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REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 3, 2009) May 20, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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The author of this review lives in a country where politics revolves around what apocalyptic year things began to turn for the worse – 1990, when Communism collapsed paving the way for chauvinism and cleptocracy under the banner of democratic capitalism; or 1945 when Yugoslav Communists took over under the banner of anti-fascism. For American babyboomers the answer to that question is simple and, thanks to their dominance over global popular culture, quite familiar to the rest of the world. It is 1963 or, more precisely, one Friday in November when earth-shattering news from Dallas brought the end of an era retroactively named “Camelot”. Mad Men, the show made in order to present 1960s changes, showed the last gasps of that era in its third season.

The assassination had occurred at the year’s end. That proved beneficial for the creators of the show, allowing them to copy the narrative structure from past two seasons and build plot in the months preceding it. The season begins in Spring, when the things seem normal, and actually better than when the previous season ended. Cuban Missile Crisis is long over, the apocalypse didn’t happen, and previously troubled marriage of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to his glamorous wife Betty (January Jones) is supposed to be rescued with an arrival of a third child. Draper continues to thrive professionally, yet not everything is rosy among his colleagues at Sterling Cooper advertising agency. New British owners were brutal in reducing staff, and those remaining are increasingly aware of precariousness of their position. That includes some seemingly irreplaceable characters like art department head Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), who experiences professional disaster despite and not because of his hidden and self-suppressed homosexuality. Those expected to stay might find the price too high, just like young accounts executive Pete Campbell (Vince Kartheiser) who finally began to accept that he would match Don Draper nor receive his treatment. Those who leave of their own find another forms of disappointments, like former head secretary Joan Harris (Christine Hendricks), whose life of perfect housewife crashes with the reality of her handsome and much younger husband lacking professional skills of a perfect provider. At the same time Draper continues to his old philandering ways, this time risking his adultery too close to home in a form of his children’s teacher. While this happens, after years of innocent and not so innovent fantasies, Betty indulges in adulterous affair of her own.

1963 represented a challenge for Matthew Weiner and the rest of Mad Men creative team. Apart from its end, it was relatively uneventful year with relatively few pivotal moments or pop culture references. So, in order to season to play in “real time” the plots and character development had to continue, but it had to be natural, without interference of grand historical events or soap opera narrative tricks. At the same time, Season 3 had to be clearly different from Season 2. First step in that direction was introduction of the first true historical character in the show – famous hotel tycoon Conrad Hilton (played by Chelcie Ross). His presence, started by a chance encounter with Don Draper in country club bar and continued through business relationship and something resembling friendship, was good opportunity for Don Draper to find surrogate “proper” father he never had and the reflection of his own future as confident and successful self-made man. Screenwriters used this opportunity with mixed success – it allowed Drapers to spend vacation in Hilton Hotel in Rome and the audience to experience Betty as early 1960s fashion icon; on the other hand, old tycoon was eccentric enough to pester Don with late night meetings and provide Don an excellent excuse for late night adultery. The relationship between Hilton and Don conventiently ended before the season’s end, but not without providing catalyst for a plot twist in the final episode.

Season 3 is more successful in using Dallas events as the elephant in the room – something that the audience is aware of, but characters aren’t. All their grand plans and strategies, and all their problems, seem delightfully petty compared with the event that would force them to reevaluate their world; and the approach of dreded November 22nd creates suspense in seemingly banal events. Some other hints of the future might appear – like word “Vietnam” that begins to creep into casual conversations – but few are as ironic as the unfortunate date Roger Sterling (John Slattey) has set for his daughter’s wedding, when he thinks that the bad blood between his current and ex-wife is going to be the most serious issue. The most brilliant way Mad Men plays with history, however, happens in episode Guy Walks into Advertising Agency, which brings the most shocking event of the show until that point. The incident in Sterling Cooper offices provides not only the most explicit, but also the most effective use of black humour, but also serves as some sort of comical foreboding of similar, although more serious event that is about to happen in Dallas.

