Friday, July 20, 2007

Mad Men: Smoke gets in your eyes

Spoilers for the debut of "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I smoke up a pack of Old Golds...

Well, that was fun, wasn't it? I mean, there's some problem with subtlety from time to time (gay Salvatore butching it up at the burlesque club, the Nixon/Kennedy and Xerox jokes), and I know I wasn't the only critic who was confused at first when AMC asked us not to spoil the ending with January Jones (since we didn't think it was surprising enough to qualify as a twist), but beyond that... pure coolness.

I spent a while with Matthew Weiner at AMC's press tour party (a swinging affair at the Friar's Club, with Jeff Goldblum and his jazz band playing songs from 1960), and when I mentioned that I hadn't seen a particular episode, he smiled and said, "You're gonna love it. It's about time travel." I cocked my head, raised my eyebrows and tried to figure out whether he'd had a few too many Old Fashioneds, or if he was taking the show into David Lynch territory.

But when I finished the episode in question, I understood what he meant. Where some shows set in the past can't help but feel like it's a bunch of actors playing dress-up, "Mad Men" made me feel like I was getting a glimpse of what New York of that era really looked, sounded and smelled like.

It helps that, with the exceptions of Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery, I don't have much of a history watching these actors, so I didn't spend a lot of time admiring how the hair and makeup people had transformed them. (From what little I remember of Connor-era "Angel," Vincent Kartheiser is unrecognizable as Pete the account rep weasel.) But there's a real commitment to period detail: the clothes, the hairstyles and, especially, the cigarettes and attitudes.

The two come together in the opening scene, where we meet our hero Don Draper (Jon Hamm, looking like he's on his way to audition for "Superman") working on an ad campaign for Lucky Strikes, now that the government has ruled that tobacco companies can't promote their products as healthy. He asks a black waiter named Sam why Sam smokes Old Golds; Sam's not used to rich white customers trying to engage him in conversation, and Sam's boss automatically assumes Sam is harassing Don. (Because even in 1960 Manhattan, why would a man like Don want to talk to a man like Sam?) Don waves the boss away without exactly getting indignant on the black waiter's behalf, and the two men talk tobacco. Sam explains that he smokes Old Gold because that's what they gave him in the Army (an early crossover between government and corporate marketing interests), and as they banter back and forth, he mentions that his wife wants him to give up smoking because of an article she read in Reader's Digest, Sam and Don both laughing at how ladies just love their magazines. Don scans the crowd and sees men and women of all ages (but one color) smoking and laughing, and he wonders why he can't feel as happy as they all look.

Give me a great opening scene(*) and I'll stick with a show through a lot of faults. "Deadwood," for instance, had that amazing sequence where Bullock holds off a lynch mob so he can hang a horse thief under the banner of law, and because of that, I didn't get too worked up that I was having trouble keeping track of all the characters for the next few episodes. The "Mad Men" intro is so perfect in the way it takes you into its world and lays out all the series' key themes -- marketing, casual racism and sexism, the ennui that can come even when you have it all -- that I'll forgive the copier joke, or the fact that I figured out Don was married as soon as Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt, who was the best thing about "Standoff") suggests she'd make a good ex-wife.

(*) A kick-ass title sequence helps, and "Mad Men" has one, that sequence of Don's silhouette falling through various idealized illustrations of late '50s life before winding up seated in an art deco chair, his back turned to us, a cigarette dangling from his hand. Weiner says the idea came from director Alan Taylor, who took a look at Hamm and said, "Have you seen the back of this man's head? Have you seen what that is, what presence that is? Who is this person, this mystery?" (Note that the first time we see the flesh and blood Don, it's from that same vantage point.)

There's a lot to digest here, a lot of characters to meet, a lot of casually offensive dialogue to adjust to (I'm fond of Don telling Rachel Menken, "I'm not going to let a woman talk to me like this," but almost every line uttered by Pete and his cronies does the same trick), and Weiner uses the patented pilot device of My First Day At The New Job to smooth the transition, turning Moss's Peggy into our eyes and ears -- at least until she winds up inviting the engaged Pete into her apartment, the aftermath of which I'm grateful we didn't have to see nor hear.

I could go on for a while here, but I've got a press tour to cover, and I already wrote a thousand or so words about the show in yesterday's column, so I'll hit a few minor points and then turn it over to you.

