Saturday, July 17, 2010

Back to Work for ‘Mad Men’

The New York Times
July 18, 2010

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

The fourth season of “Mad Men” brings major changes for the characters, including those played by, from left, Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss and January Jones.

“WHO is Don Draper?” is the question that opens the premiere of the fourth season of “Mad Men.” And that’s an insider’s joke, a wink at viewers who have spent three years burrowing into the cryptic ad man’s buried secrets and damaged psyche.

AMC’s drama about Manhattan’s advertising world in the early 1960s isn’t just a cult favorite anymore; “Mad Men” has become a cultural phenomenon much in the way “The Sopranos” once was. The two shows are mirror opposites of course.

“The Sopranos” amused viewers with unexpected glimpses of bourgeois ordinariness — lawn mowing, school meetings, psychotherapy — inside the scary, alien world of organized crime. “Mad Men” offers a far more commonplace milieu — the rat race — and finds comedy in the distortions of a rear-view mirror. There lies the spectacle of people just like us doing things that today seem scary and alien, like smoking, drinking old-fashioneds at lunch, letting children play with dry-cleaner bags.

It’s a series set in the days of ice-cold martinis and cold war anxiety that has seduced contemporary fashion, advertising and even the English language. There are “Mad Men” Barbie and Ken dolls, a “Mad Men” clothing line at Banana Republic and pop culture books like “Mad Men and Philosophy: Nothing Is as It Seems.” The term “mad men” has become an adjective, a shorthand way to describe things that are louche, elegant and dissipated in an antediluvian way.

And accordingly there is “Mad Men” overload in the air and, in some corners, even a backlash. Don’s angst at times grew tiresome, as did his marital woes. Viewers yearned to get away from the home front and back to the office skirmishes at his agency, Sterling Cooper. Fortunately the series’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has found a way to finesse “Mad Men” fatigue at the end of the third season by giving his story a mulligan.

Sterling Cooper is starting over, as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and so is Don. When the series began in 2007, its main characters were established, slightly jaded players in a field that was on top of its game in a nation still puffed up with postwar confidence and superpower brio. The advertising firm was so successful, despite its disreputable office parties, that it was practically white shoe. And its creative director, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), married to lovely Betty (January Jones) with two lovely children in a lovely suburb, had little to prove, except, perhaps his effortless prowess as an extramarital ladies’ man.

But when Sterling Cooper’s British parent company was sold at the end of last season to an even bigger advertising behemoth, Don and his colleagues broke away and lost their complacency.

Suddenly they became small and scrappy without the huge accounts, vast office space and bottomless expenses of yesteryear. And that final episode, as Don banded his loyalists together to start a new firm, was the most exhilarating moment of the season.

Now, at the beginning of Season 4, which begins next Sunday, it’s a year later, and the executives of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce go on cattle calls to woo clients. Contracts melt away. The business is precarious and copywriters stoop to publicity stunts to gin up business.

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

The “mad men,” top, played by from left, Jared Harris, Robert Morse, Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery and Jon Hamm.

His personal life is just as altered. Betty is freshly embarked on a new marriage with Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), an older man and an aide to Nelson Rockefeller. Henry, who has grown children from a previous marriage, promises Betty a better life — though this one comes with a scornful mother-in-law.

And Don, who had women falling over themselves trying to get him into bed when he was married, finds himself alone in a dark Greenwich Village apartment, shining his own shoes and going out on blind dates. Being a bachelor back in those days before the pill and “The Sensuous Woman” did not automatically include swinging. Don tries to kiss a young woman in the back of a cab but can’t get any further. She won’t let him accompany her to the door to the Barbizon, then a women-only hotel, because, as she puts it coyly, “I know that trick.”

“Mad Men” keeps confounding expectations — the ’60s fashion, mores and cultural landmarks keep getting more familiar, but the characters maintain an elusive weirdness. Betty looks like Grace Kelly, but she seems blandly prosaic — except when she picks up a BB gun and shoots the neighbor’s pigeons, a cigarette dangling from her perfectly curved lips.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) would be just another irritating office brown-noser, a prep school Sammy Glick, except that he too has a screw loose and a mystical rapport with firearms. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) should be an easily identified Rona Jaffe heroine — an unmarried career woman breaking the barriers of sexism — but she too is peculiar and enigmatic. Even Don and Betty’s forlorn daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), is more strange than sad.

“Mad Men” is a period piece that reverses the template. Historical dramas like “The Tudors” or “John Adams” sift through a remote, archaic culture to highlight the most familiar and contemporary concerns of historical characters. “Mad Men” wallows in the comfort of a recent and well-known past by way of characters who are always a little opaque and unknowable.

The narrative snakes through a Life magazine timeline of political turmoil and social change — the John F. Kennedy assassination is a transforming event, and so are the poems of Frank O’Hara and the songs of Bob Dylan. In the season premiere, a character cites the killing of Andrew Goodman, the civil rights volunteer who was murdered with two co-workers in Mississippi. It’s a mention that marks the year as 1964 and the mood of the country as nearing a boiling point. Or as one character puts it, “The world is so dark right now.”

But it isn’t always obvious to those living in it. Copywriters goof around at work. Peggy and a young colleague jokingly coo the names “Marsha” and “John” at each other, an oblique nod to Stan Freberg, an ad writer and comedian who had a huge hit in 1951 with a recorded single, “John & Marsha,” a soap opera parody in which actors intone the words “John” and “Marsha” over and over to organ music.

Don has dinner at Jimmy’s La Grange, a Midtown restaurant favored by advertising executives where chicken à la Kiev is a specialty, and diners are given bibs to protect them from the splatter of butter.

Those kinds of oblique references tether the fictional world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to the real advertising world of those times. That’s partly professional pride on the part of the writers, who dread complaints from old ad executives. Emeritus “mad men” can be as finicky and exacting about the historical details of their bygone days as Civil War re-enactors are about the uniforms worn at Bull Run.

But those cues also hold out the promise that the coming season will once again pivot the story on the workplace. It’s where “Mad Men” started and where it was best. A fresh start at the rat race is just what the series needs.

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