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July 7, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | TV | July 7, 2008 |

Providing a hallmark of change in the way we appreciate what is delivered to us by television, “Mad Men” is not the forerunner, nor the latecomer, but the right-on-time indicator of how standards have evolved for dramatic television. Calibrating from this series, it is hardly a revelation to say that viewers who appreciate good television, particularly cinema-quality drama, can thank HBO for rescuing the format from cop shows and doctor-lawyer soap operas. Regardless of whether one specifically connected with “The Sopranos” or “Six Feet Under” — in fact, regardless of whether one had HBO — those programs substantially altered our cultural landscape by ratcheting up the expectations of viewers and critics: the pensive, brooding dialogue; the dark, plot-driven violence; the blunt sexuality. And don’t forget the swearing — oh, how I love the swearing.

Several years ago, basic cable programmers, mimicking the major networks’ mimicry of HBO, began experimenting with their own versions of the blueprint. FX in particular has moved to this model, with dramatic series such as “The Shield,” “Rescue Me,” and “The Riches” providing darker, edgier fare than network analogues. “Mad Men,” a richly imagined, beautifully shot period drama on American Movie Classics, descends directly in the lineage of “The Sopranos” and makes a fine sibling to these darker examinations of human nature. While thematically more similar to “Rescue Me,” “Mad Men” was created by Matthew Weiner, who wrote and produced for “The Sopranos” during its last three seasons, and most of the creative hallmarks of “The Sopranos” are front and center in “Mad Men”:

• A large ensemble cast with multiple interlock points for each character to engage the others;

• Plotlines sparked by subtle political dynamics throbbing below the surface;

• Unflinching examination of sexual conduct and domestic behavior and the critical differences between those two concepts;

• Character motivations driven by implicit codes of conduct and unspoken social expectations (and complicated by the myriad ways characters attempt to circumvent those codes and expectations).

“Mad Men” centers loosely on protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm), an executive for a New York City advertising agency at the dawn of the ’60s. Square-jawed and broad-shouldered, the brutally handsome Draper presents the archetype of 1950s American manhood: a straight-ahead man’s man with a quick wit, a strong work ethic, and a bottomless capacity for scotch. “Mad Men” finds its thematic bulls-eye, however, exploring the complex and secret life Draper conceals from the world. Outwardly a two-dimensional Dick Tracy of the mid-century boardroom, Draper occupies a personal sphere that is three-dimensional and deliciously complicated, with outward appearances rarely revealing the truth.

Much of the action occurs in the offices of Draper’s employer, a boutique agency known for handling difficult accounts “the big boys” can’t accommodate. Draper is the firm’s lead creative mind, the top non-partner executive and go-to font of ideas for rescuing imperiled clients, be they cigarette manufacturers on the receiving end of a lawsuit or Jewish department store owners needing a cultural facelift to save the stodgy family business. Surrounding Draper is an excellent ensemble of salarymen and secretaries, infighters and back-stabbers, privileged elite and scrambling wannabes.

Among this company of fine talents are several of the best dramatic actors on television right now. Out of the primary players, John Slattery was absolutely born for the role of Roger Sterling, an agency senior partner who acts as Draper’s mentor/foil, the wise, yet severely flawed senior exec Draper dreads becoming. Sterling’s Office Wife (Google it) is stomach-punch gorgeous Christina Hendricks (Mal’s wife from “Firefly”!), playing vivacious clerical pool chanteuse Joan Holloway, a corporate Cleopatra cunningly pulling the levers [a-hem] of her male-dominated world. The secondary group is equally wonderful, with special mentions for Bryan Batt as closeted gay Salvatore Romano, an art executive gamely voguing as a shameless skirt-chaser; and Rich Sommer as the dorkiest member of the junior exec coterie breathlessly hanging on every word uttered in the partners’ offices.

Draper’s home life — and his frequent avoidance of it — provides the dramatic counter-balance, an intimate domestic sanctuary from the political pressure of the office, as well as a jumping-off point for exploring Draper’s difficult childhood and the string of opportunities and chance events that allowed him to escape it. January Jones plays Draper’s wife Betty, a breathtaking former model trapped in a dull, 1950s acrylic box, where her privilege and station cannot secure a meaningful existence. Betty and Don treat each other with moving affection and respect, but both of their minds are elsewhere — Don distracted by a series of affairs with challenging, independent women a universe away from his wife’s outward demeanor; Betty crushed by the oppressive role-play forced on even the smartest, prettiest girls, ironically yearning to be the thing Don seeks in his long hours away from home.

