxysm of the French Revolution, and seniority devolved upon adolescent postwar Americans who mistook their zealous careerism for maturity. (Even motherhood was a career.) 

I watch Mad Men with the satisfaction that you might feel passing by the marked grave of serial murderer who claimed a victim from your family: I like being sure that it’s really dead. And I mean it literally when I say that Jon Hamm’s impersonation of Don Draper is divine: he not only looks like a god but his eyes crinkle with the pained wisdom of Wotan: alone of his tribe, he knows that not even gods are immortal. He has the grace to avoid the tragic implications of his role; fretting would be bad style. He is a resistance fighter without a cause, a man doing his best to find interest in a wilfully uninteresting world. Jon Hamm is just about perfect as the existentialist hero of an alienated time. I like to think, for his sake, that he’s acting.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009


¶ Matins: We stand at the dawn of the Age of Chrome, and  Bob Cringely advises us to expect something of a tussle between Palo Alto and Redmond. (I, Cringely)

¶ Lauds: The bad news — brain damage — once again yields good news about how the brain works. Jonah Lehrer discusses the artistry of confabulation; doctors call it “lying.” (Frontal Cortex)

¶ Prime: Rumors of the demise of Borders, long burbled, have intensified with the news that Borders UK’s Web site is no longer accepting orders. (Guardian; via Arts Journal)

¶ Tierce: What could be more curious than learning that American Ivy League styles took root in Japan among gangs? (Ivy Style)

¶ Sext: Could you do worse than give the Awl diet a try? As long as you’re up, Fernet Branca and stir-fried Romaine sounds great to us.

¶ Nones: We’re rather tired of cataloguing what’s wrong with the United States, but Ahmed Rashid makes things easy: it’s basically everything.

OMG! We meant “Pakistan”! (BBC News)

¶ Vespers: Gordon Wood hopes that historians will wake up and tell stories. (Washington Post)

¶ Compline: Some things are forever, more or less. Complaints written and sent to the Mayor of New York of the moment, at Letters of Note.

Mad Men Note: Why Are We in the Living Room?

Sunday, November 8th, 2009


Everything was amazing about the season finale, but the award for standout amazingness goes to Don’s three pitches. Or does it go to Jon Hamm for pulling them off?

Last season, Jon Hamm took some time off to do an evening of Saturday Night Live, the highlight of which was a spoof ad selling “Don Draper’s Guide To Picking Up Girls,” or somesuch. Tonight, Mr Hamm bested that performance with “Don Draper’s Guide to Looking Sharp on a Diet of Humble Pie.” There are Komodo dragons out there with a better lock on contrition. 

But then being sorry isn’t what sells, is it?

During the third plea — Don’s visit to Peggy’s flat — I was so overwhelmed that I had to reach out for Kathleen. It was as though an old school friend had been assassinated, or elected Holy Roman Emperor. I was shaken to the core of my vitals. The lighting helped. Elizabeth Moss, an alluring young woman in real life (at least as perceived from an aisle seat in the third row, last spring), was shot to look like a cross between the Bamian buddhas and Queen Victoria. If Don’s “please help me” speeches were arresting, that’s because his interlocutors — Roger Sterling, first; then Peter Campbell; and, finally, Peggy Olson — knew who was talking to them: a consummate adman. And yet each one of them acceded (“acceded” being the polite word for “fell for it”). Maybe that’s what they mean by “basilisk stare.”

Don is no basilisk, though. He rattled Betty in the middle of the night and called her a whore. This was an awful thing to say, but it was also Don’s way of saying “goodbye,” even if he didn’t know it. If we find, at the dawn of next season, that Betty and Don are still together, we’ll know that the relationship has been reconstituted from the ground up. I’m thinking of the end of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.

Rachel saw our reunion as a continuation. I felt differently: that she and I had gone our separate ways and subsequently had fallen for for third parties to whom, fortuitously, we were already married.

I’m not counting on that, though. I’m hoping that Don and Betty will have moved on from their profoundly ill-fitting and unsatisfying marriage. Kudos to Sally Draper for turning on her mother for the truth: “Did you make him leave?”

The only way to have made the episode even better would have been to play the David Rose recording of “The Stripper” when Joan Holloway rejoined her new colleagues and took charge as quartermaster. It would have been wholly wrong, that music, but it would have been gala fun.

What was gala fun was Don’s grin: “We’re negotiating.” All those white-white teeth, held in reserve for kills such as this. Spielberg can eat his heart out: the real McCoy didn’t need animatronics or DNA revival, but was trying, probably desperately, to find a script, a director, and a chance.

Here’s to next year!