Mad Men was window in the past, but in Season 3 it became also reflection of the present. In 2009 America and the world entered, or was supposed to enter, new era under the leadership of Barack Obama, young, charismatic first African American in White House as the embodiment of everything 1960s American progressives in 1960s dreamed of – world peace, social justice, equality between races, genders and sexual orientations. The great change and hope of 2009 found its version in surprisingly optimistic finale of Season 3. In the last episodes characters – until that time separated by their genders, backgrounds and age – found not only reason but effective ways to work together and face brand new world of 1964 . Real life might be very different; 1963 might not be the year when things began to get worse just like 2009 might not be the year when things began to get better. But in the universe of Mad Men and for its viewers the end of 1963 looked like a very good beginning.

REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 2, 2008) May 7, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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Last year plenty of people interpreted slogan “Make America great again” as a return to a mythical better past that never existed or was better only for tiny minority of Americans. Most of such interpretations have set on 1962 as the last identifiable year of such “greatness”. This is hardly surprising, because even Hollywood leftists tend to watch selective chapters and periods of history through rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. In case of 1962, it was a year when many Baby Boomers, generation that shapes today’s perception of 20th Century, lived the last years of their childhood, unburdened by some unpleasant challenges and responsibilities that come with maturity. In some strange way, 1962 was the last “good” year both for conservatives who didn’t know how dramatically the world would change in next few years and for idealistic progressives who didn’t know that some of those changes would be for the worse. It is also a very good year for shows like Mad Men if their creators want to show that those dramatic changes slowly began in a subtle way.

Matthew Weiner and the rest of creative team were very wise to avoid having Season 1 – which had described the “old” and “established” world of Mad Men in 1960 – followed by a season set in 1961. The new episodes begin more than a year after the end of Season 1. It is February 1962 and the America is still strong, confident and optimistic, and this confidence is embodied in JFK as new, attractive and youthful president, more suitable to the role of the leader in a brave new world where astronauts in Earth’s orbit and amazing new technology turn yesterday’s science fiction into reality. Even Bert Cooper (played by Robert Morse), old patriarch at the helm of Sterling Cooper ad agency, is aware that the change is inevitable, and the rest of his partners are trying their best to adapt to new generations by hiring new and younger creative talents. The main protagonist and his subordinate, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) is also faced with changes, both in his professional and private life; while in the office he too tries to connect to brave new world of 1960s youth, his marriage to Betty (playey by January Jones) is in deep crisis, marred by his own reckless infidelity and Betty’s own psychological issues. Don’s former secretary Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss) continues her transformation from lowly office help into highly regarded and respected advertising talent, while trying to reconcile her professional triumphs with private life revolving around unwanted single motherhood, embarrassed family and sympathies towards young Catholic priest (played by Jonathan Hanks). Not all changes are for the better, and Don’s former office rival Pete Campbell (played by Vince Karthesier) experiences family disasters that could ruin both his career and marriage.

The idea to push another season one extra year forward was wise, because it allowed clearer picture of changes, both in lives of show’s characters and in the wider world they inhabited. Again, Mad Men takes subtle approach, trying its best to avoid spelling out the obvious; the show doesn’t show the history and instead it shows how that history reflects on some private and seemingly ordinary lives. There are many scenes in which characters won’t say or do much; instead of that, modern audience is left to connect the dots and thus paint the picture of 1962 being very different in attitudes towards issues of race, gender or sexual orientation. One of such examples could be found in scene that deals with homosexuality – again, this is a taboo subject which is not only deeply uncomfortable, but in many ways also incomprehensible to early 1960s characters. When someone finally not only says those dreaded words but actually clearly identifies with them, Mad Men clearly points that times have indeed changed.

