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One of TV's best shows gets even better
on January 2, 2009
Update (1/11/09): MAD MEN just won the Golden Globe for the second straight year for Best Drama. Well deserved.
Frankly, I'm pretty despondent about the future of quality TV on the major four networks. The recent cancellation by ABC of the breathtakingly brilliant PUSHING DAISIES was the first major blow. When a show this great can get cancelled for weak (not genuinely bad, merely weak) ratings, you feel that something has gone wrong with commercial television. For one thing, TV history is resplendent with shows that started off weakly and then succeeded a couple of years into their run. THE X-FILES, SEINFELD, THE OFFICE, and 30 ROCK all started off with weak ratings, only to build an audience later. The second horrific piece of news undermining my confidence in commercial TV was NBC's announcement that starting next year Jay Leno will get FIVE HOURS (!) of prime time for a more politically oriented version of his talk show. First, why would we want Leno when we already have Stewart and Colbert? Second, this means losing FIVE HOURS (!!!!) of scripted programming on NBC each week. This is a recipe for disaster. And an act of despair. NBC clearly doesn't think it can produce 15 hours of quality TV a week, so it is trying to produce only 10 and then take the super cheap option with Leno. NBC, I have news for you: you get what you pay for.
MAD MEN could well be the model for successful quality TV shows in the future. Although it gets very low ratings, on AMC it is safe from cancellation because of its widespread critical acclaim. More and more, niche cable networks seem to be the place where quality TV series manage to thrive and avoid the constant threat of cancellation. AMC in fact has two superb series, MAD MEN and the very promising BREAKING BAD (which was seriously truncated by the writers' strike last year) and they've announced a new Sci-fi series based upon Kim Stanley Robinson's acclaimed Mars trilogy, about the settling of colonies on Mars. The series is taking its title from the first of Robinson's novels, RED MARS.
So, while I'm on the verge of giving up on ABC, NBC, and FOX (though under new head of programming Kevin Reilly its shows have become more interesting and he has so far resisted to kill shows prematurely as his predecessors did). CBS I gave up on years ago, since the network seems content to churn out an endless number of bland police procedurals. AMC, F/X, Showtime, HBO, ABC Family, the Sci Fi Channel, and similar networks may be where we all go in the future for the best shows.
MAD MEN became the first show not on one of the big four networks or HBO to win the Emmy for Best Drama this past summer. It will almost certainly win again this coming summer, since Season Two was even better than Season One. Moreover, during Season Two the show started building a buzz, culminating with a great appearance by Jon Hamm on SNL, including a skit with some of his MAD MEN guest stars. The show became part of our cultural sensibility, inspiring magazine photo spreads. I still think the show is one that people tend to know about rather than know. Thankfully people who do not have access to AMC can catch up on DVD (I watch it as it comes out, but my cable company shows AMC in low-def rather than high-def, so much of the show's physical beauty can only be recaptured on DVD or Blu-ray).
As good as the show was in Season Two, the sophomore season was even more brilliant. In my review of Season One, I mentioned that Jon Hamm's character Don Draper exemplifies Thoreau's statement that most people live "lives of quiet desperation." In Season Two, Hamm and his carefully constructed existence gradually begins coming apart at the seams. His Stepford Wife Betty begins to come apart at more than the seams. I really enjoyed January Jones in Season One, but primarily she was a beautiful manikin. In Season Two the human being inside is psychically rebelling against the roles she is being forced to play and the result is someone who is on the verge of collapse. One scene in particular was compelling. As she prepares for a dinner party she notices that one of the dining room chairs is wobbly. Moving the chair back and forth gives way to anger, as she displaces the stress of her life onto the chair and she begins to destroy and obliterate it. Indeed, the many moments where Betty loses control are among the season's finest.