Mad Men Note: Endgame

Sunday, November 1st, 2009


All I could think of was the original Poseidon Adventure. Even against the backdrop of mortal disaster, people have their everyday gripes, as well as the determination to get on with their lives — unless, of course, disaster occasions a holiday.

The penultimate episode of this season’s Mad Men is unavoidably drenched in irony. Ordinarily, hindsight shows us depths of consequence and impact that contemporaries, hearing the news, couldn’t guess at the time. Here, the irony is inverted: for JFK’s assassination turned out to be utterly inconsequential. Aside from ushering Lyndon Baines Johnson into the White House, and, with him, a completely different brand of political savvy, the events of 22 November 1963 had nothing like the impact that Robert Kennedy’s murder, five years later, had on American politics. And even then, the effects were confined to politics. In the event, life went on, and with a vengeance.

In late 1963, however, the world seemed shattered to many Americans. We may smugly say, knowing what we know, that they overreacted: the end was not nigh. But of course they were simply reacting, as people do, and their reactions were real enough. Betty Draper seems to have been pushed by the congruence of her Junior League advocacy, her very recent discovery of Don’s forged identity, the Kennedy assassination, and an unexpected encounter with Henry Francis at Margaret Sterling’s severely under-attended wedding, into making the surprising declaration that she does not love her husband anymore. In a technical sense, this is true: children aside, the grounds of her marriage have been swept away completely. Whether the chances of re-growth have also been blighted is a different question, one that Betty may or may not linger long enough to find out. Her reaction to the assassination may be irrelevant and sentimental, but it’s very real.

I was surprised when Kathleen didn’t pop with vindication when Don responded to Peggy’s question, in the deserted office on the day of the funeral, “What are you doing here?” with a quick, almost unthinking, “The bars are closed.” Kathleen harbors the dream that Don and Peggy will go on to rule Madison Avenue together, in spite of but also because of their lack of romantic chemistry. Don’s frankness with Peggy — often raw and unhelpful — was halfway friendly for a change.

And the episode ended, not as it might have done, minutes earlier, in Don Draper’s bedroom (the usual fade), but at Sterling Cooper. A first? I leave that to the Mad Maniacs.

Mad Men Note: Speechless

Sunday, October 25th, 2009


Do we talk about tonight’s drama, or do we talk about the opportunities that it gave to Jon Hamm, January Jones, and Christina Hendricks to smash a few records — Mr Hamm especially. The only factor that made things easy for Jon Hamm was Don Draper’s very considerable growth since the first season. In a nutshell, Don has stopped worrying about being caught out.

Consciously, he must have calloused the habit of shrugging off its improbability. If he hasn’t been caught by now, why would it happen? (The very same shrug that must have lowered his guard enough to allow him to leave his desk’s keys in his bathrobe, there for Betsy to find.) More deeply, however, Don has become someone who knows that he can handle anything. Confidence is a feedback loop; eventually, you don’t have to whistle happy tunes anymore. If Adam showed up today, Don would know how to handle his need for recognition. He wouldn’t try to throw money at it. But then, he learned the futility of throwing money at problems from Adam’s suicide. There’s no going back for a second try.

It’s clear that Betsy Draper has learned a few things too. If it would be unfair to call her a great dissembler, it can’t be gainsaid that she has mastered the fine art of time-release. It’s as though the men who have tried to tempt her into infedility had taught her instead how to deploy information. And yet it’s clearer than ever that Betsy doesn’t know what she wants out of life — that she can’t quite understand the possibility of asking the question with the serious expectation of genuine answer. The question of what she might want comes up only because Don keeps bruising her with knowledge of what she doesn’t.

As for Joan’s decking her husband with a vase full of flowers, we can only dream that the ladies responsible for this evening’s episode are familiar with Maggie and Jiggs, of Bringing Up Father. It was hoot majeure.

We’re on the slick slope of the season’s final hours, flying downhill toward the big fade-out, which, presumably, will blot out the Draper family home. I, for one, will be asking myself why I care. I’m not ashamed to say that I do care, but is it because the show captures a world that I knew from the cusp of adolescence? Or it is because the story is so well told — in which case the setting could just as well be medieval Toledo?

Mad Men Note: "Does Mona Know?"

Sunday, October 18th, 2009


Lots of intriguing things happened this evening, but a bomb with a very long fuse was lobbed into our laps when Betty, finding keys in the drier, opened the secret drawer in Don’s private desk. (She seemed to know exactly what it would unlock the moment she found it —  a touch, like several others this week, of the Greek myths.) All I could think of was Psyche and Eros — and also Lohengrin. Where people you love are concerned, it is always best not to know the things that they haven’t told you. At the same time, knowledge about the people you love so irresistible that perhaps it defines the taste of the apple that Eve couldn’t help plucking.