  • Though a few characters come across as very broad here, I've now seen the first four episodes, and if the Pete spotlight in episode four is any indication, Weiner's going to get around to plumbing everyone's hidden depths by the end of the season.
  • "It's Toasted" was an actual Lucky Strikes slogan, but one that dates back to 1917. Over the run of the series, Weiner's going to be playing a little loose with this area, using actual brands but either inventing new campaigns or giving Don credit for other men's work.
  • Nice to see John Cullum as the Lucky Strikes boss, the first of some very cool guest-casting that the series will use. (Also, did you catch Mel from "Flight of the Conchords" as one of the switchboard operators? She's the one in the middle.)
  • I really loved Peggy's visit to the judgemental, chain-smoking gynecologist. Just thought that warranted mention.
What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

I was very impressed. Good subject matter and several interesting characters so far. I really found myself caught up with the scenery and style like the first time watching Deadwood. The clothes and hairstyles looked dead on and Alan you nailed the pt. about believing you were there.

Only 1 negative comment is that I felt it was a little slow in some parts. It really doesn't bother me too much. It's just when you have to go to commercial after some slow scenes I can imagine loosing members of the audience. And a lot of ppl. judge a show in a few minuites.

Alan do you know how many episodes there will be for the 1st season?

Alan Sepinwall said...

13 episodes, including last night's.

afoglia said...

I'm going to withhold any final judgment for a few weeks. I didn't like it, but I didn't hate it either. From a writer of The Sopranos, Don Draper seems too much like a classical (nearly) flawless hero.

The secretaries seem the most interesting characters so far. I worry that the show, like most period shows, will become about how the times were changing and the world where these men were king would never be the same™. The secretaries story is at least a slightly less common perspective.

Vincent Kartheiser was the weakest link, showing the same uncomfortable acting he displayed in "Angel." By the time the bachelor party scene rolled around, I was hoping the writers would work with it and make him a serial killer or rapist. Ironically, his best scene was the last, when he was drunk. Hopefully the upcoming Pete episode you mention will deal with that dichotomy.

I'll stick with it though. Once the writers introduce us to all the characters, and the characters become characters, not just archetypes, it should be better.

Kensington said...

I noticed that kind of creepy/kind of cute woman who plays the Flight of the Conchords's one fan as one of the telephone operators and was surprised at how happy I was to see her on Mad Men. She must have a way with getting under a viewer's skin, I guess.

Overall, I was interested enough to keep watching, which is a little annoying because I really don't want to add more TV viewing to my schedule, but there's so much good stuff! The casual sexism struck me the most, especially in the gynecologist's office.

R.A. Porter said...

I'd have to disagree with Anthony about Kartheiser (who, I'm embarrassed to admit, I didn't even recognize): I thought his awkwardness played well. He reminded me a lot of a young Dave Foley. Mind you, a craven misogynistic self-loathing Dave Foley.

And I quite liked the pace of the show. The long cuts and theatrical pace made it feel more like a show that might have aired at the dawn of the '60s.

Anonymous said...

I was more or less blown away by the show, which instantly climbs atop my summer schedule. I'm looking forward to knowing these characters more intimately, but in the meantime, the show does a wonderful job with ambience. It's just so shocking to see an office setting where everyone smokes and drinks highballs and Bloody Marys, and sexual harrassment is a matter of course. I also appreciate how all that is starting to change, too, and how these men are ill-equipped to handle it.

And on AMC, of all places. What a Golden Age we're in when great shows like these can appear so far afield on our cable line-up.

R.A. Porter said...

Sadly Scott, I think it's a dark age. I'm thrilled that AMC can have a show of this quality, just as I'm happy to watch USA or SciFi for great tv. What sucks is that without these channels "so far afield on our cable lineup" we'd all be stuck watching America's Next Amazing Race to be the Top Chef for the American Idol Runner-up or something.

These channels get to show great television because more and more the nets are opting not to. Quick count: how many new sitcoms are on NBC's schedule next year?

Anonymous said...

I thought it was excellent. I found myself immediately drawn into this world, unapologetic about its characters yet they're oddly sympathetic, too, even Pete: when he's at Peggy's doorstep he seems less concerned about another notich in his belt but instead desperately wanting a human connection that's all his own, and not borne of his ambition.

Jon Hamm really knocked it out of the park, though. He's a hugely charismatic leading man.

