Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mad Men: A Night To Remember

There are times in the best television series' history where they hit on all cylinders and go on an unprecedented run that defines them. Like an album where you want to listen to every song, a television series has a period where they hit one out of the park every time. Seinfeld had a run like this (I'm thinking around season four, with "The Virgin" & "The Contest" that carried over through season five). The Sopranos had a lot of streaks like this, most notably in their final nine episodes (the only had one clinker in the middle during that run). The Larry Sanders Show had a lot of streaks like this, until Garry Shandling's fight with Brad Grey got in the way.

Mad Men is on one of these streaks, and it's beyond impressive, let alone the fact that I seem to be one of the few who actually watches (although we are a passionate lot). I still maintain it takes a lot from The Sopranos, but Mad Men creator and creative spark plug Matthew Weiner learned a lot from David Chase, and when a show is going like his is, it doesn't really matter where inspiration or learning comes from. I've said many times I thought Weiner saved his best work for Mad Men as I wasn't terribly impressed by all of his work on The Sopranos. But now it's very clear: Weiner learned so much during his three seasons with Chase & Company. He's also incredibly smart, and having his own vehicle to call the shots let's his own vision come through. And with season two of Mad Men, he's got the show on an incredible creative roll. One where you want to re-watch all episodes, anticipating a new one like you do with a show you really get into. But the biggest compliment to pay to what Weiner is doing with this season is that not only is every episode great, each one actually gets better every week. By God how else you can leave such a remarkable impression?

Which leads us to tonight's Mad Men episode, "A Night To Remember", which when we do our continuous Sopranos comparisons, was on par with that show's "Whitecaps" episode, where Carmela finally hits her breaking point with Tony about his infidelity's and throws his shit to the curb. "Whitecaps" was a high water mark for The Sopranos, as we never really thought Carmela would ever call T out for his shit, never mind the fact that it was Edie Falco's and James Gandolfini's finest hour. In Mad Men, we never expect Betty Draper to bust out hubby Don in the same way, but mostly it's because this series is set in the early 1960's, still a few years before Tammy Wynette would spell out "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" in song as the word itself was still taboo.

Another difference between "Whitecaps" & "A Night To Remember" is that at that point in The Sopranos run, we were all quite enamored with Tony Soprano. Despite all of his faults, his charisma still won us over. We always rooted for him, or at least understood him. That's a big difference between Mad Men and The Sopranos in their main characters. We certainly know enough about Don Draper (played by John Hamm, who continues to put on an acting clinic even though he isn't in Gandolfini's league). He's a phony through and through, a self made man, taking on an entirely new identity in reinventing himself. We get that he was the product of "those two sorry people" as his parents. The biggest difference between Don Draper and Tony Soprano is that we got further insight into how Tony lived inside that head of his with his weekly visits to his psychologist. Don Draper/Dick Whitman isn't afforded this luxury, because again this is (at this point in the series) 1962, and even when Tony first sought out Dr. Melfi, he did so at first in silence as it would have been seen as a weakness around his work. Something that his Uncle and Mother held against him, as they both came of age in the early 1960's as well. Tony kept Melfi around because it was really the only place he could be completely honest, and it also gave us as viewers further insight into what made him tick. We all saw something in us in Tony, even if we didn't murder our best friend on a boat or watch our father cut off some guy's finger.

Don Draper can't have any moments of honesty like that because he's living a lie. He's living the life of a dead guy, reinventing himself after a fallen soldier because he couldn't stand or figure a way to lead the life of Dick Whitman. Lying is just something he has to do to live as Don Draper, so carrying on affairs is just part of the package. It's what he does. Like Tony, he's incredibly effective at his job, always the smartest guy in the room. It's the domestic stuff that gives him the biggest headaches. Tonight's episode doesn't offer us any new way to relate to Don Draper, and we certainly don't like or root for him like we did Tony. We can be impressed with his poker face in looking Betty in the eyes and saying he never fooled around with Bobbie Barrett (and January Jones as Betty's line of "How could you...she's so old!" was one of many laugh out loud moments). Or how easily it is for him to sell the Heinekin folks on how to deliver their product to the masses. The bottom line is we still have a lot to learn about Don Draper or really Dick Whitman. Like Chase before him, we don't know exactly where Weiner is taking us, but he's obviously going to bring more of Dick Whitman's dark past into focus.