“DON’T!” we cried. To no avail. Betty unlocked the drawer and was (typically) unimpressed by the wads of money. She went for the shoebox. “NO, BETTY!”  we screamed, as the Tokyo of the Drapers’s much-patched-up marriage was menaced once again by the Godzilla of Betty’s Juno-esque jealousy. We were so excited!

And why not? We were back in Season 1, when Don had girlfriends and secrets. We knew what Betty was going to discover about Don. Or we thought we did. Then she discovered the leftovers from Season 2. For those of you who have just emerged from a convent, it’s important to know that Dick Somebody (I can’t remember his last name) assumed the identity of his dead officer in Korea. The dead officer, Don Draper, had a wife, Anna, back in California. Dick, now Don, did the right thing, and made a friend of Anna. In order to clear up the tangles of her unknown widowhood, Dick/Don divorced Anna. That’s what Betty fastened on in her husband’s box of secrets, the divorce the decree — not knowing anything about Dick. She now believes that Don was married before — and (this would be the sin) Never Told Her! The irony is incredibly rich. The Don that we know, for all of his easy access to people of the female persuasion, has never been married to anybody but Betty (so far as we know), but he’s going to fry for a relationship that he never had.

Betty and Don have already ripened such a rich relationship of mutually supportive disingenuousness that it was no surprise to learn that a few hours put an end to Betty’s desire for a confrontation. She put the box back and went to bed. She dressed up for the Sterling Cooper fortieth, and she didn’t a thing. Not this week, anyway. 

We still don’t know who called the Draper home and hung up on Sally.

Mad Men Note: Not that Sally

Sunday, October 11th, 2009


What ought to have been exciting about this evening’s episode was Don Draper’s loss of the Hilton account — on account, so to speak, of his failure to include the Moon in the range of international destinations for the new Hilton campaign. We knew that some sort of breakup was in the cards, because Don simply isn’t the right adman for a lunatic narcissist. Roger Sterling jabs his finger Donwards and says, “You’re in over your head.” In the generally understood sense of the term, that’s not true; nobody knows better than Don what needs to be done, for Hilton Hotels. But in an absolute sense — where Conrad Hilton, not his business, is the client — it’s true. 

Can  we assume that everybody knows why Sal has to be fired, even though he did nothing wrong? Can we just say that Sal is right when he calls his client-attacker “a bully”? And will the women in the audience please tells their husbands (if they’re cute — the women, I mean!) that this sort of thing happens, or used, until recently, to happen, all the time? And that for it to happen to a man (Sal) is simply a reminder that, where powerful people are concerned,  sex is about power, not pleasure?

I want to close on the opposite of a Come-to-Jesus note. Near the end of the show, Betty confesses to Carla (her black housemaid/nanny) that she is not sure that the Civil Rights drive is a good idea. Maybe people don’t like it, she says. I could hear the snickering, but the sad truth is that Betty is right. “People” don’t like civil rights for black Americans. They don’t like abortion. And they certainluy don’t like gay marriage. Roe v Wade and the Civil Rights Acts were not faits accomplis, but rather shots over the bow. They meant that things were goint to change, not that they had changed. And they still haven’t changed. I doubt that, in a smiliar imbroglio, Sal would be fired today. But that’s because it would be illegal to fire him, not because anybody wanted to keep him on. The civil rights thing still hasn’t taken with the body politic, and if Mad Men reminds viewers that this is so, it will have accomplished a great deal.

Mad Men Note: Al Cavalieri

Sunday, October 4th, 2009


When Don complained that the two-day Rome junket to which “Connie” Hilton summoned him meant that he would see the Colosseum from a taxi, I leaned over to Kathleen and whispered, “Just like your Rome trip!” Boy, though, what a couple of mukluks we were. Hello, Hilton. When Betty and Don sashayed into their room and the view was identical to the pictures that Kathleen took from just about the same balcony, we died laughing.

A couple of years ago, Kathleen went to a conference at the Hilton Cavalieri, which is set up in the hills behind the Vatican, in the middle of nowhere really. It’s a spa/resort — why else would you stay there? She didn’t see the Colosseum from a taxi, but it was from a taxi that she saw the Spanish steps. Her crew buzzed into Rome proper for a dinner. Then they buzzed back. I was not jealous when I saw the pictures. If there is one kind of view that does not thrill me, it is the vista with altitude. Every goddam oil club in Houston was perched on the top floor of one of downtown’s highrises, as was the Bankers’ Club in New York before that. If you visited enough of those attic eateries, you began to understand the fragility of the executive eagle. I mean ego. Flying too high with some guy in the sky is definitely my idea of a non-culinarylunch.

