We've been very hesitant to jump all in with AMC's Mad Men, not just because it's been the industry's new go-to show and receiving praise that hasn't been heaped on a new show really since The Sopranos debuted. But the comparisons between the two shows are inevitable (Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was a writer for the last three seasons of The Sopranos). But AMC really got behind the show after it's first season, and aside from the blitzkrieg advertising campaign, the really smart thing they did was make every episode from Season 1 available on-demand for an extended period of time, allowing those of us on the fence at the beginning to jump in and figure things out for ourselves.
Here's what you need to know if you haven't watched what actually is a great series:
- It's not nearly as good as The Sopranos, and frankly there may be nothing that come close to that masterpiece.
- Since this isn't HBO we're talking about, there's no swearing (not even a "freaking" bomb), or nudity. Of course, the series takes place in the early 1960's, so you can forgive it for not having the Bada Bing dancers in the background.
- The series main character, Don Draper, is fascinating enough for series television. But again, he aint Tony. In fact, last night's episode didn't even have Draper appear until ten minutes in. You couldn't pull that sort of shit with Tony.
- Like The Sopranos, this series adds so much more presented in HD.
- It's best enjoyed without commercial interruption, meaning you should wait for it either on-demand or even on itunes. The good news about this is that the new episodes are readily available at both outlets immediately following the new episode. AMC wisely premiered the Season 2 premiere with one short one-minute commercial break, and then went back to normal commercial breaks for future episodes. One of the joys of The Sopranos was (and still is) being able to watch it uninterrupted to devour it like a movie. Mad Men offers the same rewards, so wait the extra hour and watch it on-demand.
- One of Chase's major mantra -- one he's on the record as saying he borrowed right from Scorsese -- is that there'd be no score music at all, just great and often obscure songs used in the background, and most importantly a perfect piece to play over the closing credits that summed up everything about the episode. My theory on Weiner not going totally with this route is he didn't plan on the budget Chase did to secure the rights to use that music throughout the series (HBO was famous for letting Chase get the money he needed to get clearance from pretty much any song he wanted). But the occasional use of some scored music under certain scenes drives me nuts. It's not needed, and the audience that gets into Mad Men can understand the mood of what's happening without a score to give us some sort of emotion. Plus Weiner really can't use a lot of appropriate songs that came out after say 1962, which limits him in some of his music choices.
- Resolved to the fact it's not going to take the place of Tony and his family in your life, it's still worth mentioning that Mad Men can stake it's claim as currently being the best new series on television -- even though I prefer to catch some of the old Sopranos episodes on DVD or on-demand. Mad Men has become the go to Sunday night show now, at least until Larry David comes back with a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Another reservation I first had when Mad Men debuted was Matthew Weiner, who has the unfortunate label of being the sole writer of the few weak Sopranos episodes. However, the Sopranos episodes Weiner co-wrote with other writers (including Sopranos mastermind David Chase), are some of the best in the series. He co-wrote a number of classics: "Kennedy & Heidi" (the one where Tony kills Chrissy); "The Blue Comet" (the penultimate blood-bath of an episode where Bobby gets murdered at the train store and Silvio lies on his death bed); and "Sopranos Home Movies" (the one with what Bruce Springsteen calls the best fight in television history between Tony & Bobby and the infamous Monopoly game).
After getting through the first season, it became apparent to me that Weiner had been holding out some of his better story lines for "Mad Men"--once he realized the show got the green light from AMC--while he was helping Chase and company finish up The Sopranos. Weiner's made no secret that Chase is his mentor, fashioning a mood and style similar to The Sopranos. He's also created a classic, complex main anti-hero of a character in Don Draper (brilliantly portrayed by Jon Hamm, an actor who it turns out likes hanging out with the likes of ESPN's Bill Simmons to watch NFL games on Sundays). Hamm isn't in James Gandolfini's league in terms of totally commanding a room and saying so much only with his eyes. But it's a role of a lifetime for Hamm, and even though he has some great supporting actors and characters around him, some of those don't merit extensive screen time they sometimes receive.
