Mad about “Mad Men”: Critics gone wild


The writer Rob Sheffield, writing in the April 11 issue of Rolling Stone (posted online today) reviews the new season of AMC’s hypnotic drama “Mad Men” in terms so wildly enthusiastic the piece becomes its own tribute to itself. “One thing is for sure: “Mad Men” is the greatest TV drama of all time, and it’s not even close.”

That’s biting off a lot, but wait because we’re still not quite done: “It has no competition.”

The earth shakes, the stars tremble, the dog goes yipping for the basement.

Or at least that’s the idea. There’s not a lot else in the review, mostly reflections on things that have already happened on earlier seasons (for this we can perhaps blame “MM” creator Matthew Weiner, who all but threatens critics with bodily catastrophe if they reveal crucial plot points, which to his way of thinking is basically ALL plot points). The point of the piece, then, is less about critical analysis than it is about image and power. And not “Mad Men”‘s, either.

Which in a weird way makes it all about “Mad Men,” or at least “Mad Men”‘s core themes: identity; self-invention; the distance between image and reality. By reducing aesthetics to a kind of single-elimination tournament with clearly defined contests that separate winners from losers the author grants himself not just expertise over the realm, but also mastery. And guess what — it works! AMC’s full page ad for “Mad Men” in today’s New York Times includes the show’s name, its network, the time and date of the season premiere and one critical notice: “THE GREATEST TV DRAMA OF ALL TIME” — Rolling Stone.

The review that promotes the show becomes an essential part of the show’s self-promotion, which in turn promotes the magazine, whose elevated image lends more power/authority to its writers and critics, whose careers ascend accordingly, and. . .everyone gets a trophy.

I’m not trying to twit Sheffield, or even Rolling Stone, both of whom/which are just as capable of producing terrific stories, reviews, photo captions and all the rest. But as the age of multi-platform media saturation lurches onward “Mad Men”‘s gimlet vision of America’s fungible sense of reality is reflected back on itself. Five decades later everything is still up for grabs, only, somehow, more so. The product defines itself to appeal to viewers who define themselves by becoming associated with the product.

The best part of Sheffield’s piece comes at the start, with his description of Don Draper watching a steamy Robert Mitchum film noir in which one character whispers to another: “Are you alone?” The question hangs over Draper’s head because it so clearly defines the ache that haunts and propels him through his tangled existence. Solitude will fuck you up. Make as many friends as you can and hang on tight.

"Mad Men" Season Finale: Busy Being Born

In the end there’s always hope. And Greenwich Village.

So as we end this season of “Mad Men,” just weeks after the assasination of JFK and, by extension, the ceremonial end of the way it all used to be, the horizon has once again flown open.

But first, let’s take a listen to the “Mad Men” theme song. Have we ever talked about it? About how sleek and timeless it sounds, how that vaguely hip-hop rhythm, the fretful strings and heart-like pulse, describes an essence that has precisely nothing, and yet everything, about the show’s time and place? In all this talk about eras being evoked, about the verisimmilitude of this and the perfect evocation of that, it’s easy to forget that the first sound we hear each week in the sequence designed to propel us into “Mad Men”s imaginary world has no time-and-space trappings whatsoever. It just is, like the thrum of electricity in your nerves, the relentless need wired into your brain, the appetite for something more, something else, something beyond the here and now.

Consider this for a moment. The show’s about to begin.

Sterling, Cooper has collapsed into itself, only to be reborn. Betty left Don for the old-world life of Henry Francis and mid-century-style Republican gentry, while the Draper kids find themselves the very model of the modern chid: the products of a broken home. And while some old relationships shatter, Don emerges into his future with a brand new sense of what relationships mean, and why they’re so desperately important.

It hits him like a bolt from the blue. Like a kick in the head. From a horse.

And while the episode overflowed with plot and the interplay between character development and the churn of core mythology, the real story came straight from the series’ conceptual foundation: the philosophical bedrock of America and Americans, and “Mad Men””s (thus Matt Weiner’s) core belief of what propels his characters, and the real-world analogues who gather each week to watch the show, from here to there, from there to somewhere else, and on and on into the unimaginable future.

So everyone’s making a break. Betty from Don; Connie from Don, PP & L from Sterling, Cooper (and Lane Pryce), virtually every major player at Sterling, Cooper from the Frankensteinian beast they let the firm become. Meanwhile Don broke from his pretend father (Connie), then from his fake bond to Sterling, Cooper (his contract) and (most importantly) the example of his real father, Archie Whitman.