Is it too soon to say that Windows on the World was a terrible, terrible idea?

Something else that they say about birds in general that must hold “even more true” for large birds of prey concerns something that is not done in the nest. Peter Campbell’s misadventure with the neighbor’s au pair was difficult for us to watch, and hard to interpret as well. On the one hand, where did he grow up? On the other, perhaps it was in one of those one-flat-to-the-floor buildings, where you never run into strangers. Most New Yorkers know better than to ring a doorbell within twenty minutes’ walk of your own.

Of course, the episode was set up to look like an infidelity in which Pete would be juicily entangled. But it was really all about Joan. I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew it: when Pete asked to “speak to the manager” at Bonwit Teller, the manager was going to turn out to be Joan. And, Joan being Joan, I knew that the dress would betray Pete by being the wrong size. Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t got a crystal ball. I’ve usually been wrong about Mad Men; remember, the first season, when I was sure that Don Draper’s awful secret was that he was Jewish. What I wasn’t ready for, though, was Joan’s unhappy maquillage. She looked so unhappy! All the power had drained from her goddess face. But only from her face. She handled Pete expertly.

Speaking of makeup, it wasn’t just Betty’s Roman hairdo that was 1963. I can remember when pretty women went in for that waxy, dead look. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the first to go zombie. It was glamorous, I suppose, if your idea of fun was an evening of disco at Madame Tussaud’s. But it sure turned Don on, and that was sweet. Since turning Don on always turns Betty on, I worry about the Peekskill Road reservoir.

Another name that they got right was “Saltaire.” That’s where Pete’s secretary was headed for the weekend. You don’t hear much about Saltaire, and that’s just how they like. It’s a very spruce little community at the hither end of Fire Island, oceans away from the Pines.

Perhaps the deepest pleasure of Mad Men for me is the fabulosity of its detail. The names and the places are the names and the places that I grew up with, and Mad Men always gets them right. It’s delicious, slightly vengeful compensation for a childhood of television spent in fictional burgs that always turned out to be California dreams. Nothing would make my day brigher than seeing Jerry Mathers in one of these episodes. That would right a lot of wrongs.

What was so stupid was our not seeing that the Cavalieri “location” would make it so easy to fake a trip to Rome while making it look quite authentic. A view out the window — what could be simpler? Here’s what could be simpler: counterfeiting a room in a Hilton hotel.

Nano Note: Don't Make Me. Please.

Sunday, September 27th, 2009


Week after week, this season, I’ve been marveling at Don Draper’s moral stature: he seems to be the only character in the show who knows right from wrong. True, his morality is pragmatic. But it is very firmly rooted in a desire to avoid causing unnecessary pain to other people, and I don’t ask much more of a moral system than that.

This week brought me back to earth. Don certainly does know right from wrong. But he still has a lot of junk in his head, a lot of adolescent sap to metabolize. Else why would he have picked up a pair of strange teenagers on a dark and, okay, not stormy night and taken them to a motel for a party? The episode’s writers set it up so that we knew ahead of time where this frolic was going to lead (a beaten-up, drug-rattled Don, lying face-down on a strange carpet), so it was a relief to find out that our hero wasn’t in much worse trouble. The true folly, however, was Don’s refusal to sign a contract with Sterling & Cooper. This had become, inadvisedly, a point of pride with Don. Free to leave (and to work anywhere else) at will, Don came to see his unbound status as the biggest trophy in his case.

The advent of Conrad Hilton’s account, however, has given his firm (both Roger and Bert at the near end and Lane as the British rep) a perfect occasion to demand businesslike commitment from Don, in the form of a three-year employment contract with the usual non-compete clauses. From the very moment the topic is broached, it is tremendously clear that Don is not going to be able to sidestep this hurdle to his pride; if he leaves Sterling Cooper in a snit, he’s going to have to sign a contract wherever he goes. He knows this and they know this and everybody knows it, so well that Roger Sterling very foolishly decides to push matters along by enlisting Betty’s home-front support. Betty doesn’t know what Roger is talking about, but, smart girl that she is, she doesn’t let on, and hangs up on Roger’s impertinence. But of course she’s furious with Don for thinking that he’s a special act of creation, and it’s when she calls him on this that he turns on his heels and drives off into the night, with a highball in his right hand. Because I can, you can almost hear him insist. He picks up the hitch-hikders because I can. He pops the proffered “reds” because I can. He gets a bit of the shit kicked out of him because he can.

And then he signs the contract — helped along by Bert Cooper’s superior understanding of affairs — because he can’t not.

