Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Mad Men

Given the fact that I am one of the faddiest people on the face of the earth, it may come as no surprise to learn that I gunned the entire first season of Mad Men this weekend. The show, which screened on AMC in the US, has been in the news of late because the show's creator (a creation which by all accounts he runs like a mini totalitarian state, micro-managing every last detail) Matthew Weiner has been holding out for an alleged $6 million a year to continue with a further two series. I'm glad AMC and Lionsgate who produced the show, acquiesced because this really is top notch television.

However, before I go off on one, there are a couple of salient points that need to be made. Yes, the show looks amazing. The costumes are wonderful, and often, the joy is in the details. In one episode, the show's leading male, the mysterious Don Draper (played well, but not astoundingly I thought by Jon Hamm) is given a new pair of cuff links by Rachel Menken, to replace his own shoddy ones which keep falling out in a meeting. Menken is the daughter of a Jewish department store owner whose business needs a new lease of life, and who approach Sterling Cooper to provide that. For an ad firm, this is mid level work. These are not big clients. Instead, they are parochial and quaint. These cuff links, two planes, become symbolic of the sort of work Draper should be getting with companies like Pan Am, work that he is offered and turns down when he is approached by Jim Hobart of rival firm McCann Erickson. This is by far the most cleverly constructed episode in the series. In a clever way, it is Menken's gift of two little airplane cuff links, and Draper's subsequent attraction to her, that make it clear he will never take the McCann Erickson job. Why? Well it is exactly because Don Draper, for all of his Manhattan swagger, is quaint and parochial, and the flighty, head-in the clouds gift of the cuff links is given to him by Rachel Menken, someone who is similarly mundane, with one eye on the future and the other securely on the hoserie business on Second Avenue which her father turned into Menken's Department store on Fifth Avenue. These two are one of a kind. Far more so than Draper and his wife Betty.

January Jones, who plays Betty Draper has been getting a lot of attention for her part on the show. Admittedly, most of this has centred on how beautiful she is - which is of course true - but little has focused on how wonderfully she has played the part of Betty Draper. Sure, there were some awkward moments, her wobbly hands in the first few episodes, and her humping the washing machine (would someone that beautiful really only get any loving from household apparatus or is something else being hinted at here?), but her ability to absorb criticism with a glint of a smile, to bow her head whilst fluttering her eyebrows, and to wholeheartedly capture the difficult female position of being subservient and alluring, made her performance stand out.

Nonetheless, the best performance in the show, and also my favourite character HAS to be Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway, the Sterling Cooper office manager. Acting almost like a sexed-up one woman Greek chorus, Hendricks is our initial introduction to the world of Madison Avenue advertising, but also the epicentre of calm around which the incessant activites of drinking, smoking and fucking revolve. It seems, more so than any other character, that she has fully intuited the existential nightmare that lurks behind every character's psyche, choosing less to ignore it, but instead run with it come hell or high water. She also has the best clothes, hair, and lines.

This is not however, faultless TV. Don Draper was an arresting lead, but was it just me or did we feel like Bertram Cooper was right when he said he couldn't care less about Draper's past. The flashbacks used to elucidate this "mystery" looked cheap and tacky, and utterly incongruous with the rest of the show. Similarly, although most of the writing was excellently researched and choreographed, I couldn't help thinking that the sheer gusto with which some of those lines were delivered made it all look a bit 'acted' so to speak. I also felt that once the point was made that they were all partial to a drink and a fag, it never really reached its natural conclusion. Consistency is of course something to be aimed for, but I at times felt this could possibly be an example of a fabricated consistency? Forgive me if I am wrong, becuase there is on the whole, very little to fault. The framing device of the Kennedy/Nixon election worked wonderfully, as did the inclusion of important ads of the time like Doyle Dane Bernbach's Lemon Ad for the Volkswagen Beetle. The ensemble acting is generally excellent, and I can't express how very genuine this looked. Although some of the scenes set outside Manhattan did tend to feel a bit Desperate Housewife-y, that is probably because Desperate Housewives is a direct throwback to that 1950/60s manner of suburban living. To lampoon Desperate Housewives is to praise Mad Men, and for that alone we should give praise.

Companion Piece: Catch Me If You Can
The same aesthetic, with a daring storyline, a chutzpah-heavy performance from Di Caprio, and even a pithy part for the WONDERFUL Amy Adams.

Non-Companion Piece: Revolutionary Road
This heavy-weight paring of Di Caprio and Winslet (their first time together since Titanic), directed by the ingenue of American suburbia, Sam Mendes, this is a long, self-indulgent snore fest, that starts poorly, and ends depressingly. Very similar aesthetic, but none of the charm.

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