January Jones's amazing performance as Betty gets a bit less acclaim than she deserves in part because of Elizabeth Moss's job as Peggy Olson. I think many people watching MAD MEN began in Season Two to realize that Peggy, as much as Don Draper, was central to the meaning of the show. I have very little evidence for this, but I believe that the show will end with Peggy Olson heading Sterling Cooper. The show started with her first day as an employee of the company, working as Don Draper's secretary. We've seen her become a successful copywriter for the company and at the end of Season Two even has the office next to Don's. I believe that a logical ending of the series, mapping al the changes that took place in national sensibilities in the sixties, would be for Peggy to become head of the company that at the start of the year was so completely male dominated. This does not mean, however, that Peggy's personal life has kept pace with her professional life. In fact, Peggy remains a bit of a mess. The season did end, however, with perhaps the best scene in the entire run of the show so far. Peter tells Peggy that he hates his marriage and that he loves her. Shockingly, Peggy tells him that she had had his baby and given it away. My feeling was that in telling Peter she was not trying to be cruel so much as she was trying to definitively close the door on one part of her life and open another. Peggy is one of the most wonderfully complex characters on TV. While Don Draper has artfully created a public self, Peggy has not. She has primarily resisted the roles that people have tried to provide for her. She has not yet become her own person, but you feel that she might. I also find her and Don Draper's relationship to be delightful. They are not close friends or perhaps not even friends. But a flashback in which Don visits her in the hospital when she is suffering from post-partum depression (intensified by the fact that she didn't even know she was pregnant) and essentially orders her to get her act together and get out of the hospital. Don is not always presented as a good person, but he has his moments, and the tough love he gives Peggy at the moment helps her turn her life around.
I mention Don, Betty, and Peggy, but one of the delights of MAD MEN is the very deep cast of characters. Joan Holloway (played by the beautiful Christina Hendricks) has a new fiancé, but it doesn't appear to be the healthiest of relationships (one of the most shocking moments in Season Two occurs when he rapes her in Sterling Cooper offices). The deeply closeted Salvatore starts gradually to confront his own sexuality and his attraction to men, including a coworker, while his "beard" marriage struggles. Roger Sterling struggles to overcome health problems in order to marry a much, much younger woman.
But at the heart of the show Don Draper remains the dominant character. Jon Hamm's performance as Don has been brilliant from the very beginning. On "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" series creator Matthew Weiner explained that Hamm instantly stood out in auditions, but the network wanted an established actor in the role. They were adamant that they did not want an unknown actor in the show's central role. Weiner finally issued an ultimatum, that without Jon Hamm as Don Draper, he was unwilling to proceed with the series. Weiner's wisdom in casting Hamm has been proven many times over. It is almost impossible to imagine this show without him. Don is one of the most artificial and complex characters in the history of TV. Just as he creates ad campaigns, so he has created the persona Don Draper. Season Two shows Draper having serious doubts about whether he wants to persist in playing the character he has created for himself.
I read a bit over a year ago that the plan for the show was to move a couple of years into the future with each ensuing season. If so, Season Three should pick up sometime past the Kennedy assassination, perhaps with the early part of the Vietnam War. Clearly the show intends to reflect the enormous social upheaval that took place in the decade. It also represents many of the now almost comic aspects of the pre-sixties world. For instance, in one scene Don, Betty, and their kids are enjoying a picnic on a blanket in a lovely country locale. As they finish, Don stands up and shakes all of their trash off the blanket and onto the ground. This was very definitely before Lady Bird Johnson's attempt to beautify America by picking up trash. I'm sure that Season Three will show many new changes.
This is easily one of the 3 or 4 best shows on TV. I put it up there with my own favorites PUSHING DAISIES, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and LOST. Notice that of those shows PUSHING DAISIES was on ABC and has been cancelled, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS was on DirecTV in the fall and will be on NBC in the winter and spring, and LOST begins its penultimate season on ABC. I think in the future fewer and fewer of my favorite shows will be originating on the big four. AMC, with MAD MEN leading the way, is one of the last, best hopes for television