Mad Men Note: Envoi

Sunday, September 20th, 2009


We had not expected that a tourniquet would ever be required in an episode of Mad Men — much less in the offices of Sterling Cooper. We ought to have seen it coming, we confess, when Ken Cosgrove drove the John Deere lawnmower through reception. But we didn’t, and neither did Guy McKendrick, the ghastly sack of glittering prizes who is not destined, in the end, to captain the parent firm.

Two things about the show: the horribleness of Brits and you’ll miss me when I’m gone. These themes are too intertwined to deal with separately.

When St John what’s-his-name (wake up, IMDb!) and Harold Ford present Lane with the stuffed cobra and tell him that he’s going to be transfered to Bombay, it’s as though The Jewel in the Crown has taken over the episode, and not because Bombay is in India. “Don’t pout,” says Harold (I think). “You’re best quality is that you always do as you’re told.” Lane struggles to drink the hemlock manfully, and he almost pulls it off. And we root for him! As does everyone at Sterling Cooper, now that they know what’s next. “They just reorganized us, and you’re the only one who got a promotion” — or words to that effect — says Campbell to Crane.

But then, at the “fête” — McKendrick’s word, never to be used by him again, one expects — some jackass fires up the John Deere and, the next thing you know, one of the secretaries has collided with Guy’s foot. How, we don’t see, and, frankly, I couldn’t imagine what happened. It is clearly arterial, though, as Crane and his colleagues are splattered with blood, which doesn’t happen when someone runs over your foot (does it?). Joan, as the wife of a passed-over resident who lacks “brains in his fingers,” saves the man’s life by calling for a tourniquet. But McKendrick does lose his foot, even if it’s for the greater glory of Roger Sterling’s deliciously inappropriate joke. More Brit horribleness: “He’ll never play golf again.” Ergo, McKendrick’s career is over, which even Don Draper doesn’t see right away.

Speaking of manfully, Don’s interview with Conrad Hilton is everything that’s useful about macho and nothing that’s bad. Don is not cowed by the great hotelier, but he’s not a jerk, either. The two men may have bonded in a country-club bar while playing hookey from two boring parties, but that doesn’t mean that Don is going to do free work for Connie. (By the way, was I the only one who was reminded of The Best of Everything by that jump-over-the-bar scene?

In the hospital waiting room, Lane buys Don a soda — imagine! Lane is going to stay on as liaison/boss after all, but we can tell that this is a good thing, if only on a devil-you-know footing. The crisis of the Londoners’ visitation and its bloody upshot have metamorphosed the pre-existing relationships. Lane, who says that he has been reading Twain’s Tom Sawyer stories, might well readjust his priorities in the wake of the stuffed cobra.

As for Joan, who thought that she was retiring, but who has been told by her husband that she needs to keep her job, or to find another one, everyone who has been watching the show since its launch is going to be glued to the set next Sunday night, dying to see if and how Joan swings a Sterling Cooper comeback. Meanwhile, there’s the slight problem that, while nobody at Sterling Cooper likes Roger Sterling anymore, viewers have never been crazier about him. I tip my hat to the first male to pull of the Joan Collins thing.

I cannot believe that I’ve been reduced by the excitement of Guy McKendrick’s limb loss to scribbling this breathless storytelling.

Mad Men Note: Obstetric

Sunday, September 13th, 2009


For once, what I can’t wait for isn’t next week’s episode (although the teaser was very teasing!) but for tomorrow’s commentary. What will the young ‘uns make of this evening’s window on giving birth, Sixties style? Perhaps the Golden Age of martinis and men on top won’t look quite so attractive. But who knows?

In the waiting room, Don spends a long night with a guard from Sing Sing — the prison in Ossining (Don’s suburb) that stands right on — in, really — the Hudson River (hence “going up the river” for “going to jail”) — and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red. We know that Betts is having a terrible time, if only because she’s not in the mood to be birthin’ babies; we’re also told that the guard’s baby is positioned for a breech birth — a sticky wicket even today. What will happen? The fact that the fathers aren’t in the delivery room, knowing what will happen as it happens, must be shocking to husbands under forty. (When my daughter was born, in 1972, the obstetrician — a woman! — made it clear from the start that she excluded fathers from the proceedings, a sign that things were changing.)

A nurse eventually appears and tells the guard that his wife and son are doing “fine.” This news is immediately contradicted: it turns out that the mother lost a great deal of blood and can’t be seen right now, but the baby is in the nursery. (Maybe that’s a lie, too.) The guard leaves, but not without a fine, almost World-War-II buddy parting from Don. While the guard is all enlisted-man emotion, Don exudes the stoic, silent assurance of the officer class into which we know he made his way by guile: what better preparation for a career in advertising, or, for the matter of that, for patting a new father on the shoulder and telling him that our worst fears are — our fears. If you ask me, Jon Hamm (with the help of some extremely favorable lighting) leapfrogged his way into the Cary Grant class even faster than “Don” joined the officer class.