Archie, as we see in flashbacks, had no interest in human relationships. When his farmer’s co-op can’t land the right price for his wheat he tosses his neighbors out of his kitchen and vows to go it alone. Only, as the recollection unfolds, we see precisely where this leads him: to a drunken decision to sell his crop on his own, an impulsive decision to make a midnight ride to the market in Chicago and then, to the horror of his young son, a brutal death at the hooves of a spooked horse in the barn.

It’s a lightning bolt  that spooks the horse. And while literary types will never mistake the sound of God’s own voice, it takes Don three decades and a huge personal crisis to hear it for himself. And as his own adult life falls to ruin, he finally understands that his future can’t be predicated on midnight rides into the darkness. Significantly, he hears it in a chorus from Peggy, the child figure who has finally had enough of his emotional distance/cruelty, and from Roger, the older brother he has spent the last year finding reasons to hate: Don, they both tell him, has no respect for human relationships.

Finally, Don hears them. And his answer is as certain as it is paradoxical: the only way they can all find their individual futures is to destroy their bond — to leave Sterling, Cooper — and build it over again.

They have to steal their past in order to move into the future, but this process goes much more smoothly than expected and by the end of the hour they’re back on the launching pad: Perched in temporary digs in a hotel room, minus desks, phones or trappings of any sort, but eqiupped with the real tools of their trade: intelligence, imagination, the spirit to re-imagine, rebrand and re-launch. Sterling, Cooper 2.0.

After so many dark hours this season it’s both surprising and gratifying to see how warm and hopeful the show’s true essence seems to be. Beneath the chilly electronic thrum of that song the machine-like rhythm is the sound of a human heart. Relentless, driving and warm.

"Mad Men" episode 12: The Warmth of the Sun

Even the weather went berserk.

We’re talking about the ambient temperatures inside the literal offices of Sterling, Cooper — where it’s freezing cold one day, and blazing hot the next — but as metaphorical gives go, this barely discussed element cast a long shadow across the hour. Because if you can’t count on stability in your office environment. . . .if all the promises that the building staff always know what to do, everything will be fine. . . if you have to wear gloves at your desk one day, and then glisten with tropical heat the next, can you count on anything making sense?

But onward. To Pete’s awkward meeting with Lane, who breaks the news that he has lost the race to be head of accounts (because while Pete makes clients feel they’re needs are being met, while Cosgrove makes them feel like they haven’t any needs, whatever that means) then congratulates him on taking the news so well.

The world is hurtling through space. Margaret Sterling, her wedding a day away, is infuriated to be lunched, gifted, and advised by her dad’s extremely young 2nd wife, Jane. Margaret bursts into tears and threatens to cancel her wedding, prompting Mona to call Roger, who orders Jane to back the hell off. Jane, in her role as the mature step-mom, locks herself into the bathroom.

Meanwhile, President Kennedy is headed to a pre-campaign visit to Dallas.

Duck, cover and follow the jump. . . .Oh yes. It’s November 21, 1963. Then it’s the next day, the 22nd, and give or take the office temps, such a normal morning at Sterling, Cooper. Pete feels sorry for himself. Peggy scampers off to entertain Duck in a nearby hotel. Don complains bitterly because Lane won’t let him hire a new art dept chief to take Sal’s place. “Bert still has a say in this,” he grumbles, storming out of the Brit’s HQ to take it up directly with Cooper. And not even guessing that the Brits are keeping costs low specifically to enhance their bottom line in hopes of dumping the firm on whichever buyer will enhance THEIR bottom line.

Then there’s a newsflash from Dallas. And you know what that means.

Confusion. Grief. Tears. Everywhere. The adults rendered into children. Peggy’s housemate has her friends over to write notes to Jackie (the Manhattan working girl’s life revealed as elementary school). Margaret Sterling’s wedding thrown to chaos. Hardly anyone shows, so the rigidly detailed seating plan seems absurd. “Everyone grab your plate and sit wherever you want!” Roger proclaims. Meanwhile: No waiters, and also no cake.

Then there’s Don and Betty Draper. Their world’s chief illusion fell to ashes last week. And so they’re careening through empty space, too.

Don is a shadow of himself – sad-eyed, cowed, yearning. Betty, the blonde puppet wife to end all blonde puppet wives, is done with that role. Turns out her husband didn’t really exist in the first place. She’s lost, but also infuriated. And desperate to have her world restored. Henry must be the man of her dreams – he’s even more of an established, establishment man than Don. He could ride with Rockefeller all the way into the White House. Betty won’t be the next Jackie, but she’d be awfully close. And he’s already proposing marriage.

Only, what does the future hold for moderate, east coast Republicans?