What happens now is anyone's guess. Certainly Betty could do exactly what Carmela did, and realize it's just easier to keep the devil around than officially make him your enemy. As devastating as Carmela's meltdown was, it didn't have the slow, psychological burn that Betty's did. From her literally throwing up in Don's new car last week to drinking the day through in last night's dress while going through Don's clothes and desk in tonight's episode, Betty could really use her own Dr. Melfi. Like Carm, I figured it could all be about status with Betty, but there's clearly something more going on with her. She knew Don had fooled around before, but having someone else bring it up to her like Jimmy Barrett did put her in quite a tailspin. And yes, there is quite a similarity between Carmela hearing about Tony's fucking around from his former mistress and Jimmy telling Betty that his wife has been screwing her husband. January Jones is only 30 years old and seemingly came from nowhere (or at least bit parts in forgettable movies), but she took full advantage of her moment tonight.

What else from "A Night To Remember"? Actually quite a bit, as there were two other major storylines that perked up. The two "other" women who make the show (Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson) were also stripped of their masks a lot more. In Peggy's case, she's called out by Father Gill (played by Tom Hanks' son Colin). Again, the comparison's between his character and Father Phil from The Sopranos are inevitable, as Gill has something a bit more on the brain. He even ends the episode rocking out to Peter, Paul & Mary's "Early In The Morning", as the tension leading up to him breaking out a guitar left us thinking instead that he was going to find some pornography to jerk off to. Peggy's been trying to take Don's advice and simply learn to forget anything too painful that should leave a mark on her, but it's pretty obvious she's not going to be able to do that. She's another one who's eventually going to throw everything up, and it can't be pretty when the time comes that she can't keep it in any longer.

Joan is somebody who would be running a Sterling Cooper in 2008. But she's got to stay just enough under the ceiling before breaking it in 1962, what with having an affair with one of the agency's partners. Joan is wickedly smart, knowing everything that goes on in that office. So you know she's ready to bust out (like she is in one of those accentuating outfits) in a big way when given the opportunity. She got her chance tonight, reading television scripts and understanding where "As the World Turns" was going, how it could affect the agency clients. Of course those clients immediately fall for Joan when they meet her, and both Roger Sterling (don't worry, we'll get to him in a minute) and Harry Crane recognize this, fearful that they don't want Joan to get any "bigger" in their arena, figuring a way to get her back to Office Manager. Joan is ahead of her time. She doesn't really want to settle on her fiancee of a doctor, and deep inside knows she can do what the boys do, even better.

Roger Sterling (played with ultimate charm by John Slattery) is this show's Uncle Junior. He and Don have a Junior/Tony relationship in a way, although Roger is clearly not jealous of Don's talents. He just wishes he were as young as Don. But like Junior, Roger gets all of the best lines in the show, and you need look no further than his "Duck...Crab" introduction tonight for proof. The Roger Sterling character needs to remain in every episode, and here's hoping that last season's heart attack doesn't suggest he's going to batty like Junior did towards the end of The Sopranos and limit his appearances.

We also get to learn more of Herman "Duck" Phillips tonight, a character introduced late last season who is the Richie Aprille/Ralph Cifaretto of the series. He's somebody who increasingly gives Don Draper fits, and like Richie and Ralph his character is incredibly fascinating especially giving the time he's living in. Duck had a big battle with the booze, losing his family over a mysterious circumstance at a previous job. In a world where any problem or even meeting is taken care of with some good stiff drinks of whiskey, even at 11am, Duck is an extremely lonely man doing anything else to try to fit in. He takes a drink from an empty glass tonight during a toast, and sips on only tomato juice while all of the other high powered executives get loaded before Betty's well thought out geographic dinner party. The past few weeks have suggested that Duck is back on the booze when he's alone (even though we don't actually see it, editing and actor Mark Moses eyes reactions suggest this). How he somehow keeps from joining the other guys for a celebratory drink in this world, I haven't a clue. The hope is we learn more about Duck's previous job's incident, but you just know like Richie and Ralph, he won't be around for the series entire run. Let there be no mistake, Don has had enough of Duck's shit.

Like The Sopranos, Mad Men offers many moments of humor. Tonight's best line comes from Account Executive Pete Campbell. When he sees Peggy bring Father Gill into the office, he remarks, "Look at this...Did we just get 'Miracle Whip'?" to colleague Ken Cosgrove.

I've been recommending Mad Men to everyone since I finally got into it when AMC did a free on-demand High Definition marathon. You can watch all of season two's episodes, commercial free, the same way. And really that's the only way to watch it, as the visuals are so remarkable that high def is the only way to go. But by all means, get into this show and thank me later.


The Rush Blog said...

played by John Hamm, who continues to put on an acting clinic even though he isn't in Gandolfini's league)

Oh yes HE IS.

Anonymous said...

Gee whiz, I like to read what I can about this show, but I stop reading as soon as I see your Mad Men/Sopranos comparisons. They are different shows with different characters and different plot lines with Matthew Weiner in common. I don't see any point in comparing the two shows at all. Are you just nostalgic for "The Sopranos"?

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