The other great scene takes place in an elevator. Peter Campbell is feeling his way around the idea that advertising to “Negroes” might be a good business strategy. In this, he is woefully behind the times; it’s as though he’d just discovered the fact that African-Americans buy stuff.  As someone who’s always signed up for Schadenfreude events starring Pete Campbell, I was delighted to see Roger Sterling ream him a new you-know-what, but I found the elevator scene excruciating. Pete actually stops the elevator so that he can have a serious heart-to-heart with Hollis, the black elevator operator, about television-buying habits.

What horrified me wasn’t that Pete has no sense of boundaries. What horrified me was that nobody in Pete Campbell’s class had a sense of boundaries. I know, because I belonged to the surburban auxiliary. It would not have crossed anyone’s mind that an elevator operator’s privacy was being breached. Privacy was something that separated us, the people at the top, from one another. In our imagination, other people were unencumbered by privacy concerns — lucky them! (That’s why so many well-educated and sweet-natured boomers became hippies.) If you pointed out to a Pete Campbell that he had just been intolerably presumptuous with Hollis, he would be shocked. He’d have seen it like this: the elevator operator, naturally shy and retreating, would need a certain amount of convincing that Pete was actually interested in his opinions. Pete’s shutting off the elevator would be the convincing. What “Negro” wouldn’t be grateful for Pete’s prying questions? To be recognized as a person with personal opinions would be tantamount to wanting to share them. Actually, reality television is based on this premise today.

Not for the first time, I thanked the powers that be that my birthdate fell no earlier in time, and that I’m around to see the very different world that we live in today. Getting from there to here hasn’t been without its bumps, and, again not for the first time, I applaud Matthew Weiner and his crew for mapping some of those bumps so evocatively. How they’ve done it — in many cases, their parents weren’t even married when the Mad Men episodes were taking place — is one of the great creative mysteries.

Mad Men Note: Rehearsal

Sunday, September 6th, 2009


The shift continues: Don Draper, formerly an an anxious outsider, desperate to conceal the secrets of his past, has become the true insider, the one man who really knows how the world works. We already know from scattershots of Don’s pre-Don past that he’s a basically a decent sort of guy. Now, having acquired an exceptional authority at Sterling Cooper, Don is turning into a kind of Wotan, a flawed keeper of contracts who wields respect for What’s Right both as a weapon of justice and as a plinth.

His care for of Sal Romano is the touchstone. In the first episode, Don espied some dishy blackmail evidence about Sal, but, so far from using it to hurt the art director, he has made a point of treating Sal as a comrade. In “The Arragngements,” he responds to the news that the Patio spot’s director has dropped out with the suggestion that Sal direct the ad. After all, Don observes, Sal designed the storyboards, and the clients want a copy of Ann-Margaret in Bye-Bye Birdie. Sal is thrilled by the assignment — so thrilled that, in  one of the most amazing scenes to issue from Mad Men, he reveals the problem of his sexuality to his wife, all unknowing, when he rehearses the spot for her, and you can see that she finally understands that he identifies his excitable self with a woman. (It’s a terrifying, heartbreaking scene: you don’t know whether to feel sorrier for Kit, whose eyes are opened, or for Sal, who still doesn’t understand himself.) The spot is duly produced and, when it bombs, we’re interested to note that none of Sal’s colleagues — especially Harry Crane, the agency’s TV guy — understand what was wrong with it.

The feint is utterly characteristic of the show. While the spot runs onscreen, we can tell that it’s not a success, but of course we don’t know why. We’re tempted to think that it’s because a gay man, unaware of his sexuality, has transgressed the limits of acceptable seduction. And perhaps he has, for the clients — the marketers of what turned out in fact to be a short-lived brand name — are speechlessly repelled. But Sal’s colleagues at Sterling Cooper shake their heads in bewilderment. To them, Sal’s spot did exactly what the client wanted it to do. Peggy Olson’s smirk reminds of what she said when the assignment came in: sometimes clients are wrong. Roger Sterling puts it well when he says that the girl in the ad isn’t Ann-Margaret. (And she isn’t!) Sometimes, it’s that simple.