The future, it seems, is entirely up for grabs. And maybe, just maybe, a shock like this will move it in an interesting direction. Don’s already rousing himself to tend young Gene in the middle of the night. When Carla rushes in and hears from Betty that the president is, in fact, dead, she bursts into tears, grabs a cigarette from her employer and sits next to her to watch and cry.

There’s been a change in the weather. The times have changed. Next week brings the climax of “Mad Men’s third season. And after that, the part of the ’60s that isn’t a holdover from the ’50s.

Half-hearted critique of another "Mad Men" critique; and something completely different

I opened up this post-grad-level analysis of our favorite TV show thinking I was going to dislike it intensely (I’d followed a link about how the show feeds on its audience’s smug sense of superiority vis-a-vis the show’s characters) and rip it accordingly. Then I actually read the story and realized I had to back away from righteous indignation, right into something more gray-area-ish and complicated, which was particularly unsettling at 6:30 am PDT, with less than a cup of coffee in the tank and a lingering hangover from last night’s edition of too many cookies.

Schwarz makes some good points about the micro-merits and flaws within “Mad Men”‘s narrative. Some thought-provoking riffs on the predictable noble-ness of the African-American characters. And some assertions I don’t buy at all, particularly regarding some of the more outlandish early ’60s-style behaviors (corporal punishment! smoking! drinking! anti-Semitism!) the characters indulge in with such casual brio.

The author is exactly my age, which is both cool (I have a soft spot for 46-year-olds) and dismaying (At first glance at his photo I thought, ‘oh, he’s old.’) And while he’s far more involved in the intricacies of early Camelot fashion and style (did you even NOTICE how an office girl’s hair-do would devolve throughout the week? Or anything to do with clasp purses?) I can’t get behind this idea that I/we watch the show in part so we can feel superior to the characters and their archaic ways and means.

follow the jump back through the mists of time. . .

Some outlandish things just…were. For instance, check out the elegant, moody black-and-white snaps my dad took of my mom circa early March 1963, when she’s lounging in bed, just extremely pregnant with Yours Truly, watching TV or something, and just so casually and light-enhancingly, smoking a cigarette! With a baby onboard! Her not-quite-born-but-destined-to-be-a-fervent-non-smoker son, a/k/a me! Which seems ridiculous and awful, except for that either the Surgeon Gen’l hadn’t noted the connection between pre-natal smoking and your eventually-grown child’s life of angst and misery it surely would cause, or else Americans hadn’t quite internalized it yet.

Another outlandish-but-true ’60s memory: This one in 1968 or so, when I’m in pre-school. (The LIttle School in Seatle, for anyone keeping track). It’s nap-time. I’m on my electric blue blanket, clutching a teddy bear in the darkness with my little friends snoozing around me. And my lovely Miss Farrell-style teacher, given a quiet moment to herself…lights a cigarette! In the classroom! With her sleeping toddlers at her feet!

These things really happened. I have photographic evidence of the one, and a very vivid, undying memory of the latter. Neither of which make me feel smug or anything, but simply….impressed. At how the wheel turns. And how in 40 years time the stuff I do so casually with or to my kids (forcing them to take valium when they get on my nerves; ordering them to go out and cut down a switch so’s I can give them a good whupping, etc.) will seem absurd and stone-cold-obviously wrong.

It’s also important to note that “Mad Men,” as opposed to the ’70s smirkfest “Swingtown,” which debuted the same summer as “MM,” only on CBS, has real respect and sympathy for its characters, no matter how archaic they may be. “Swingtown” played like cultural slapstick, the better to allow us to gain prurient thrills from its wife-swapping swinger story, while simultaneously feeling superior to their ridiculous hair and moustaches (in 1976 every man was Harry Reems), horrid casseroles and pop culture that consisted entirely of every bad tv show and pop song you can remember from the mid-70s. That show sucked. And not in a good way, either.


Doesn’t suck. And as documented in IFC’s new six-part history, which comes with plenty of clips from MPFC and others (I didn’t know about Spike Milligan’s late ’60s series, which presaged the Pythons with eerie exactitude) reminds me how brilliant those original shows were. And are. The Beatles themselves (talk about timeless) were quick to realize that their collaborative spirit had settled on the Python crew. They were right, again. And just as the Beatles remasters serve as joyful reminders that the world was right about the Beatles all along, the IFC documentary performs the same service for the Pythons.

Lemon curry?

"Mad Men" episode 10: Going Down in History

My literal achilles – the right one, for anyone keeping score – has been screwed up for like half a dozen years. Credit 29 years of compulsive running; more directly, a bone spur in the right ankle, which rubs; and its owner’s unwillingness to face facts; get the thing fixed; etc.