So give Weiner credit for having a great vision on what he wants from this series, including being notorious for getting set pieces that are exact replicas from the time period. He's also surrounded himself with a number of crew members who worked on The Sopranos, all of whom help with the quality and mood of the show. And he stuck to another David Chase mantra: The audience will accept the main character and his flaws because he's always the smartest guy in the room. Draper's associates aren't as uneducated in the likes of Paulie Walnuts and Company, but like Tony, Don is decisive, confident and enjoys carrying on the occasional affairs while his loving wife Betty (January Jones) stays home to keep the house in order, but even she's starting to realize her husband aint exactly the most faithful bastard in the world. Like Tony, Don Draper gets bored (Draper occasionally skips ad meetings to go to the movies). And in a role reversal from Tony Soprano's therapy sessions, it's Betty who winds up confiding in a therapist. Weiner's fascinating world keeps you coming back for each new episode and rewards repeat viewings.
The Soprano's first season dealt with Tony and his over-bearing mother he never wound up making peace with (ordering a hit out on your only son's life will do that sort of thing). Draper had a similar unhappy childhood, and it eventually led to him developing a new identity, something we learn late in season 1 that only adds to our interest in Don. He keeps his secret from everyone, until one of his co-workers (Pete Campbell) uncovers the truth and threatens blackmail against him. In Tony mode, Don tells Pete, "I thought about what you said, and then I thought about you and what a deep lack of character you have...This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you’ve imagined here.”
Weiner starts Season 2 the same way Chase did with his own first episode of season 2 of The Sopranos. In what's now regarded as one of the best uses of montage in any television show, Chase underscored Frank Sinatra's, "It Was A Very Good Year", using a montage of clips showing what all of the key characters have been doing since we last saw them: Tony enjoying the spoils that come from becoming the new acting mafia boss; Chrissy getting high on drugs watching television; Paulie banging one of the Bada Bing girls; and Carmela dutifully cooking family dinner. In Mad Men's opening moments of Season 2, Weiner uses Chubby Checker's "Let's Twist Again" while key characters get dressed up for another day of work at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency. Both song choices suggest a recognition of how great the previous season has been for each show ("Let's twist again, like we did last summer..."). And then the new season of Mad Men brings us to how these characters -- especially Draper -- are dealing with the ever changing times (Weiner wisely chose Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" at the end of season's 1 final episode).
But last night Weiner and company finally gave us Draper's ultimate Tony Soprano moment, the one that will definitely change the course of the series from here on out. The moment The Sopranos went from great television series to modern masterpiece occurred in the 5th episode of the series, "College". It's widely regarded as one of the best episodes of the series, and it also marks a landmark event that Chase had to fight with HBO to even make happen: Tony Soprano's first on-screen murder. The episode was simple enough (Tony takes daughter Meadow on a tour of colleges, she calls him out on what he really does for a living, and oh by the way a guilt-ridden Carmella confesses a little too much to her creepy priest who almost sleeps with her). But along the way, Tony spots an old friend, Fabian "Febby" Petrulio, who went witness protection some time ago. In a move Chase would spend hours defending to get on the air, Tony tracks the rat down and chokes him to death with a wire. The moment changed the series forever, as we became more fascinated by this new character. It was part of Tony's code, something he could have sent Chrissy or another member of his crew to take care of, but this was the sort of thing T needed to literally take in his own hands. The previous four episodes set Tony up to be a sort of good, family guy (as good a guy who makes his living in "waste management consultant" as he wanted everyone to believe), but now we were prepared to get the full Tony Soprano, warts and all. And more importantly to the show's rich history, anything was now possible.
Don Draper got his own series changing moment last night. Living in his advertising world, he can't prove his mettle by exacting murderous revenge. But Weiner pushed AMC to the limit by allowing Draper to show how he makes shit happen. The sudden vagina-fingering, hair-pulling and all-out turning some woman who dare shake him down into submission is a scene that literally turned on viewers. Most found it erotic and even intimidating. Others were uncomfortable. But the scene, listed below (and no, it's not the greatest quality but our youtubers will be sure to get an HD version of it up in no time - but it's our first foray into posting a youtube video and it's already getting comments there, so we're doing something I reckon) tells us even more about Don Draper, and another reason to watch the show. Even though it's not afforded the freedom that Chase and Company had for it's entire run on HBO, this moment now tells us that in this world, even in the early 1960's on a basic cable network, anything's possible.