Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Mad Men" Is Hitting Its Stride in Its Third Season

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

In my sixth column for WILDsound, back in 2007, I reviewed a new program called "Mad Men." I reread the article today, after watching the third episode of the show's third season (AMC, Sundays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern), and I was struck by how "Mad Men" has managed to grow into one of the very best shows on television, all while taking risks and evolving into completely new worlds. And how the show has done so in a subtle way that leaves the viewer feeling like not much has changed at all. That's no easy task.

In that early review I was overwhelmed by the flood of scenes meant to shock our 21st century sensibilities by showing how different things were in 1960 (for example, a gynecologist doing a vaginal exam with a cigarette hanging from his lips and warning his patient that she shouldn't become a "strumpet" because he has prescribed birth control pills for her), and while I noted how well-written and well-acted the episode was, I asked if the show would be able to get beyond the shock value and "wafer-thin plots" and sustain audience engagement over a longer period of time. After two seasons and three episodes, I think we can safely say the answer is a resounding "yes."

That's not to say that "Mad Men" still doesn't aim to unnerve its audience. Watching Betty Draper (January Jones) down whiskey while eight-plus months pregnant is hard to watch. And in what has to be one of the most shocking, daring and disturbing moments anyone will air on television this year, agency honcho Roger Sterling (John Slattery) sings "My Old Kentucky Home" to his new bride, Jane (Peyton List), at a party while in blackface (including crooning the line, "'Tis summer and the darkies are gay"). "Mad Men" constantly reminds us how different the world was in the early 1960s, but at the same time, how little has changed.

As interesting as the drama's bravery can be in revealing the darker side of recent American social history, show runner Matthew Weiner is equally brave in taking "Mad Men" on ever-new journeys. When the program started, the central plot element was watching Don use his life interactions (some seedier than others) to come up with his brilliant advertising ideas that, often, saved the day at the last possible moment. Now, in the third season, we rarely see Don generating ideas. In fact, in the third episode, which aired last Sunday, Don was off at Roger's party while secretary-turned-hotshot-copywriter Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) was forced to work on a last-minute assignment for Bacardi rum, with help from her fellow creatives Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) and Smitty (Patrick Cavanaugh), and her new secretary, the matronly Olive (Judy Kain). After Paul and Smitty decide to get stoned, and Peggy boldly insists on taking part, too, she is inspired on how to save the Bacardi campaign, something we would have seen Don do in the first season.

In fact, in many ways, this season has seen Peggy striving to become Don, in both good ways and bad, as she has become essentially a co-lead of the series. And we have followed Peggy's life adventures in the way we used to follow Don's (although we have seen Don stray from his marriage this season, with a flight attendant on a business trip to Baltimore). Peggy has picked up (and discarded) a one-night stand. As the third episode begins, we note (even though it is not explicitly mentioned) that she has canned her less-than-respectful secretary, Lola, in favor of Olive, and later, she firmly puts Olive in her place when she tries to scold Peggy for getting stoned with the guys. When Paul tells Peggy to get a blender they can use to make Bacardi drinks, Peggy immediately snaps back that he should get it himself (although she relents when he protests that he's eating, an orange half-peeled in his hand). Peggy's evolution has been one of the most satisfying story lines on the program. This season has picked up beautifully from last season's finale, when Peggy spurned Pete Campbell's (Vincent Kartheiser) declaration of love and told him about their child, a body blow considering how much trouble he and his wife were having conceiving a baby of their own.

Weiner has also been unafraid to uproot us after each season and jump the story forward in time, from 1960 to 1962 between the first two seasons, and then another year forward before this one. And as in-your-face as he can be with the early 1960s anachronisms, he is equally subtle in showing the passage of time. For example, in season two, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) sought and received permission to head a new television department at Sterling Cooper. Roger grants his request almost as an afterthought, and it takes Harry several episodes to earn the right to even hire one man to help (a great plot line that included Joan temporarily taking the job and excelling, only to have Harry and Roger not even consider her for the full-time position). This season, with no discussion, Harry is now a player, even being invited to Roger's party with heavy hitters like Don and new co-accounts heads Pete and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), all while Peggy, Paul and Smitty are left behind.

