Friday, October 15, 2010

On ‘Mad Men’ the Thrills Are All in the Office

The New York Times
October 14, 2010

Risky behavior is the organizing principle of “Mad Men,” an immorality play built around those bad habits of the 1960s that we now try to abjure: drinking, smoking, promiscuity, and racial and sexual prejudice.

And the fourth season, which comes to a close on Sunday on AMC, wallowed in the ugly consequences. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), no longer so suave, drank and smoked until he got sick, staggering around his office with vomit stains on his shirt. An office manager’s night of adulterous passion put her in an abortionist’s office. A bohemian artist who enjoyed free love with Don in Season 1 was ready to sell herself to him in Season 4 to support her heroin addiction. The button-down executive who dared to flaunt his love for a black cocktail waitress was beaten by his own father.

All these downers couldn’t be helped, really. When a seductively dark show gets into a fourth season, there is no place to go but down and darker still.

Yet a livelier drumbeat lightened all that bleak melodrama about a blighted era tumbling out of control. And that was, of all things, office work: the chances that Don and his colleagues at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce took to succeed in the cutthroat and volatile world of advertising.

And even more than the mid-60s allure — Eero Saarinen chairs, Beatlemania, hair-sprayed flips — it’s the water-cooler brinkmanship that makes “Mad Men” so unusual and so engrossing.

Particularly now, in this recessionary era of telecommuting, work-life balance and freelance assignments, corporate ambition and company loyalty are a faded memory, if not a joke. “Mad Men” channels an earlier ethos when the rat race still felt like an open competition. This season, even more than last, the show became a workplace drama in which promotions, pink slips and client meetings were packed with emotion and suspense.

Most serious shows feel the need to raise the stakes of employment to matters of life and death. It’s why “House” is set in a hospital, not a dentist’s office; “The Good Wife” celebrates criminal defense lawyers, not accountants; and “The West Wing” showcased the White House, not a California congressional district.

Workplace comedies, on the other hand, are a pillar of television. Sitcoms like “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Cheers” and “The Office” mine the humor of staff meetings and annual retreats precisely because they are so amusingly unimportant. Even cable dramas that defy network rules cling to extreme scenarios. “Dexter,” after all, is about a serial killer, and the protagonists on “The Big C” and “Breaking Bad” have terminal cancer.

Little that happens in Don’s office in the Time & Life Building is a matter of life and death, not even the demise of his secretary, Miss Blankenship (Randee Heller), who collapsed face first on her desk. “She died like she lived,” Roger Sterling (John Slattery) muttered. “Surrounded by the people she answered phones for.”

That death was put in not for poignancy but as a fillip of comic relief in an episode fraught with tension over the Fillmore Auto Parts account and a leftist writer who rattles Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) with a denunciation of the advertising business entitled “Nuremberg on Madison Avenue.”

“Mad Men” finds all kinds of drama in a gray flannel ecosphere.

The most shocking moment so far, perhaps more shattering even than the assassination of President Kennedy last season, pivoted on the defection of the firm’s main client, Lucky Strike.

It was so momentous a loss that Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) left the maternity ward while his wife was in labor to deal with the calamity. The partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce summoned the entire staff for an announcement as somber as a declaration of war. Don was asked to add a reassuring word to the troops.

“We’re going to push ourselves shoulder to shoulder,” he said grimly. “And it will be exhilarating.”

And actually, it was. The more interesting developments this season didn’t happen in the bar or the bedroom, but in the conference room and at the drafting table. Roger Sterling’s insouciance slipped for once. He fought the firm’s efforts to woo Honda out of loyalty to his comrades who died in the Pacific during World War II. Don came up with a Potemkin television commercial that tricked a rival firm into spending vital resources. And the high point may well be his shoot-the-moon strategy to finesse the Lucky Strike blow.

And the best relationships in that contentious and unforgiving world were forged in office crises. Pete, who began the series as a Sammy Glick opportunist, manned up this season and took the blame for losing a defense industries account to protect Don’s secret past.

Even Don’s big romance this season was a work thing: he got involved with Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono), a smoothly competent market research consultant. Her allure is two-fold — she’s a smart, beautiful blonde and can throw accounts his way.

Don’s real best friend is an employee, Peggy, a former secretary whom he didn’t sleep with but did promote to copywriter. They quarrel about ad copy but share a deep bond forged in protecting each other’s secrets. And they both live for their work. Even though she is still fighting through a thick wall of office sexism, Peggy’s love of the business keeps trumping her efforts to find true love.

“I know what I’m supposed to want,” Peggy told Don after her boyfriend dumped her for choosing to spend her birthday working on the Samsonite account. “But it just never feels right or as important as anything in that office.”

And this season, she was right.

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