With these characters in mind, it comes as no surprise that the central theme of “Mad Men” is the roiling ocean of darkness and searching that exists beneath each person’s surface demeanor. During the first season, we learn that Draper is not what he initially appeared to be, not what his employers and family perceive, even aside from his yen for strong, intelligent bed partners. As the American Decade, the Fabulous Fifties, comes to a close, what could be more American than a successful executive with a dark, difficult past and some well-shaded secrets about how he climbed to the top? At the same time, Draper represents a masculine America being pulled awkwardly into middle age while facing some hard truths about itself: its inflexibility, an ingrained, de facto social aristocracy, and its hypocritical and superficially banal nature.

Densely scripted, “Mad Men” is a talker in the finest sense of the phrase. This is a show about ideas, about the way people interact with a changing social and political environment. A major aspect of the show’s appeal is its straightforward depiction of rampant alcohol use, unapologetic cigarette-smoking, and amoral sexual activity, all of which find a platform on the characters’ bluntly oblivious mannerisms and casual mistreatment of each other. No less blunt is the unflinching view of 1950s attitudes about gender, ethnicity and religion. 1960 NYC remains firmly segregated, with the gender barriers in the office and home no less real than the physical separations imposed by ethnicity. One of the richest aspects of “Mad Men” is its bracingly honest view of the treatment of women in mid-century business environments; when the men aren’t using the office as a private game reserve for poaching poon, they’re venting insecurities by suppressing women who try to succeed in a man’s world.

Beyond its challenging thematic material, “Mad Men” is also keenly focused on the way it appears to the viewer. Beyond beautifully researched men’s and women’s wardrobe, beyond photo-quality renderings of set detail, “Mad Men” delivers a textured feel of intimate immediacy - not just in a kinetic sense, not just in a period sense, but in the actual outward appearance of itself as a product. At a meta level, the presentation decisions for a program about advertising executives are surely not coincidental. At a pure enjoyment level, these choices show an elevated respect for the viewer’s ability to perceive thematic elements outside the dialogue and character presentation.

The opening credits provide the most obvious example. In an animated sequence, a silhouetted male figure, all hard angles and broad shoulders, falls helplessly through space, surrounded by symbols from the series’ story line. As one becomes versed in the mythology of the show, the opening sequence can be appreciated as a tight little drama in and of itself, an abstract microcosm of the larger story arc.

The conscious thematic formatting continues with the film selection and treatment. The film simultaneously looks washed-out and colorized, as if a black-and-white film were run though Ted Turner’s historical-treasure-fuck-you machine, then given the Tim Burton treatment. The effect is not displeasing, not some pastel trench coat painted on to a bemused Humphrey Bogart. The unique juxtaposition of film noir appearance with nouveau palette-tromping simply adds to the sense that these men are being dragged into a future that they not only do not want, but for which they were not designed.

Saving the best for last: The drinking. Sweet Jiminy Christendom, the drinking. There’s so much rampant alcohol abuse in “Mad Men” that I scarcely know how to describe it beyond a good ol’ Pajiba squeeeeee. They drink at the office. They drink at lunch. They drink at happy hour, then continue when they get home, while they eat dinner, and while they’re getting ready for bed. Dinner guests slosh their way out of their chairs and stumble toward the car, and no one bats an eye.

In one of the finest sequences in the series, from the episode “New Amsterdam,” senior partner Sterling and newly minted junior partner Draper discuss a difficult episode involving a backstabbing junior executive with designs on Draper’s office. As Sterling comments on Draper’s drinking to soothe anxiety and over-sensitivity, he provides an insight into the uncomfortable passing of the torch from a self-assured, outward-looking generation to an unsure, introspective one:

You don’t know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation … we drink because it’s good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. Because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do.

As the men of “Mad Men” are discovering, it’s what women do, too — and they may be doing it better.

Season Two of “Mad Men” begins July 27 on AMC. Season One released on DVD on July 1, and AMC will run a Season One marathon on July 20.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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"Mad Men" / Ted Boynton

TV | July 7, 2008 |

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