Anonymous said...

Jon Hamm has got that crazy haunted something, for sure. Watching his eyes go dead while the rest of his face fakes happy is one of the guilty pleasures of the show.

Abbie said...

Thanks for pointing this one out to us, Alan! I really love midcentury modern styling, and this is a feast for the eyes. But the script and the acting is also pretty great, and I'm looking forward to watching the rest of it.

I have to admit that I was surprised by the ending.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit I was only half watching certain parts and had to rewatch the open. As always, I have no idea of half the characters' names or positions.

But my biggest question is - what was that with Zoe Bartlett letting Connor in to find his pen? Did we see that? Or was there something stolen he said that we should have gleaned that from?

Pam (remembering my name)

afoglia said...

anonymous wrote, "But my biggest question is - what was that with Zoe Bartlett letting Connor in to find his pen? Did we see that?"

No, we didn't. Otherwise it would weaken the surprise of Pete taking out the report at the meeting. (Up until Don confronted the secretary I was suspecting the person who wrote the report lied about there only being one copy and was responsible.)

Anonymous said...

ah, so the part I missed was him pulling out the report.
must watch more closely. (more closely than reading my email while listening)



Anonymous said...

I love this show. Just amazing altogether. Second episode was a bit dull, but I heard the critics thought so as well, so I looking forward to the third episode. I am a woman and not at all offended by this show, like so many other seems to be. I prefer the truth infront of political correct shows. Besides, it´s done well.
I must disagree with Victor Karthaiser(?) being a weak link. For me, he was really a standout. The character doesn´t seem so confident how to behave and therefor overdo it. I think he will be entertaining.

Anonymous said...

I finally got around to watching the first two eps today.

Loved it.

The gynecologist scene made me so very, very happy I was born in '71, and that my internist is a woman....

And Connor as Pete? I had no idea! I thought he looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place him. Wow.

Isabel said...

I was surprised by the ending. I hope that doesn't make me look like a tool. I thought it was very cleverly done.

I'm going to keep watching and try to talk all of my friends into watching. (Too bad I couldn't get them to watch Veronica Mars. Jerks)

Anonymous said...

I love the show. Having lived through the '60s myself, it's a lot of fun to see again the clothes and furniture, and hear the banter. At the same time, the show offers an insightful and increasingly deeper view into the characters, who clearly are dealing and struggling with important issues, a la The Sopranos. The grit beneath the glitz if you will. And it's a great reminder of the progress we've made in PC-ness, if you view it as progress.


Anonymous said...

My only disappointment is that there are not more episodes and that we have to wait so long for Season II to start.

This show is a treasure. As a "vintage" viewer who remembers when good television shows actually existed and great actors were the exception, not the rule, "Mad Men" comes along to prove that history does repeat itself. You just have to have tremendous patience until it happens.
The show pulled me in after viewing only a minute or so of the opening scenes. The setting is a thoroughly convincing reproduction of 1960s corporate American ad execs. and the heavenly bodies that orbit around them. That would be secretaries, wives, telephone switchboard operators, mistresses... oh, you know the ones.

The overall effect that Mad Men had on me was one of tremendous relief that I've finally found the above-average quality show for which I have been patiently waiting for over four decades - ever since another real 1960s once-weekly soap-series caught my fancy. That was "Peyton Place."

I am grateful to Matt Weiner for allowing us to meet the rest of the big talent in Hollywood, including Mr. Weiner himself. I know the Sopranos are good and that he is behind that, too, but this show is GRRREAT in every way.

Anonymous said...

I tried to discern why the acting in this show is so extraordinary.

Each actor's expressions and mannerisms are cohesive and fluid. There is no stiffness, no wooden delivery of lines, and a refreshing absence of unnatural affect. The actors and actresses are able to seamlessly integrate their speech, facial expressions and body movements, a feat that eludes many modern performers.
My other observation concerns elocution. The actors speak clearly and with expression. There is a pleasant cadence in their words, and they speak their lines convincingly and naturally, another characteristic that is reminiscent of a bygone era.

I would love to see more quality acting such as the type demonstrated in Mad Men. What is the secret? Is the secret in the directing? Or is it in the producer's or casting director's keen eye for recognizing and assembling superior talent?

Anonymous said...

I haven't smoked for over 25 year but want a cigarette after watching this show!