Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Self-worth and status. You said it."

A long long time ago, when I was young, TV shows all looked like shit. Production values were generally lousy. Even on the biggest American shows, this held. Obviously the big commercial pop shows of the 1980s had a certain degree of relative slickness, but even they all looked they had been shot on camcorders, lit with football stadium floodlights and edited with garden shears. The programmes remembered so fondly today as the Event TV of the day - "Rich Man, Poor Man", "Roots" etc - all look cheap, somewhat shoddy. If you saw a film from that era with the same visuals, you would be shocked by how low its budget must have been.

Michael Mann changed all that with "Miami Vice". It was a show, for all its flaws, that aspired to visual beauty, that aspired to visually stylish storytelling. Its success changed the television landscape. Mann went further with "Crime Story", a show even more lush and stylish than its elder brother. This approach slowly caught on. The budgets for big television dramas rose steadily, while still trailing far behind those of feature films. It took the rise of HBO for TV to reach any sort of parity with cinema in terms of visual quality. HBO had the money to ensure its product always looked good. That might not have been obvious on "Oz", where grittiness and a claustrophobic setting were part of the appeal, but the very first episode of "The Sopranos" was instant proof that TV could look like cinema. Here was a television drama that looked like a movie, a television drama determined to be better than most movies. "Sex & the City" always looked slick and classy too, and those two shows were HBO's big guns for a long time. Their success vindicated HBO, in a way, and so they could throw money at their more ambitious projects. So period dramas like "Deadwood" and "Rome" both look beautiful, with fabulous production design, massive sets, hordes of extras and cinematography better than that seen in many modern movies. The approach has spread to the Networks - the modern pop phenomenon of "Lost" costs a few million per episode, but at its best it is utterly cinematic - epic, spectacular and beautiful.

The first thing that strikes you about "Mad Men" is how great it looks. The Vanity Fair shot at the top of this post gets it about right. This is a convincing, painstakingly detailed recreation of a vanished world, and it manages to make that world seem real. So real you can almost feel it. There is a slow subtlety to "Mad Men"s visceral nature - it is a show you sense. You can smell the constant cigarette smoke in those dark-panelled rooms, taste the whiskeys in those round glasses, feel the starchiness of those white shirts, catch the scent of the perfume shrouding the secretarys. This is perhaps the greatest, simplest testament to the shows quality. Its command of its visual craft is so effortless and total that you hardly notice it, yet you feel completely bound up in its world.

That world is the Madison Avenue advertising agency of Sterling Cooper in 1960. The first season centres around Don Draper, star executive, as he, his family and colleagues enter this new, exciting decade. 1960 is the perfect year for such a drama, in that it was, strangely, perhaps the peak of the 1950s. The Eisenhower era was at its height, America was the most prosperous place on earth, and the coming cultural and social revolutions of the later years of the 1960s were just beginning to bubble up into the corners of the mainstream in seemingly insignificant ways. "Mad Men" has in its sights big subjects, and in that it recalls one particular strand of the American literature of the era it portrays which is an examination of the inner lives of the men charged with powering the constant forward march of the great American capitalist machine. Sloan Wilson in "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit", Joseph Heller in "Something Happened" and the likes of John Updike, Phillip Roth and Walker Percy all touched upon similar themes. Each of these writers scrutinised American life in this period from a critical perspective, delving deep into the world of "work" - not always a strength of literature -examining what it meant to be a white collar worker, to commute from a satellite community into one of the earth's greatest cities, to live a perfect life with the perfect wife and children and pets in the suburbs.

The first writer I thought of though, just minutes into the first episode of "Mad Men", was Richard Yates. Yates' darkly cynical, bruised writing dealt with both the soullessness of modern office labour and the chill of the suburbs, and you can bet the writers of "Mad Men" are very aware of his work. Which is a good thing. As the show grew progressively darker and complex during its first Season, that Yates influence came to the fore, before fading out as "Mad Men" developed its own distinctive atmosphere and thematic concerns. But there will always be something of Yates in the sourness the show displays in its portrayals of its characters, in its seeming belief in human weakness, in its insistence upon honesty in its drama.

"Mad Men" addresses big issues both explicitly and implicitly. If the text of the show is concerned with the construction of modern American culture, then the subtext is an attempt to analyze modern American masculinity at a crucial turning point. The shows creator-producer-sometime writer, Matthew Weiner, puts his experience as a writer on "The Sopranos" to good use, and his creation, like that show, is layered with meaning, irony and witty commentary. Much of the meaning is to be found in Don Draper, played brilliantly by Jon Hamm. Draper is both a three dimensional character and a symbolic figure, a divided man in more ways than one. The pilot episode introduced him as a thrusting Executive with a genius for using language to sell things and a no-nonsense approach to workplace politics. He said what he meant, and he said it eloquently, even beautifully. He was also having an affair with a bohemian artist with an East village studio, then returning to his life in the commuter belt suburbs with a pretty wife and two children. Each episode of "Mad Men" closes with a single tableau, the camera performing a slow, patient reverse zoom away. That episode ended with Draper softly lit, sitting on his son's bed, his hands laid upon his children's sleeping backs, his wife in the doorway. Here "Mad Men"s similarity to literature becomes evident - its ambiguity can be striking. What was this shot meant to tell us? That this was the real Draper, head bowed in some sort of supplication? That this man was an actor, capable of wearing many masks, and that this one was not necessarily any more real than any of the others we had seen?

