A Show I’m Mad About, And it’s Not on HBO. Come Join the Fun

Aug 19, 2009

This may not be the golden age of television, but perhaps it’s the titanium age: high quality in large quantities.

There are so many good shows now that the people who watch TV for a living are being forced to specialize. For instance, I would say “Battlestar Galactica” was a very good show; my ardor for the fantasy genre simply doesn’t burn hot enough to make it a great show in my eyes.

But if you have an hour to kill, I could rank the top 20 late-night hosts of all time.

At any given time, though, there usually is one program that sweeps through the critical community so powerfully that resistance is futile. There is such a show on TV now.

And for the first time in a decade, that show is not on HBO.

“Mad Men” begins its third season at 9 p.m. CT Sunday on AMC, and those of us who love great TV — even those of us with plenty to watch this summer — have been counting the days.

Much like the critics’ previous long-term crush, “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” pushes hard on a multitude of pressure points in the body politic, creating that satisfying feeling that reminds us why we seek solace in popular entertainment.

In 1999, as the walls of the dot-com bubble began to strain, “The Sopranos” exploited our growing suspicion that the American dream was available to only the few. Here was a show about a corporation built on shady Internet start-ups and the control of industries ranging from construction to crack, where competition was not only frowned on but rubbed out.

“The Sopranos” also hit a cultural bull’s-eye, a hilarious, single-camera comedy at a time when viewers had tired of sitcom predictability. And it tapped the audience’s knowledge of the mob genre, making “The Sopranos” one of the most referential shows to date. Both creative trends, borrowed from cinema, would prove hugely influential in reshaping the landscape of television drama.

“Mad Men” comes along at a time when our collective suspicion has reached new levels, and it has become Wal-Mart-fashionable to question everything you’re told, whether it’s the premise for foreign war or the need for health care reform.

It’s also a time of tremendous upheaval in the media industry, as consumers learn to play hide-and-seek with traditional advertising methods and cause chaos behind the scenes at the companies built on them.

It is, in short, the perfect time for a revisionist account of American persuasion, told through the eyes of a deeply flawed yet oddly sympathetic figure who understands primal needs and has mastered the black art of pretending to satisfy them.

That man is Don Draper, as sold to us by Jon Hamm. He is, his new bosses remind us, the face of Sterling Cooper, the old-school, early 1960s Madison Avenue agency that, in the mythology of “Mad Men,” has taught choosy smokers to choose Luckies and insecure husbands to preserve family memories on Kodak slides.

Sterling Cooper also urged the undecided to select Dick Nixon as the voice of a new generation — one of the more obvious clues dropped into the first two seasons that Don and company don’t have a clue as to what changes are in store for the country — or them.

(Kind of like the way Tony Soprano didn’t see the end of a way of life coming, either … but let’s not get started again comparing these two shows. Suffice it to say that one of the first to tell “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner he had a helluva script there was his boss: “Sopranos” creator David Chase.)

One of those shocks to the system happened at the end of last season, when Sterling Cooper voted to be taken over by a British agency. That action will result in someone’s head getting lopped off in Sunday’s premiere, touching off an in-house battle to succeed him.

Don missed the merger vote because he was off sowing his wild oats in California. But now he has returned home, and wife Betty (January Jones) has taken him back into their family, which is about to increase by one with her surprise pregnancy. If you thought that might cause Don to give his wandering eye a rest for, oh, 12 hours or so, you would be mistaken.

There has been lots of online speculation about what will happen when JFK dies or the Beatles arrive in the fictional world of “Mad Men.” In interviews, Weiner has suggested the answer will be: not that much.

If the show’s depiction of election night 1960 is any precedent, recall that several Sterling Cooper minions barely paid attention to the Kennedy-Nixon vote drama. They were too busy getting drunk and hitting on each other. And yet, that same episode featured one of the show’s most dramatic developments, as Don’s dark secret was discovered by a jealous rival at the firm, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).

“Mad Men,” in other words, is not a 1960s Hertz ad where characters fly into a car speeding down the fast lane of history. The show pursues the more intriguing alternative strategy of shaking up the characters’ little worlds at work and home. Even the Cuban missile crisis — the backdrop for Season 2’s final episode — couldn’t hold the office’s attention as the merger date of Sterling Cooper approached.

In that same episode, Betty Draper goes horseback riding after learning she’s pregnant. Her doctor even tells her, "No riding." We don’t see the ride, only her dismounting from the horse, but the intent is clear. And the viewer — well, the obsessive "Mad Men" viewer — might contemplate whether that’s always how women dealt with unwanted pregnancies pre-Roe … or whether it took a million women like Betty to bring about Roe.