Toward the end of the episode, Sal knocks at and enters Don’s office, saying that he has decided on coming to the woodshed before being invited. Don not only declines to punish, but recommends thinking of the episode this way: at last, Sal is a film director. It’s almost anachronistically wise, but Don is simply telling a gay man to go with the flow. On top of this, Don adds, he’d hire Sal again, notwithstanding the flop of the maiden effort. There is a kindness in Don’s protectiveness that changes the reasons for our rooting for him.

One thing that struck me forcibly is how sure of himself Don is in stocking feet. When he walks into Bert Cooper’s office — Bert is a Nipponophile, but one suspects that his real reason for requiring visitors to remove their shoes is his desire to disconcert them — you stare at his feet, because he walks as though he were wearing shoes, even though he isn’t. What’s this about? Most men would rather be barefoot, but it’s a private thing, and removing shoes in the workplace is discombombulating. (After all, you’re not supposed to be comfortable at work!) I haven’t gone back to look, but I seem to recall a certain self-consciousness among Bert’s stocking-footed visitors. This evening, in contrast, I felt that Don Draper dresses for the shoe-removal every day, that his socks are the best on the market, and nothing to be ashamed of; that, really, Don would be disappointed if an entire day went by without a visit to Bert Cooper’s office.

Bottom line: when the aliens land and list their demands, Don Draper is the guy we want to negotiate on our behalf. He has developed a fine sense of the difference between the Significantly Weird and the Merely Stupid. We’ve never needed such an arbiter more urgently.  

Mad Men Note: Only Don Knows How To Behave

Monday, August 31st, 2009


My inclination this week is to stand back and let everyone else do the talking — for talking there will be! The overarching theme will be that this was the episode that ought to have opened the season. In contrast to what we had two weeks ago, tonight’s episode was crammed with excitement. What made it exciting, though, was the preparation. As an opener, tonight’s episode would have been something of a dud.

Consider how much of it took place in one day. “The Unities Observed” would have been the episode’s  Bryn Mawr title. While Don, Peter, and Ken attended a party that Roger and Jane held at a country club somewhere, Peggy  and Paul got stoned in order to service the Bacardi account. Joan hosted a medical dinner party. All sorts of things flew right by us — does Joan’s husband have cancer already? — and there was a creative type who looked a lot like Peter Cameron but wasn’t. Peggy decided to get high — and it really did make her more creative! Betty’s Dad had Sally, his granddaughter, read Gibbon aloud to him! I never thought that I’d ever think that Gibbon could be age-inappropriate for anybody, but that changed this evening. I was dying of laughter.

Don’s hopping over the country-club bar was pretty cool, but then I’ve long since decided that Don Draper is the only man in the show who knows how to do anything. Kathleen asked, at one point, “what’s he doing?” Don was grinding herbs and spices in a mortar,  making a cocktail. One imagines that this was an expertise that went back to pre-Don times.

The Charleston, though. Peter and his wife did a Charleston. They did it very well, but they were only doing it at all because the band started to play it. As someone who danced the Charleston at the drop of a hat in the Sixties, I must complain that the famous song was never played at any dance that I ever attended; but Kathleen confirmed my suspicions that things might have been different where Yale and Princeton alums were thick on the ground. Lots of Bronxville people — that’s where I come from — came from Charleston, but they didn’t dance it.

I will conclude with a word about Sally the thief. (As distinct from Sally the reader of Gibbon.) When Sally stole an unguarded five dollar bill from her grandfather’s stuff, I was paralysed by the memory of small fortunes stolen from unguarded wallets by me. I never got away with any of my larcenies; people really did miss five dollar bills in those days. I don’t know how much a kid would have to steal today for me to notice. At least hundred dollars, certainly. The episode turned out to be wonderfully meta. When it was all resolved, we were glad that Carla, the black maid, had not been implicated in the theft, even though she certainly thought that she would be. Mad Men, deliciously, is never predictably melodramatic.

We did have one heartstoppingly exciting moment. When Kinsey’s drug-dealing friend turned on him and remarked that he’d been thrown out of the TigerTones, a gasp issued from Kathleen that could have been heard all the way from New Haven to Penn. Hey, she was a Smithereen! 

Mad Men Note: This Is How It's Going to Be

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009


Deny it if you can: when Don Draper orders his brother-in-law, William, to fall into line with his plan for taking care of Betty’s father, you’re thrilled. What gives Don such power? Like a good curry, Don’s authority is a compound of many ingredients. One of these is his manner: he believes in whistling happy tunes (so to speak). Another is his torpedo-esque acquisition of targets’ weaknesses. Way beyond Santa, Don knows how people have been naughty, and how they’ve been nice. In any case, Don’s display of primacy among his wife’s family (he has none of his own, of course) dilates the focus of a sorry, everyday elder-care problem to the scope of a ducal fiat. “The Private Life of the Medici” is what Kathleen and I were both thinking.