Yet, Season 2 is inferior to the Season 1. This has little to do with general quality of writing or acting, which is superb. For example, the episode titled The Jet Set is one of the best-written, best-directed and best-acted in recent television history. The main problem is in 1962 being more eventful year than 1960, and the history revolves too much around iconic images, words and events that define that era in today’s popular culture. Perhaps the most problematic is Cuban Missile Crisis, which just happens to occur at the same time as protagonists face some serious business and professional issues; the season finale occurs while the crisis is not yet resolved and thus brings rather disappointing cliffhanger. Even those viewers unfamiliar with history probably know how such event ended, because our world obviously looks different than the world of Fallout video games.

At the same time, Season 2 is something of refreshment compared Season 1. Just like Don Draper, the show takes long vacation in California, and uses it as an opportunity to give some hints of both protagonist’s future and present. There are actually fewer flashbacks compared with Season 1; with the mystery of Don Draper’s origin resolved, viewers would probably be less interested in otherwise prosaic portrayal of his early career. More interesting is the future set in sunny and “hip” California, so far away from the suffocating corporate offices of “square” New York and its suburbia. In couple of episodes set there Don experiences shape of the things to come during the brief but seductive encounter with a group of rich world travelers that enjoy nomadic free love lifestyle not very different from hippies. Yet, this new seductive utopia might be an illusion just like those Don sells his clients, and Cold War threats to end is just as violently as Don Draper’s new identity was created. By again reminding Don and the modern audience of all those uncomfortable truths, Season 2 more than justified its existence. Some may argue that America might have never been great. Mad Men has.

REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 1, 2007) April 22, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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So many critics agree that we are all living in the Golden Age of Television. Just like with most of other great historical eras, there is a disagreement over when such Golden Age began. The author of this review likes to think that a precise moment could be found in Summer of 2007. That was the time when AMC began to bust HBO monopoly over quality cable television with Mad Men. Seemingly unattractive period drama covering 1960s New York advertising industry slowly built reputation not only as one of the best US television shows of its age, but also became a popular icon of its own and its title became quick reference for one of the most fascinating periods of American history.

The first season of Mad Men is set in year 1960. This is point of time where Mad Men as a universe is presented in its youngest and purest form, which is frighteningly familiar and fascinatingly alien to contemporary audience. Sterling Cooper, fictional ad agency where protagonist, creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) works for a living, does exactly the same thing ad agencies do today. Yet, what goes on in its offices and homes of their employees seem very different; the only people who enjoy wealth, power and respect are rich heterosexual white men; everybody smokes and drinks; racist and sexist attitudes are rampant, even with some antisemitism thrown for good measure. Women fare especially bad in that world; they are usually reduced to secretaries who occasionally provide sexual services to their bosses, like new employee Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), with their only hope of social advancement through marriage, after which they end like Draper’s spouse Betty (January Jones), trapped and unhappy in a role of perfect housewife and parent.

Although Matthew Weiner had written the script for pilot episode years before, only in mid 2000s show like Mad Men became truly possible. Until that time 1960s were portrayed either by Dan Draper’s generation or by Baby Boomers, alternating between rose-coloured nostalgia of American Graffiti and smug progressive triumphalism of Pleasantville. Weiner, by belonging to Generation X, was separate from his subjects and this separation armed him with extra layers of objectivity. Unlike most other period dramas that recreate the past merely through bits of soundtracks, sets, costumes and props, Mad Men was a product of long, through and painstaking research. The audience was introduced not only to the fashion of the past, but the social mores and general worldviews. And it is done in a subtle yet effective ways; the show works best when audience discovers seemingly banal but very telling ways in which America in 1960 differs from America at the beginning of 21st Century.

