Thursday 22 March 2018

Moving with the times, they lost the plot

FOR some, Mad Men, the drama about a fictional 1960s advertising company, was all about great suits. Articles often focused on the style of the show: the dapper costumes, the crisp period decor, the smooth columns of cigarette smoke and, of course, Christina Hendricks' bosom (at one time I expected Hendricks' bosom to get its own spin-off show, such was the media interest in it.)

This would annoy me. "Can't they see!" I'd whine (imagine me whining with a cigarette in one hand, a glass of bourbon in the other and wearing a well-cut suit). "Mad Men is actually about urban loneliness and ennui!"

I was right goddamnit! Behind the gloss Mad Men was about unhappy people locked into socially sanctioned roles (housewife, breadwinner, mother, secretary, boss). Then, for added irony, they had to take those roles and sell them back to the public as advertising.

There was no nostalgia in Mad Men. You might get a vicarious thrill from the bad behaviour of womaniser-in-chief Don Draper (Jon Hamm), and you might want to have his tailor, but you'd have to be a real mad man to actually want to be him.

And so the first two seasons of the programme featured some of the best drama ever made. Along with The Wire and The Sopranos, it forms part of the holy trinity of a US telly renaissance.

And it was completely different from those other shows. While The Sopranos was a Shakespearian tale about an amoral, soliloquising gangster and The Wire was Dickensian social commentary, Mad Men episodes were structured like classic American short stories.

They were minute character studies of people trapped by social expectations and their own neuroses into a world of shameful pasts, hidden pregnancies, functional alcoholism and marital abuse.

Nobody ever explained themselves. They smoked, brooded, stared out windows and made terrible choices. But, much like, I suspect, real people in the early 1960s, they rarely told anyone why. The characters were as hard to fathom as figures in an Edward Hopper painting.

Don the dishy, hard-drinking, advertising genius with a secret past was the star, but the most interesting characters were the women -- ambitious secretary Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), canny office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks) and depressed wife Betty (January Jones).

Episodes explored Peggy's humiliations in a male-dominated world, Joan's obsession with obsolete codes of femininity and chain-smoking Betty's dissatisfaction with her picture-book life (one episode ended with her picturesquely deploying a firearm).

It was enthralling stuff, while it lasted. But then the 1960s themselves changed the characters and the programme's dynamic. They started to open up. They started to explain themselves.

When they did, it turned out that they weren't half as interesting as we thought they were. In the third and fourth series, Don, formerly taciturn, began bending Peggy's ear with his problems ("Shut up Don!" I shouted with surprising regularity).

Peggy made beatnik friends. Creepy but perky Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) had a supportive wife with whom he could scheme. Peggy and Joan bantered about their colleagues, and Roger Sterling (John Slattery), always the most voluble character, wrote a book about himself (Sterling's Gold).

To make matters worse, at the end of the third series the main characters all banded together to form a new company with the slick camaraderie of Ocean's 11. This, I suppose, is what happens when good short-story characters have to sustain a never-ending television drama -- they're expected to have a plan ... like The A-Team.

This sad decline was inevitable, but now that we know all about Don's secret past, his stylish womanising seems more like soapy melodrama than the product of a mysterious existential funk. In the early series I'd look at Don moodily smoking a cigarette and seducing a lady, and I'd wonder "What is he thinking?" Now I know it's: "Yum! Cigarettes!" and "I really want to have sex with this lady."

Don's real secret, it turns out, is that he's no different from any other selfish, mildly depressed man having an extended midlife crisis. The Mad Man is really just a Sad Man, and the programme is compensating by turning into a period soap opera.

It's basically Heartbeat now. I still watch it, but when in the final episode of the last series Don Draper suddenly ends up inexplicably engaged to his pretty new secretary I didn't wonder why. I just thought: "You know ... that really is a nice suit."

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