Electricity & Lust

Series Review: Mad Men

Posted in Actors & Actresses, TV by Sam Unsted on January 21, 2008
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Matthew Weiner, a veteran of Becker, Andy Richter Controls the Universe and, notably, The Sopranos, must have had a very difficult time in getting Mad Men made. The series I believe was pitched to David Chase himself seven years ago, Weiner then coming on board with Chase until the clout existed for this to get done. Still, it took AMC to change its remit and bring an original series to the table and, for their bravery, they have been handsomely rewarded.

Mad Men a rich, often inspired and low key series concerning the advertising executives of Madison Avenue in the early 1960s. It’s basic premise is centred really on exploring a portion of American history often ignored in favour of more explosive if no less influential portions. The advertising men of this age created the true recognition of consumerist society, their kind is what America now lives on. They live in the period prior to Vietnam, a period in which prosperity ran rampant and the horrors and corruption of greater powers had yet to be experienced. The optimism of the time is bred through these advertising men, selling a constant kaleidoscope of products guaranteed to create a better life. This was the quiet before the storm, prior to the assassination of JFK, prior to the full throttle movements of Nam and civil rights.

 

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The men in the series hold court for much of it and there characters and portrayed with a suitable sense of blind dignity, a deluded group of dreamers searching for the very same lie they constantly perpetuate, believing their own lies. The women are assaulted with a barrage of now sexist rhetoric and role-playing, be it whore or mother, sometimes both. Yet their characters hit deepest, being in this world both underdog and second class gives them appeal, gives them a depth the males sometimes lack.

Where this could become problem though, Mad Men succeeds by imbuing every last character with a depth of emotional distress, a knowing delusion on the part of the men as each suffers with living their own myth. The obviously gay Salvatore (Bryan Batt) has a truly crushing moment of acceptance when propositioned by an interested party. He can’t indulge his wants (homosexuality was categorised as a mental disease until 1973), and instead plays the jock clown with the others, ogling women and making lewd comments. A wonderful moment arrives the penultimate episode when Joan (Christina Hendricks), the worldly and voluptuous head of the secretarial pack, kisses him during a drunken performance of a play and a short, sharp look comes across her face. A knowing woman like this could only know the truth.

As Pete Campbell, Vincent Kartheiser gives a performance of snivelling magnificence, capturing all the unearned glory of a prep school boy who can’t even be fired because of his family line. His relationship with Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is a cornocopia of unwanted feelings and deeply unsexy lust. Their coupling perhaps rightly provided Peggy, a promising copywriter in the firm, with a very tough little secret to keep at the series’ close.

Most notable, of course, is Jon Hamm. As central character Don Draper, here we are presented with maybe the finest conflicted anti-hero since Tony Soprano. Obviously the crimes of Don are far less but his indiscretions make his tough to like while his constant shows of deep affection and deeper hurt make him darn tough not to love. He was perfectly described as a cross between Jay Gatsby and Frank Wheeler from Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Where Frank though was often trying to achieve the right thing but often unable or ill-equipped to do so, Draper often chooses the wrong path through a stream of self-hatred and loathing. His character seems unable sometimes to take who he really is, preferring instead to buy into this created myth of living he has.

As his wife, January Jones comes out as the most improved character. Previously a two dimension portrait of a girl married too young and unable to escape her childish notions of marriage, her character gains steely compassion in the closing episodes. On a personal side note too, for all the affairs had in the show, Don’s are the worst. Not one woman he even comes into contact with stands up to Jones. Her performance is wonderful, again capturing the breaking facade of Betty and her plight into suburban sadness.

If there is a criticism to level at Mad Men, its both an old chesnut and a poor chesnut. It’s a wonderful, nuanced show filled with wonderful characters and painted in the finest of strokes. But little happens. The first season is all character development and while it’s hard to see anyone not involving themselves with the characters, so rich and well-hewn are they, this could have proved an issue. As it was, the show succeeds through this with aplomb. You would have to say however that, despite consistently wonderful moments, there are no images or scenes that just fall from your mind when you recall the show. Maybe this is its true triumph, the creation of a show in which every detail matters and it forms a controlled whole. Maybe.

In summation, Mad Men is fantastic at times, sublime at others and as richly drawn as anything on television. The second series though will need to deliver thrills to add to the layers already built.

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8 Responses

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  1. annika60 said, on March 21, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    HI !

    I wright abut Vincent in Swedish here so we here in Sweden become to discover Mad Men and Vincent little more. Mad Men Is a great show.

    Mad Men go in KANAL 9 here in Sweden.

    Great Greetings
    Annika

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