Hamm plays Draper as a highwire act - confident, the quarterback of his company, admired by men and loved by women. Yet riddled with doubt and insecurity, an outsider playing a part, he is an enigma to everybody around him, and finally, eventually, to himself. We see occasional flashbacks to his previous life over the course of the first season, revealing a Depression-era childhood of desperate poverty and unhappiness, and an eagerly-seized opportunity for rebirth during the Korean War. His colleagues mainly hold him in a sort of awe, yet he is a mystery to them. They speculate about his life, the secretarial pool obsessed with his habits. One of the junior executives says "For all we know he could be Batman." which is a sly nod to Draper's secret identity of Dick Whitman, his real, abandoned name, but also acknowledges Hamm's matinee idol looks, the Gregory Peck/Cary Grant/Bruce Wayne quality he brings to the part. He seems to represent the American male at the dawn of the 60s - virile, wealthy and masculine yet full of fear and worry, his neurosis - and that of his country - in part stemming from his reinvention after the War. He is aware that life may be meaningless ("The universe is indifferent" he says) and that all of the signifiers of status, of happiness, even, have been dreamt up by men just like him. Yet he pursues these signifiers, as if he can think of nothing else to do. He marries the model wife, moves to the right suburb, has children, buys a dog - all, you suspect, because that is what he feels he should do. He seems to derive little happiness from any of it. He gives Rachel, a Jewish Department Store Owner he is drawn to despite himself, a long speech about love having no meaning, even as he seems to fall in love with her.

He is full of - perhaps even defined by - his contradictions. With the boys at work he is full of locker room bravado, yet also capable of sensitivity, even poetry. He delivers his pitches to clients as if he really believes them. He hints at anti-semitism in an exchange with his boss ("Have we ever hired any Jews?" "Not on my watch.") then begins a passionate affair with a Jew. He shuns his past, denies it, yet is filled with nostalgia. This relationship with his past becomes central to our understanding of his character. Willing to pay off his younger brother just to stay out of his life, his pitch to the team from Kodak in the final episode is a rapturous hymn to nostalgia, to the power of memory. He uses snapshots of his own family life - about which he generally seems ambivalent - for his props. In an earlier episode he films his daughter's birthday party on a Super-8 camera. We are shown some of the results and the hyper-vivid colours and period trappings cannot help but suggest the nostalgia-porn likes of "The Wonder Years". Yet "Mad Men" counterpoints this by showing us what a moment looks like on Don's home videos and then showing us what it looks like in reality. The nuances his camera misses are filled with tension, with hurt glances and awkwardness and panful exchanges, with messy adult emotions, in other words. He is stopped short in his filming when he witnesses a tender kiss between a married couple. The candid simplicity of the moment seems to shock him in its authenticity. Yet the strength of the show, as I have said, is in its layering of meaning, and that moment also makes us wonder if he is considering the contrast of that couple to himself and Betty, or if he is recalling his first kiss with Rachel.

He drinks his way through that birthday party, seemingly bored by his domestic life. Yet at the same time, he needs it, returning to his safe home at the end of most episodes. Betty's psychological problems trouble him so much for the threat to his perfect world they represent. At one point he says "I have too much here" about his life as a way of explaining to his brother, and yet we are never sure how much he really values what he has, beyond his appreciation of how it fits the profile he has built for himself. He has two mistresses over the course of the first Season, and though he seems to define himself by his work, they are also an escape from it to some extent. The first - the Greenwich Village artist, Midge - is a walk on the wild side, a chance for Draper to delve into the subculture. His tense encounters with her beatnik friends - at poetry readings in dingy clubs, smoking marijuana and listening to Jazz - end with him exposing their cynicism as pallid and lacking his own hard-bitten sense of realism. They seem like children at play around this serious man of the world.

