But, ah, television. Its great accomplishment over the past decade has been to give us the best of all movie worlds, to meld personal filmmaking, or series-making, with something like the craft and discipline, the crank-’em-out urgency, of the old studio system. I’m thinking first and foremost of The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999 and sadly departed in 2007. This strange and entertaining series, as individual a work as anything by Hitchcock or Scorsese, was the creation of David Chase, and it paved the way for The Wire, Deadwood, Rescue Me, Damages, and its successor as the best drama on television, the equally strange and entertaining Mad Men, which will launch its third season on AMC August 16.
Set in an advertising agency in the early 1960s, Mad Men debuted two summers ago and right off the bat earned itself two Golden Globes and a Peabody Award, and was nominated for 16 Emmys, becoming the first basic-cable series to win for outstanding drama. Its second season, no sophomore slump, has been nominated for another 16 Emmys, including best drama and four out of five possible writing nominations. A more interesting measure of the show’s impact is the fact that its title has become a kind of shorthand: you can now talk about a Mad Men skirt or lampshade or pickup line where once you might have used “space age” or “Kennedy era” or “Neanderthal.” But while the show, like its subject, has many surface pleasures—period design, period bad behavior (if you like high modernism, narrow lapels, bullet bras, smoking, heavy drinking at lunch, good hotel sex, and bad office sex, this is the series for you)—at its core Mad Men is a moving and sometimes profound meditation on the deceptive allure of surface, and on the deeper mysteries of identity. The dialogue is almost invariably witty, but the silences, of which there are many, speak loudest: Mad Men is a series in which an episode’s most memorable scene can be a single shot of a woman at the end of her day, rubbing the sore shoulder where a bra strap has been digging in. There’s really nothing else like it on television.
The central character is Don Draper, the cool and commanding creative director of the fictional Sterling Cooper agency. He’s a man in flight from his own past, a Gatsby-esque figure without the romance of a Daisy; or rather, he seems to be looking for a Daisy everywhere but his home in the suburbs, where his beautiful, bored, emotionally stunted wife, Betty, is stranded in what feels at times like an improbably compelling adaptation of The Feminine Mystique. Played in an instantly iconic performance by Jon Hamm, Don is a man whose emotions are in lockdown—a man as sleek and handsome and seemingly invulnerable as a hood ornament. But in the show’s central irony he is able to plumb human needs and desires with an artist’s intuition: if Mad Men ever approaches shtick, it’s when Don gets a faraway look in his eyes and somehow pulls a psychologically barbed selling point out of his own inner ether (a trope wonderfully parodied on Saturday Night Live last fall, when Hamm was hosting). In short, Don Draper is an advertising Mozart, or at least he’s the best Sterling Cooper has to offer, for another of the show’s ironies is that Don and his colleagues are dinosaurs not just in terms of the impending social revolutions of the 1960s but also in terms of the creative revolution that would roil advertising that decade. As in Hitchcock, the characters are unaware of shocks that the audience knows all too well lie ahead, whether they be the Kennedy assassination and women’s lib or long sideburns and the lasting influence of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s witty, self-deprecating “Lemon” ad for Volkswagen, which Don dismisses with the words “I don’t know what I hate about it the most.”
[Click to continue reading Bruce Handy on Mad Men | vanityfair.com]
Of course, it helps that the actors playing the Dan and Betty Draper2 are so damn good looking.
This is another:
One thing [Matt Weiner] quite consciously set out to do with Mad Men was to reclaim the 1950s and early 1960s from the condescension of “baby-boomer propaganda,” as he put it, the easy ironies with which the era has been caricatured in popular culture. “You know,” he continued, rattling off some cultural clichés, “Fun with Dick and Jane, the dad with the pipe, Ozzie & Harriet“—goofy and square and uptight and supposedly innocent, no one having sex, or good sex anyway, except for maybe Frank Sinatra. “We think everybody was walking around in corsets, but people are people,” Weiner said, and cited a 1968 episode of Firing Line he once saw in which a drunken Jack Kerouac was interviewed by William F. Buckley Jr. on the subject of “the hippie movement” and said to the younger generation, in essence, “You think you invented fucking?” Don Draper and his colleagues at Sterling Cooper, the women as well as the men, would seem to be asserting the same point.