Even as the plot marches forward, "Mad Men" is more about its interactions than its overriding stories. In fact, in last Sunday's episode, on the surface, not much happened. Don, Pete, Harry and their wives (along with the stag Ken) go to Roger's party. Peggy, Smitty and Paul, with the help of Paul's old Princeton buddy Jeffrey (Miles Fisher), who is now a drug dealer, try and figure out what to do about Bacardi. At the Draper house, housekeeper Carla (Deborah Lacey) is stuck with Betty's Alzheimer's-stricken father, Gene (Ryan Cutrona), and the Draper kids, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and Bobby (Jared Gilmore), with the major drama being Gene's search for the $5 that we know Sally has stolen from him. And office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks) hosts a dinner party for two of her husband's medical superiors and their wives.

But despite the lack of big show-changing events, the episode was a riveting hour of television, with smaller moments ruling the day. Don's disdain of Roger comes to a head, first when he walks out during Roger's racist musical number (even though none of the other guests seem to mind, including Betty, who beams while listening), and later when Roger confronts Don on his surliness. Don's conversation with a wedding guest at the club (each found a desolate bar to escape their events), in which the two successful men admit to their more modest roots and disdain of the country club existence, was special. (I can't help wonder if Don was telling a tall tale or a true story when he told the older gentleman that when he parked cars at an upscale night club as a 15-year-old, he urinated in the guests' trunks when he had to go because he wasn't allowed to use the establishment's bathroom.) Peggy's chance meeting with a smitten older bachelor who wants to feel her pregnant belly was the kind of offbeat, nearly surreal scene that nearly no other current program could even attempt to pull off. When the two are introduced later, guilt hangs in the air, the two having shared an innocent moment that nevertheless felt intimate and illicit. It recalled Peggy's one-night stand in the back room of a bar in last season's finale.

A stoned Peggy's speech to her new secretary, nailing that Olive was more scared to work for a woman than she was worried about Peggy's future, was brilliant, both in the writing and Moss's performance. When Peggy leans in and says to Olive, "Don't worry about me. I am going to get to do everything you want me to do. I'm going to be fine. I really am," it's a "wow" moment.

Joan gamely playing the accordion and cooing a French song for her guests, despite her lack of practice, all to turn the attention away from the almost off-hand revelation that her slimy husband had screwed up at work, showed the power of Joan as a character and Hendricks as an actor. Knowing that her husband, threatened by Roger's money and power, raped Joan in Roger's office last year hung over the whole dinner party like an approaching storm. It was subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

Even in the lighter, more comedic scenes revolving around Peggy, Paul and Smitty getting high with Jeffrey, little factoids emerge. Jeffrey, jealous of Paul's set-up at Sterling Cooper (and, probably more importantly, impressed with Peggy), pokes a hole in Paul's hipster persona and accent, outing him as arriving at Princeton as a poor kid from Jersey in need of a scholarship. Similarly, as Don and Betty help the blitzed Jane to her seat, Jane drunkenly reveals that she knew of Don and Betty's separation (she was Don's secretary at the time), sending Betty into a bit of a tizzy, which may or may not have been resolved by the episode's final moment, Don and Betty's kiss in moonlight, with the camera at a respectful distance.

The way Weiner quietly and skillfully moves his characters around, and the moods he creates in doing so, is nothing short of masterful. The third episode didn't even overtly address the office drama of the first two episodes of the season, which largely revolved around the takeover of Sterling Cooper by a British agency. It didn't need to. As an audience, we were interested just the same.

Throw into the mix the show's almost fetishistic attention to period detail in its wardrobe and set-dressing, the uniformly pitch-perfect cast (including the guest turns), and the clever, dramatic writing, and "Mad Men" is nothing short of an American classic, in the same ballpark with some of the great plays and films of our time.

Now in its third season, the program is hitting its stride, even as its creator has deftly blown up so much of went before. The show cleaned up on Emmy nominations, and based on the steadily increasing ratings, more and more people are finding out what they've been missing with "Mad Men." All of the attention is well-deserved.

In my 2007 review, I spent a lot of time talking about Don as a potentially unsympathetic lead. But in 2009, I can't think of a group of characters with whom I'd rather spend an hour.