Sunday, August 3, 2008

TV Droppings: Mad about the "Men"

When Mad Men debuted over a year ago on American Movie Classics, the buzz was largely over its authentic atmosphere, and the fact that it was AMC's first scripted original series. I missed its first run, but when it was rerun a few months later, I caught up with it. I can't say I fell in love, but it did become interesting enough to me that I watched its first season of 13 episodes (that used to be called a miniseries, but in Cableland, it's a full season).

Mad Men definitely benefits from a second viewing, as I found out this week. Season 2 has begun, but before I leaped into the new episodes, I took the time to check out Season 1 again. Do you think I have too much time on my hands?

Via my cable company's On Demand channel, I ordered up episode 1 of Season 1, and became certifiably hooked. Two episodes a day, and I've completed the entire first season, much of which I did not recall from last year's viewing, and I'm well into the new season as well.

Mad Men is this year's critical darling, sweeping the Emmy nominations and making some history for cable programs. While last year, I enjoyed the detailed attention paid to the mis-en-scene of the series (1960 Manhattan), this time I caught much more of the subtleties going on in this story of Madison Avenue ad men and their lives.

Ad agency Sterling-Cooper is no McMann & Tate. The guys booze it up at all hours, Bloody Marys are served at morning client meetings, and each and every character lights up a cigarette in each and every scene.

The atmosphere created by the series is so evocative, I found myself watching most of the episodes with a Virgin Mary (with salt!) at my side. You just have to.

The show is a definite ensemble piece, but it does have a leading man in Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, a flawed mid-level executive with real personality issues. I can't recall a more unheroic leading man in a series: he cheats on his wife with a bohemian artist, then cheats on her with a wealthy client. He lies about his past, his present, and even his name. He's a coward, an army deserter, and turns his back on the little brother who finds him, causing his suicide. What a guy!

...if a guy looks that good in a tux, we'll forgive him almost anything...

A young actress with the unlikely name of January Jones is playing our hero's dutiful wife, with a coolness so chilly you need a sweater to watch. Really, this is one of those performances that took me many episodes to appreciate. For a long while, I thought this actress simply wasn't doing anything. But as such things often do, she crept up on me, and when her breakout scene arrived at least two thirds through the first season (shooting her neighbor's pet pigeons with a BB gun), I bought it. This is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She's nuts.

You've never heard of most of this show's cast, though one or two faces will be familiar. The series's female lead (at least, she's getting top billing over the other women in the opening credits), is Elizabeth Moss, who spent some time playing the president's daughter in The West Wing. Here is another actress that took several episodes to warm up. For a while, I thought her interpretation of the mousy secretary was pretty one-note, but as the season progressed, she started to shine, just as her career took an unexpected path (and her ethics, a downward turn).

As almost always happens with me, I found myself attracted more to the supporting characters than to the leads. I suppose that stems from the fact that I am usually more comfortable playing supporting roles myself. At any rate, there are two real standouts in this large cast, and they dominate every scene in which they appear.

John Slattery is one of the strongest character men currently working in Hollywood, and he's had a pretty impressive year. He played one of the Desperate Housewives's husbands for a season, but was written off when his character was skewered by a flying picket fence during a tornado. Gotta love the realism on that show, right? But Slattery's tour de force performance of the year was on Mad Men. His portrayal of Roger Sterling is a subtle triumph; with only a flick of his cigarette ash, he creates a fascinating study of the hard-living, hard-drinking, womanizing head honcho, the boss everyone loves to hate. And hates to love. His chemistry with series star Jon Hamm is fraught with tension and palpable, conflicting emotions. Their surface camaraderie masks a wary suspicion, clearly evidenced in the episode in which Sterling, tipsily lowering his guard, flirted with Draper's wife. With cool, treacherous resolve, our hero manipulated a shattering humiliation for his boss; it was season 1's finest episode. And the most ewww inducing...

Slattery is up for an Emmy, and should win. And not just for that scene with the, um, reappearing oysters.

For my money, the standout performance in the series is being given by Christina Hendricks as office manager Joan Holloway. Dressed to accentuate the curves which were regarded as highly attractive in those years before Twiggy, she sails through the secretarial pool like a luxurious yacht. Her purr is both seductive and predatory, yet reveals a soft soul. It's a beautiful, painful portrait of the working girl of the era.

Other supporting actors of Mad Men have their moments, particularly Vincent Kartheiser as squirrelly Pete Campbell, and Broadway vet Bryan Batt as closeted art director Sal Romano. Here's a picture of the two actors at last year's wrap party, obviously heady with the success of their show:

The creators of Mad Men have afforded us theatrical types a private joke in the casting of Robert Morse as Bert Cooper, the senior partner of the ad agency. Morse's career was launched (and arguably, peaked) when he played the young corporate climber in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in the early 60s, the exact period in which Mad Men is set. 45 years later, he's returned to the era to play the elder executive; it feels like a sly wink and a nod to those of us who are aware of this actor's history.

The second season of this remarkable series is off to a good start, ratings-wise, and its record-breaking number of Emmy nominations (more than any other drama this year, unique for a basic cable series) is already adding more buzz. I often avoid shows with that kind of buzz (I didn't catch up with The Sopranos until season 3), but I hope all the hype means we'll be watching the Mad Men of Sterling Cooper for some time to come. Shake up a martini and join the fun!