A friend writes,

Oh man, i just watched this for the first time tonight — what a weird show!  i’m so sorry you had to live through that time, if its anything close to what reality was.  So creepy!

Although I guess one day they’ll make a show about the 1980’s and i’ll say the same thing to someone 20 years younger than me.

Yes and no. Yes, a show about the 1980s will doubtless have to be explained to younger viewers. But it will probably not be “creepy.” What’s creepy about Mad Men is the vividly illustrated decay of conventional mores. Nobody believes in anything beyond appearances, because appearances are always the last thing to be abandoned. The meaning behind respectable life has been moribund since the show began, in 1960; it will die when the first oral contraceptive is consumed by a female character in the solitude of her own bathroom.

Why the old timber began visibly to fall during the Kennedy Administration is  a scholar’s problem. (I won’t bore you with my hypotheses.) It wasn’t that a way of life came to an end — not at all. What came to an end was a way of pretending to feel about a way of life that very few people actually followed. Why did women still wear gloves in 1963 — no matter what the weather? Impractical white gloves, at that. Who were they kidding? Not themselves.

But I hope that this show about the Early Sixties is explaining what happened in the Late Sixties. The world could stand only so much bogus. Find one character in Mad Men who is comfortable with “the way things are,” and I’ll be damned if you can find two.

This evening’s Madison Square Garden subplot was very hard for me to watch. I wanted to run out into the night and disinter the corpses of executives who dreamed up the destruction of a great civic building and its replacement by the sorriest sort of postwar “modernism.” Madison Square Garden serves as a reminder that, in the Sixties, many New Yorkers wanted their city to look more like the cereal-boxed towns to the west. Places like Omaha and Dallas never resorted to the ziggurat-happy zoning laws that became popular in New York City after the Equitable Building, at 120 Broadway, blotted out the sun for buildings all the way up to City Hall. (Think on’t, my chicks.) The idea that the erection that is Pennsylvania Station’s latest incarnation could ever have struck more than two sane people as an improvement on any level is a terribly sad comment on the fraily of human understanding. 

You might say that, if New Yorkers could be so mistaken about their own urban welfare, then the nation as a whole was bound to run off the rails.

Mad Men Note: Back to School

Sunday, August 16th, 2009


At the sound of the Mad Men theme — one of the best ever — I was surprised by an uncomfortable feeling: Back to school. Kathleen and I would be spending the next few months with Don and Betty; Peggy, Pete, and Joan; and the rest of the old gang at Sterling Cooper. If the first two seasons were anything to go by, we’d spend at least half the week mulling over each Sunday’s episode, which, at least for the first month or so, we’d watch twice, first at ten and then at eleven, for the “reprise.”

In the paper today, Frank Rich ventured to suggest that this may be the year that audiences, hitherto modest, catch up with the critics. Let’s hope so! And yet it would be hard to imagine a less inviting season opener than this evening’s episode. Those Brits — how were new audiences supposed to care about “Moneypenny”? And the whole “Head of Accounts” routine.

True, there was some really good stuff involving Don and Sal. On a trip to Baltimore, to assure the London Fog boss (and his son) that the company is still very much on Sterling Cooper’s “mind,” despite the departure of a head of accounts (whom we’d never seen before, had we?), a stewardess flirts her way into Don’s firing range. You do have to wonder how he manages to summon any interest in such chickadees, because even at the outset he looks as though he is haunted by Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXXIX —

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so.

Happily, the camera does not linger on Don’s dalliance with Sherry the Stewardess. It moves to another room in the hotel, to which Sal has summoned a bellboy to fix his air conditioner. Sal is having a number of other moving parts serviced when the firebell sounds an alarm. You feel about this exactly the way Sal does. Dashing down the fire escape — what kind of hotel is this, anyway? — Don chances to peer into Sal’s room. What he sees is safe for work, but only technically.

The climax of this episode-within-the-episode occurs on the flight back to New York. Sal looks as though he’s tormented by (a) constipation and (b) the knowledge that his colon has been rammed full of explosives. Don leans into him and asks him for an honest answer. Oh, Jesus! Don proceeds to outline a new London Fog campaign. He describes a commuter in a subway car who is looking at a girl in a raincoat. We see the girl from behind, but we can tell that she is naked beneath the raincoat: the commuter is being flashed. Don leans in a little closer. “Limit Your Exposure.” Three little words; a word to the wise. It’s a small masterpiece of indirect discourse. Shakespeare himself might have signed up to take the course where they taught that one.

Next time, though, we need more Peggy. Lots more Peggy. After all, she’s going to take over eventually, isn’t she?