Monday, December 8, 2008

Mad Love

The cast of AMC's Mad Men
I can come off as a snob sometimes, especially when it comes to art. I like to be challenged by my entertainment as much as I want to be entertained by it. Those people who have “Kill Your Television” bumper stickers are full of shit. Really. Hey, I’m all for getting people to watch less TV, especially kids. In fact, I don’t think children should be allowed to even see a movie picture until they’re at least five years old. Like the late great George Carlin used to say. Get a stick. Go out and play. You’ll learn a lot more than you would watching purple dinosaurs.

But that doesn’t mean I condemn all TV. I think the boob tube gets a bad rap and it’s not just by people who don’t work in the business. I cannot tell you how many of my colleagues claim they don’t watch TV. Yep, you heard me right – TV writers who do not watch TV. Or claim they don’t anyway. Can you say “self-hate”. Christ, could you be any more transparent?

Me, I'm one of those people that loves TV. And right now, I think it’s an entirely supportable argument that there’s better art on the small screen than the big one. Take a look if you doubt believe me. I mean if you’ve ever watched even one episode of a great TV show, you would appreciate the power of that amazing little box of wires and lights (to paraphrase Edward R. Murrow).

Purists might argue with me, but I say that (with the exception of comedies) we are currently in the Golden Age of television; that there’s more really great shows on then ever before.

I had feared that the end of The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Shield and soon, Battlestar Galactica, would mean the end of an era, but there’s a lot happening on TV that makes me hopeful.

I hear David Simon’s new show is going to seriously rock – for starters, it’s set in New Orleans and will feature an awesome soundtrack. I have high hopes for Sons of Anarchy, too. It's a very cool-ass take on the outlaw biker world which just wrapped year one on FX. Tell you what I like about this show – even if you don’t know anything about outlaw biker clubs (and I don’t know much) you can tell the writers care about their subject. It just bristles with authenticity and yet it handles the whole world with a kind of fairness that sometimes gets lost when writers try to outsmart themselves. I came to it late but I like it and I’m looking forward to next season.

I don’t love Alan Ball’s True Blood (like I loved Six Feet) but it does have its moments and I like the acting a lot. Even though it’s getting canceled, I totally dig the look and idea of Pushing Daisies. I wish Barry Sonnenfield could bottle what he did on the pilot and make a movie like that. As much as I enjoy his work, the excellence of the pilot for this show (which he directed and produced) makes me think he could do a lot better on the big screen. I also think Shonda Rhimes is one of the most original voices working in Hollywood today. Grey's Anatomy has it's down moments, but when it works, it absolutely kills. (And I would kill to be in a writing room with her). I'm not as into it as I thought I'd be, but I acknowledge the greatness of Breaking Bad produced by Vince Gilligan another of our great current writers of TV.

But these days, I'll tell you what I'm really in love with, or more precisely who I’m in love with and his name is Don Draper.

Some shows are defined by a great cast, others by their unique take on a world, and still others by their writing or their finely drawn characters and some even work combinations of these attributes. There are shows I watched just for how good they look. A select few bring you into their world in such a way that you find yourself completely transformed. To me, right now, that show is Mad Men.

The show, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, is set in the early 1960s, centered around a rising young advertising executive with a mysterious past, a darkly brooding man who is trying to figure out why having everything isn’t making him happy.

There's so much in each episode even though it seems like nothing is going on. I could be wrong but it feels like a creative choice. This show is all about the subtext, all in the nuances, which doesn't make it any more smart or doesn't mean you have to be "in on the joke," it's just its style of storytelling. And, frankly, the reason I think it's brilliant is because this was the reality of this time in America. It's not that we're all that different than we were then, but we didn't show our foibles as much. It was what we did then, we hid our skeletons in the closet. It was expected of us. It's not that it wasn't happening, it was just happening behind closed doors. And this show is set at a moment in our history when the doors were starting to open.

It was a moment of real, concrete change, where traditions of all kinds – religious, racial, sexual, social -- were about to be blown to pieces, literally and figuratively. Those last days of America’s so-called innocence, before Cuba and Vietnam, Birmingham and Kent State., Dallas and Memphis.

When I began watching it, I didn’t know much about Matthew Weiner, the producer (except that he'd been a writer and producer on The Sopranos), but I wondered if he was a fan of the works of John Cheever, the 20th Century American writer famous for his explorations of post-war suburban landscape. (My feeling was confirmed when I mentioned this to a friend, he showed me an interview Weiner did for Variety in which he mentions he was influenced by Cheever).

Don Draper, the show’s central character, played wonderfully by Jon Hamm (he's that hot guy in the picture to your left), lives in Ossining, New York where Cheever lived and where back in the early 1960s my parents were buying the house I grew up in.

Like Cheever’s stories, the themes of Mad Men are rooted in the main characters, who are, like most people, not what they seem. It's just like advertising, about which my Dad used to say, “the big print gives it to you, the small print takes it away.” The real world of Mad Men is simmering under the surface.

It’s the same thing that fascinated Cheever (and Updike, Rick Moody and others) who saw the modular sameness of suburban streets and their perfectly-trimmed lawns, white-washed fences and happy (mostly white) families, and couldn’t jibe it with the melancholy faces they saw on commuter train every morning. All this happiness and nobody’s happy.

Don feels like a guy in one of these stories. A man who seemingly has everything he’s ever wanted, realizing suddenly that it’s not filling up the hole in his gut. Part of it is the not knowing – he has a line in the middle of the second season about how he can't seem to feel anything - he's numb to everything. In the show, Don is doing what people like him do – he’s looking for answers, trying to find some kind of anchor to the world, something that makes him feel he’s not alone.

This theme runs through almost every character's storyline.

The cast is tone perfect, especially Hamm who seems to have walked right out of Breakfast at Tiffany's. John Slattery, who plays Don's boss and friend Roger Sterling, is particularly good. His dialogue rat-a-tat-tat-tat's off his tongue like machine gun fire.

The women are all fabulous -- ranking as some of the best female characters I've ever seen on television. They could have easily sunk into cliches of their time, but they almost never do. Betty Draper (January Jones) as Don's suffering, seemingly dumb-blonde wife who turns out to be much more complicated. And Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) as the secretary who wants a seat at the table with the guys.

The sets are amazing and fun as hell. One thing that's hard to get used to is how much smoking they did then. Hard to imagine but it wasn't that long ago where you could smoke inside bars and on airplanes and in elevators. I mean there's a part of you that wants to put a "cigarrette smoking will kill you" as a running warning on the bottom of the screen.

It's not just the smoking. They drink a lot too -- everybody has a bottle of booze and two glasses in their office. (The old school journalist in me totally loves this part). And they drink and drive. It's as jarring as the oh-so-casual racism and sexism. It's all tightly bound up in a martini-cool soundtrack.

The show is more than the sum of its parts -- it says something interesting about its world and ours and the characters take us on a journey that's so far been rich and compelling. Some of it is uncomfortably heavy, but I like that the writers aren't trying to sugar coat an innocent time, like the world only got fucked up when we modern folk arrived. It's dark, yes, and brooding and there's been one or two off-course storylines, but the devil is truly in the details. This is one ride I'm thoroughly enjoying.

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