While there is the underlying assumption that the squares at Sterling Cooper won’t know what hit them when the seminal ’60s events unfold, I wouldn’t be so sure. In fact, it’s safe to assume that some Eisenhower-era types there will learn to be groovy, just as they did in the 1960s America that “Mad Men” tries so strenuously to replicate. That is one of my anticipations for the third season — that some characters will start to let their hair down.

Honestly, though, the cast is so superb, the dramas of each episode so exquisitely told, that if I were Matt Weiner I would slow down the clock as much as possible. We’re in no hurry here to get to the moon landing. The endless possibilities for “Mad Men” are a product both of its large, appealing ensemble and the X-factor of history.

That’s one way in which it is not like “The Sopranos,” a show that revolved around one man whose incapacity for change finally exhausted the show’s creative potential. I’m not sure “Mad Men” will be as creatively influential as HBO’s signature series was; period dramas are not exactly popping up all over TV.

(Another way it’s not like "Sopranos" is audience size. The Season 2 finale drew just 1.75 million viewers, or one-eighth a typical audience for "The Sopranos." Still, that’s almost twice the number watching “Mad Men’s” first season finale, and Season 3 numbers should grow as new viewers catch up on DVD.)

If I were to handicap its legacy, I would say it could be twofold: “Mad Men” has shown that you cannot overload an audience’s craving for information (check AMC’s hugely detailed Web site and the scores of fan blogs if you don’t believe me).

And, last but not least, “Mad Men” proves it is possible to shock 21st-century TV watchers without dropping a single frontal bra cup or F-bomb.

WHO’S WHO IN THE MADIVERSE

DON DRAPER (JON HAMM) In Season 3, the adman will have a v
ision that gives more detail behind his mysterious upbringing. He’ll also have to assure an old client that the takeover of Sterling Cooper won’t change a thing in their relationship. (The ’60s are another matter.) And Don will show again why he’s TV’s successor to Tony Soprano as the Great Philanderer.

BETTY DRAPER (JANUARY JONES) Expecting a third child and eager for a happy home to bring the baby into, she has welcomed back Don despite his infidelity. Everything seems like old times. She has kept emotions in check, until she needed to take her frustrations out on the neighbor’s pigeons.

PEGGY OLSON (ELISABETH MOSS) The fastest-rising woman in Sterling Cooper history has to deal with a corporate takeover and Pete’s confession that he loves her more than his wife.

PETE CAMPBELL (VINCENT KARTHEISER) The British invasion of Sterling Cooper could be a huge boost to his career or a huge road bump. It’s all in how he plays his cards. Given his history, that doesn’t bode well.

JOAN HOLLOWAY (CHRISTINA HENDRICKS) The queen bee of the secretaries, Joan reacts only as Joan can when a young executive begins taking liberties around the office.

ROGER STERLING (JOHN SLATTERY) The son of the firm’s founder has left his wife for a young secretary, but he might be the one jettisoned now that Sterling Cooper has new owners.

SAL ROMANO (BRYAN BATT) “Closeted gay man” is redundant in 1963. Acting straight was an unfortunate part of the bargain for career men, and Sal’s resolve will be tested on Sunday.

BERT COOPER (ROBERT MORSE) Regretting the merger that brought “British rule,” co-founder Bert continues to bring an old-soul perspective to the agency.

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7 Comments

  1. “The Sopranos” exploited our growing suspicion that the American dream was available to only the few.

    Please – does everything have to be put into some type of sociopolitical context?
    People started watching The Sopranos because it was mob-related and continued watching because it was damn good television, not largely because it filled some psychological need or meshed with their distrust of business somehow. You came for the violence and mob life snippets and stayed for the drama. The Godfather, Goodfellas and Casino wrapped up in episodic TV form.
    Mad Men is popular once again because of excellent writing, awesome design of sets and costumes, and just a sense of fun. The behavior of the folks at Stirling Cooper is fun to watch because it not only is accurate, but because it is so incredibly non-PC. Much the same way viewers wait during each episode of House to hear what new comments the title character will make about Cuddy’s genitals.
    We care about these characters, deeply. We also relish any chance to see Robert Morse – what a wonderful joy he brings to the proceedings, especially as a person who lived through the era being portrayed.
    I do agree wholeheartedly that they should be careful about the clock. I know speaking for myself and my friends that if the show stays around long enough to get to 1967 or so, we’re done watching. No one wants to see the staff in tie-dye or watch the secretaries discuss the Summer of Love.
    It’s the joy and well, irresponsibility of the early 1960s that makes the show that much fun; it just wouldn’t be the same if we saw Don Draper express regret about just leaving his litter in the park after a picnic.
    Plus, let’s face it, the ads are wonderful. It wasn’t just Harry that teared up at the Carousel campaign.

  2. Watched Mad Men once and turned it off–totally unrealistic for those of us who grew up in that era. What’s all the hype about? Too much media coverage of it. And too much from know-it-all Aaron Barnhart. Let’s hear from others for a change!

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