And so, as Homer asserted, we all have a fatal weakness. I have several, actually. Don Draper and friends, too. But before we talk about the Mad Men, let’s talk about the principal mad man – the show’s creator, chief exec, genius and I’d be willing to wager any damn thing, its chief weirdo/tormentor of staff/ruiner of backstage persons’ lives. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Matt Weiner.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the guy’s work. I’ve met him several times, in the course of media coverage in L.A., and have been repeatedly charmed by his warmth, kindness, openness, humanity and his ability/willingness to seemingly recognize me, ask after my well-being with what seems to be real sincerity, and seem like a truly wonderful, great guy.

To meet him as a reporter/writer/critic, to talk plot points and writing, is to sort of love the guy. He’s smart and nice and obviously a bit of a screwball. Plus also a significant part of latter-day “Sopranos” episodes, and the creator of “Mad Men.”

Would i want to work for him? Hell to the yeah! And would I almost certainly come to regret that decision, in spades? Oh, my god, yes.

We’re getting to the show, I swear. But first let’s shuffle through the memory cards and recall the many times Weiner referred publicly to “Mad Men” as “my show.” He has a huge staff, as all tv shows, must, and several acclaimed writers. Some of whom started as MH’s literal assistants, fetching coffee and the like, only to be cultivated into real writers and then real Emmy nominees/winners/etc. And yet whatever they’ve done, acccording the lovely MW, is in service of HIS show.

His characters. His stories. His world.

And he has a point. He invented “Mad Men.” He almost certainly steers every significant aspect of its unfolding story. And so all props to MW. Or most props, anyway. But the fact is, the staffers write and write, they come up with dialogue and beats and moments and invest their own creativity/brilliance/words/ideas into the mix. And yet, our good friend Matt continues with: MY show.

Which reminds me of the custodian/sage Paul stumbles upon in the middle of the night at Sterling, Cooper: A fellow named Achilles. Who you may remember as Homer’s vision of human weakness.

Follow the jump for actual “Mad Men” deconstruction. . .

Now let me draw your attention to the latest backstage dramas in “Mad Men,” a/k/a the recent (ongoing?) diaspora of assistants-turned-writers-turned-Emmy-noms/winners. They’re leaving the show in (mini) droves these days. And not saying why, for now. But you can sense what might be going on in Matt’s self-described world of me.

So back to the show. Where in episode 10 our main man Don Draper was engaging in monkey-business-as-usual with Miss Farrell; bonding with her eplieptic little brother in his quest to build himself a new life/existence somewhere beyond the shadow of his neurological problems; driving the creative staff of Sterling, Cooper to greater glories; and being roundly celebrated for the same, without knowing that his (increasingly unappealing wife, Betsy) has secretly discovered (tho she only kind of gets) his secret past.

Meanwhile, the past and/or ingrained flaws, is/are catching up with almost everyone: With Paul, who gets too drunk to write down his midnight brainstorm regarding the Western Union account (talk about the past!); with Roger, whose aging mom conufses his new wife with his daughter, and is astonished to hear that ex-wife Mona knows that he’s married someone else; with Bert, who isn’t eager to celebrate his firm’s 40th anniversary, given what it says about his own age and mortality; and with both Don and Betty, who separately/secretly have reasons to panic when a mystery caller hangs up on Sally without saying a word; and most obviously for Don Draper himself, who revels in the acclaim lorded upon him (by a seriously play-acting Roger Sterling, his former BFF-turned-target of his disaffection) for the many heroics of his pretend life.

Ah, Western Union. Have you ever been so metaphorical? “You can’t frame a phone call,” Don declares, simultaneously coming up with a perfect ad slogan for a 19th century product while also foreshadowing the world of trouble about to open upon himself. “The faintest ink is better than the best memory,” Paul had said, by way of woe-turned-unwitting-inspiration.

Our man Matt Weiner got plenty of ink from the New York Times Magazine last year, just before “Mad Men”‘s second season opened. The cover story about him described a briliant, yet neurotic and sometimes impossible to be around writer/producer who, it seemed, was actively driving his family and employees bonkers. At a TV industry affair a week or two later I asked him how he felt about the profile. Still in the thrall of his charm and intelligence I expected him to wax at least partly chagrined – to say something about it being part of the story, not the whole thing; that the writer had done a fine job, but maybe didn’t have space to include the part where he’s loving and supportive and kind to children, pets and employees. Instead, he sort of shrugged, and smiled. “I asked my wife what she thought,” he said of the quietly scathing profile. “And she said, ‘Well, that’s you!”

Not written in faint ink, either.