This subtlety and the need to introduce characters and the world they inhabit are the reasons why Season 1 uses very slow tempo. There is actually very little plot and it mostly serves as an excuse for fascinating character studies and opportunities for previously unknown actors to shine. One such opportunity was provided to Jon Hamm in the role of a complex and multilayered protagonist. Don Draper is introduced as an apotheosis of America at the height of its power, which is, naturally, quite masculine. Draper is, just like James Bond, someone every woman wants and every other wants man to be; an attractive alpha male able both to charm cynical clients and bring women to bed; successful self-made man who reached upper rungs of corporate ladder out of nothing while completing American Dream with a luxurious home at the suburbs, glamourous perfect wife and adorable children. The show, however, quickly portrays all that as an illusion. Draper is far from perfect husband, with infidelities in form of “crazy” beatnik girlfriend Midge (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) and rare female client Rachel Menken (played by Maggie Siff) being the most obvious and most expected; his entire career is based on a lie, and Draper is actually a coward, unable and unwilling to face the ghosts of his traumatic past, while his cowardice and willingness to escape responsibility create devastating havoc around people around him. The genius of Mad Men is in such antihero actually being the perfect protagonist for the show about 1960s ad industry; just as Draper’s new life is based on lies, so is the industry in which he works. The first season uses this theme near its end in one of the most brilliant plot twists in the history of television.

Another brilliant aspect of Mad Men is its villain, or, to be more precise, the best equivalent of villain this show might have. Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Karthesier, is not evil per se; moral parameters of his behaviour are, more or less, the same as any other character. His greatest flaw is in desire to become Don Draper, a desire that is bound to be unfulfilled because of the obvious lack of talent. Campbell throughout the season is becoming aware of this, while the audience has opportunity to find parallels between Campbell and Draper. They are both frauds in their own way, but, Campbell is unsuccessful fraud who only managed to delude himself; his position within company is based on family connections instead of a talent; his wife Trudy (played by Alison Brie) and her rich parents dominate the household and of the entire potential harem of office secretaries he is able to bed only the least attractive. When Campbell slowly realises that he would never match his idol, his anger reflects in petty and childish office intrigues.

World of Mad Men, despite being male-dominated, has more than fair share of strong and impressive female characters. There are three women, each dealing with it in their own way. Joan Holloway (played by Christina Hendricks), an experienced secretary who seems to be both most aware and most comfortable with moral and professional confines of Steling Cooper, as well as most adept in exploiting it through office romances. Betty Draper is, on the other hand, increasingly frustrated with confines of her Stepford-like existence and that reflects in subconscious and seemingly irrational acts of rebellion, mistaken by her husband for neurosis that could be cured through fruitless and ultimately counterproductive psychoanalysis sessions. Finally, Peggy Olson is there as woman who has both of those avenues blocked due to her lack of physical appeal; she is forced to fulfill her dreams the hard way, by challenging expectations and actually pursuing career of a copywriter.

While the show portrays one of the most “interesting” periods of American history, marked by deep cultural and political transformations, the first season, by its nature, doesn’t show such transformations. It only drops hints of future events and leaves blanks to fill by viewers more familiar with history. Some of those hints could be found in scenes where Draper encounters first seeds of counterculture among beatniks or in a scene where The Exodus by Leon Uris is described as “America’s love affair with Israel” (thus reminding audience that the American descent into Middle Eastern quicksand had origins many decades ago). But the most interesting is way the show sets his historical benchmark around the most important event of 1960 – presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy, two persons that symbolised the struggle between Old and New that is supposed to be the major issue in future episodes. Weiner, belonging to new generations, less affected by JFK mythology is among those authors that presents history closer to actual facts. The race was actually quite close and, furthermore, many people, including protagonists until the last minute believed (and had good reasons to believe) that Nixon would ultimately prevail. The episode near the end of season, where the election is watched during office all-night party, is brilliant, and even more so in 2017 than 2007. When we watch dedicated and experienced professionals being genuinely surprised and completely baffled by actual result it is very easy to imagine similar scenes in New York offices during 2016 election. Perhaps the world haven’t changed that much. If it didn’t, we should hope that what comes next is less “interesting” that some of the events that come in later seasons of Mad Men.