Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Mad Men

I'm hooked by the AMC series Mad Men. It's been well reviewed, this show about 1960 Madison Avenue advertising executives and their families, yet relatively few people have seen it. I can't say that I'm terribly surprised. Mad Men is easy to appreciate but difficult to like. The show is gorgeously designed and shot, a pleasure of television time travel by way of fashions, furniture, and decidedly un-PC language. A world that generally tolerated three martini lunches, the use of secretaries as sexual playthings, and backslapping anti-Semitism when wrapped up in grey flannel and dotted with cufflinks. The plots unfold and intertwine along a slow course, expanding beyond the office to the kinds of suburbs that Betty Friedan labeled "comfortable concentration camps." Secrets, lies, and the realities of class struggle rarely erupt in the kinds of quick beats that appeal to many of today's television viewers. Rather, the tensions and revelations of this show drip slowly in a series of odd surprises and quiet turns.

At the center of Mad Men is a charming but secretive family man, Don Draper, who regularly beds a downtown lover while returning home to his wife and family. Draper keeps much of his life a secret, such that his wife presumes that his secretary knows more about the man than she does. In one recent episode, Draper rides a train and reacts with quiet dread after a passenger calls him by another name. The protagonist possesses a secret past and a fake identity. Thereafter, his brother contacts him, asking why Don fled his old family and changed his name. Draper then returns home and unlocks a drawer in his desk, placing an unseen object into his briefcase. Is it a file? A photograph? A gun? He visits his brother's dingy apartment room and opens his case, the brother's back turned to him. I remember watching this scene unfold with a sense of grim foreboding. I was sure that Draper would gun his brother down so that his past life would not be exposed. Then the camera reveals what Draper brought: a stack of cash. After the initial shock of the scene's revelation, that this man would pay his brother off to leave New York and never return, I remember thinking: I wish I had such dramatic secrets (and I wish I wore such swell suits)!

That's part of the pleasure of this show. Mad Men recalls an odd and seemingly impossible time in which taciturn silence or clever evasion was preferred to our age of confession. Many of the characters in this show make supposedly grand pronouncements about their achievements, the sexual dalliances, their ambitions. But a deeper level of silence -- a shame that few people possess today -- animates this show. Set during a period of imminent social upheaval, Mad Men recalls an era of choice and change as all the old values, the apparently unassailable foundation of the world, had become so clearly on the brink of collapse. In this show, confidence masks turmoil that lurks below the collapsing facades of the coffee klatch and the boardroom and the overfilled ashtrays. It's not a perfect show, to be sure. None of the characters could be termed "likable," and the turning gyre of secrets may merely reveal only some banal truism. But Mad Men is better than any other new show I've seen this year. It's unique, assured, and well written. If you haven't seen it yet, I hope you'll take a look.

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