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The magnificent 'Mad Men' is like great TV of old

NEW YORK — In its first two seasons, Mad Men rang true, and familiar, from across a half-century divide.

As this masterful AMC drama resumes (now in mid-1963), viewers will feel, like never before, the bond between our time and the past as Mad Men vividly evokes it.

The series is a yeasty blend of hopes, anxiety, delusions and disgruntlement. In 2009, we know how that goes.

There are shake-ups and layoffs at New York's Sterling Cooper advertising agency, which, late last season, was taken over by a British ad firm.

"Is that the last of it?" says Don Draper, the agency's creative director, to his partners after they've sacked another colleague. "'Cause I don't like how much I'm getting used to these."

Meanwhile, the Baltimore maker of London Fog raincoats is fretting that everyone who needs a raincoat already has bought one. But Draper, angling to land the account, is ready with reassurance.

"There will be fat years, and there will be lean years," he says. "But it is going to rain."

He speaks with authority. The magnetic yet tormented Draper (Jon Hamm) seems always to be weathering some personal tempest. No matter how sharp he looks in a raincoat, or any garb, it isn't enough to keep those forces at bay.

The world keeps spinning on Mad Men, as today, with an escalating sense that major changes lurk at the horizon. And not only devastation, although doomsday was just barely averted at the end of last season with a peaceful resolution of the U.S.-Russia missile crisis of October 1962.

As the new season begins, Don's wife, Betty (January Jones), with whom he has a lonely marriage beneath a lovely veneer, is nine months pregnant with their third child.

Skirt-chasing agency partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) still professes to be happy with his fiancée, a former secretary at the agency who is less than half his age. The family he dumped to be with her isn't so happy.

And in an episode soon, marijuana finds its way into an office of the traditionally gin- and bourbon-soaked Sterling Cooper!

As before, Mad Men unfolds defiantly brooding, wryly witty, at chosen moments heartbreaking. The saga goes its own way, and therefore it seems to be missing any obvious plot lines (in fact, it's avoiding any obvious formula). There are numerous scenes, yet the action moves at a deliberative, cushiony pace.

The dialogue is smart, but sparse.

"I'm engaged," says the airline stewardess, seducing Draper on a business trip. "On the other hand, you might be my last chance."

"I've been married a long time," Draper replies. "You get plenty of chances."

There are no easy answers here, and even fewer easy questions. Whiny account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) erupts with a doozy of a question to his wife when he discovers that his promotion wasn't quite what he expected: "Why does it always have to be like this? Why can't I get anything good all at once?"

There's no answer to that — short of giving Pete a slap.

A past winner of Emmy, Peabody and Golden Globe awards, Mad Men continues to blaze new ground. But it's also a throwback that, from today's vantage point, seems extravagant, inefficient, even inconvenient for viewers who prefer pat TV fare.

Like its period trappings, Mad Men is a bullet brassiere. A shiny, V-8 American sedan. A two- martini business lunch.

Mad Men is TV, back when TV ruled. It's a glorious display of TV storytelling, delivered in the Internet age with television on a downward slide, bleeding money and mojo.

Mad Men understands that in the '60s, as today, everything is up for grabs. Don's wife is resisting her homemaker role and kept-woman status with heightening bitterness. The civil rights movement is heating up. Manhattan's magnificent Pennsylvania Station is living on borrowed time. So is President John F. Kennedy.

As viewers, we might think we know our modern history. We might think we know how our fellow Americans tick, especially as they're sampled into characters for drama.

But Matthew Weiner, the visionary behind Mad Men, animates a world that's familiar yet startlingly fresh. The world of Mad Men is exhilaratingly different from our own — yet painfully relatable.

Then as now, things aren't bad or good. They just are. And they're in flux. So how will the heroes of Mad Men adapt? How will we, embracing one of TV's best shows ever during what might turn out to be TV's swan song?

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