The second feels far more serious and perhaps shows us Don Draper in as revealing a light as he will be seen. Rachel Mencken (Maggie Siff) is, like Draper, something of an outsider. A confident, outspoken Jewish businesswoman, she does not fit into this world. He seems attracted to her because of this suspected kinship, but they also share an exchange about the loss of their mothers which suggests that may also be a factor. Draper lets his guard down around her, and finally, when he suspects that everything is slipping away from him, she is the one he turns to. Her response to this and the other events of the final episode leave us with the final image of the Season - Draper, alone, in the dark, at the bottom of the stairs in an empty house. The greatness of Hamm's performance and the writing is that after all we have seen him do, all his moments of dishonesty and unpleasantness, we do not hate Don Draper. In fact in this final moment we feel the sadness and the loneliness of his predicament (typically the scene also refers to Draper's first flashback, where he as a little boy lay at the bottom of a staircase). There is the definite sense that he may have lost everything and that even then he doesn't know what any of it is worth, altough he has no problem selling it to others. His calling may be made possible because of his cynicism. All of which makes the central question of "Mad Men", one asked at the beginning of the first Season and then again at the end, the context having shifted in the interim. Who is Don Draper? This is the key to his retaining our sympathy - he is an enigma, a mystery. We want to know what makes him tick.

Not that Draper is the only great character in the show. His wife, Betty (January Jones) is the perfect 1950s housewife. Only she's not. Instead, she may be cracking up, crashing the car, beginning a queasily uncomfortable relationship with one of her neighbour's children, her hands shaking unaccountably at random times. Her development as a character is fascinating - she is struggling to comprehend why she is not happy, whereas Don represses his unhappiness and distracts himself from it. She is defined by her status as a wife and mother, and married to an (obvious) philanderer like Draper that makes her identity extremely fragile. And yet she was once a career girl, a model. She wrestles with her sexuality, too - masturbating about a travelling salesman, occasionally rejected by her cheating husband despite her effortless beauty, her angst is worsened by her protracted grief for her dead mother (which Draper dismisses patly :"Mourning is just extended self-pity"). Her story seems the saddest, and in some ways darkest in the show, summarised by the chilling simplicity of her own line, spoken in desperation to an uncomprehending little boy: "I'm so sad. Please just tell me it'll be alright." Yet she is brave too, a fighter, and seems at times to be worthy of Draper in her way. Her actions in the final episode suggest that her development in Season 2 will be just as interesting as our introduction to her.

There is also Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), the ambitious rich boy gunning for Draper's office. He is perhaps the closest thing the show has to a villain, and yet his vulnerability makes him periodically sympathetic. Everybody has their reasons in Weiner's universe, and Pete's are revealed in what we see of his parents, and especially in his frustrations in his new marriage to Trudy, whose intrusive parents invade many scenes. Pete is the quintessential modern man - shallow and yet aware of it, he seems alienated from everything and everyone - his work, his colleagues, his wife. He turns to Draper's secretary, the smart and seemingly modest Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) before ruining that promising relationship with a tantrum. Before that he has said to her about his wife : "Shes just another stranger". He is searching for a connection with somebody or something, searching, like Draper, for meaning and authenticity.

The rest of the cast are strangers attempting to connect then fumbling with the consequences of connection. For a show about people concerned with the commodification and selling of "happiness", the most obvious irony of "Mad Men" is that these characters are generally magnificently unhappy. John Slattery gets many of the shows best lines as Roger Sterling, Draper's boss and drinking buddy and an aging but unreconstructed lothario. His affair with head of the Secretarial Pool, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) seems merely a mutually satisfactory casual arrangement until he suffers a heart attack while straddled by another girl on the floor of his office late one night and things take a darker turn. Then there are the boys in the office, a wolf-pack of competing wits and jealous egos. When one of them has a story published in the Atlantic Monthly the envy in the office rises up around the characters like a noxious gas - you can almost see their noses wrinkle at it. One of their number is a closeted gay man, and when presented with the opportunity to sleep with another man, he flees terrified, as if the atmosphere at work has turned him against himself.

"Mad Men" is full of these nuances of character. All of the details are perfect, from the credits (which I wrote about here) to the decor and costumes to the dialogue and the storylines. It offers pleasure in almost every aspect - beautiful to look at, it is also funny, moving and thought-provoking. The humour mostly comes from the dialogue, so cutting and acute as to be almost serrated : “Remember Don…when God closes a door, he opens a dress.” "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” There are also a series of note-perfect cultural references. Characters discuss "current" movies (Roger disparages "Psycho") and there is a beautifully understated visual reference to "The Apartment", as well as books (Ayn Rand, "Lady Chatterly's Lover" and Leon Uris, most prominently). The soundtrack puts contemporary lounge, Big Band and jazz numbers to finely chosen use. the political and social realities of the time are mostly just background - casual racism and sexism abound and are never really commented upon, except obliquely. This is how it was, Weiner seems to be saying, just as he shows his characters endlessly smoking and drinking.

This is a long post, and yet I feel I haven't even really skimmed the surface of a show that possesses a depth uncommon even in todays "Golden Age" of American TV. "Mad Men" is for grown-ups, mature and sober and unafraid to address big themes but never less than thrillingly entertaining at the same time. After a few episodes it became the show I was most looking forward to (alongside the incomparable "The Wire", of course) and I know the wait for Season 2 will seem maddeningly long. But at least I know its coming.



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