As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Mad Men – Season 1 (spoiler free)

Posted by Hedwig on August 11, 2008

What’s this I see? A new post at the fruit stand? Yes, indeed it is. And get used to it: I just handed in the pre-final version of my thesis, and in a mere two weeks I will be officially and unambiguously graduated, which means the blog should pick up steam again. I’ve got a lot of grand things planned. But first…

The back of Don Draper’s head is a fascinating thing. Or rather: it’s fascinating how Mad Men manages to keep you mesmerized, trying to guess what’s going on in that marvelously shaped head. It’s not just that Draper has a secret – though it’s obvious that he has many, and watching them floating to the surface is part of the appeal. But he’s a man you want to figure out, even if he doesn’t always seem to have figured himself out yet. He’s a true mystery: an asshole but not without feelings, seductive but truly messed up, complex and flawed in a way we luckily see more and more in the protagonists of TV shows (see also: Dexter, House, The Sopranos, etc.)

For the uninitiated: Mad Men is a show about ad executives in the 60s. More specifically, the first season takes place between March and November 1960. Don Draper is a creative director. He seems to have it all: success at his job, a lovely wife, two cute kids, a hot, no-strings-attached mistress, a seemingly bottomless bottle of scotch in his office. But he’s unsatisfied, as you can tell from the first time you see him. He’s unfulfilled.

The marvel of Mad Men is that aside from a fascinating protagonists, it has a world densely populated with equally interesting side-characters. Take Don’s underlings. There’s the weasly Pete, sneaky and cruel, but also put-upon and with dark fantasties. There’s Paul, who seems to be the nicest of them but eventually isn’t. Then Ken, who seems rather flavorless at first but has hidden talents. And Harry: the only married one, who lived vicariously through the exploits of the others… but gets a storyline of his own. Then the two partners at the firm: barefeet Cooper, who worships Ayn Rand, and delivers one of the most satisfying lines in the entire season (you’ll know it when you see it), and Roger Sterling, who, as played by John Slattery, is the guy you love despite knowing better. And I haven’t even mentioned art director Salvatore, who is mostly in the background but who has one absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking scene.

But you know, there are quite a few shows with strong, interesting male characters. Rarer is one which offer not just one or two, but a whole plethora of interesting women. The casual sexism of the 50s is on permanent display here, but that doesn’t mean the makers take part in it. Our eyes to this world, especially in the beginning, are those of Peggy, the new secretary with more ambition than just landing a husband. She’s lead around by Joan, a voluptuous red-head who knows just how to use her sexuality as a weapon and knows how to “win” the war of the sexes…but doesn’t get that society might be changing. Betty, Don’s wife, seems a spoiled child at first, lovely to look at but rather dumb and dull, but you’d be surprised at what lurks in her pretty little head. Meanwhile, Don’s mistress, Midge, is a true modern woman (for as much as that was possible in that time) with an artistic temperament who smokes pot and hangs around in the village. Then there’s Rachel Menken, a succesful, but lonely, Jewish businesswoman. There are more: Pete’s wife Trudy; Hildy, another secretary; Betty’s neighbors Helen – a divorcee – and Francine, played by the wonderful Anne Dudek (almost unrecognizable if you only know her from House).

This is becoming more a list than a review. But it is to make a point: I could write a paragraph, probably even a page on each of them. While many of them are rooted in caricature – one of the shows pleasures is the slight winking it does at us from behind its impeccable period surface – each of them is fleshed out, and we are constantly giving hints that there is more going on. What’s more: one of the show’s strengths is that the makers don’t feel the need to show us everything. They trust that we can infer what happened in between events. They trust us so much, even, that season 2 (which I’ll start on soon) jumps forward 14 months in time. Because of this, we automatically know that there’s more than meets the eye.

Mad Men is not a show of big emotions, of huge emotions. It’s a show more about the characters than the events, without big cliffhangers. It’s not a show to burn through because you cannot wait to see what happens next. Instead, it’s a show to savor. Like a bundle of short stories, you want to digest each episode, let it sink in. You want to reflect, for instance, on how beautifully the conflict between Don  (the self-made man) and Pete (the pampered rich kid) parallels and contrasts with the Nixon/Kennedy election that is happening in the background of that same episode. Or remember the beautiful, subversive image of Betty in a nightgown, a cigarette dangling from her lips, a shotgun in her hands. It’s a show that you want to absorb fully from the awesome opening credits, and which makes the song playing over the end credits sound like you’ve never heard it before – “Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright” might be a tad anachronistic for the season finale (it came out in 1963), but it fit so well you’d think it was written just for it.

I think I’ll buy the first season, actually, come to think about it. And not just for the cool Zippo-shaped package. Also just to spend a few more hours trying to get inside Don Drapers head.

P.S. I know I am ridiculously enthusiastic about every TV show I write about. This is not because I’m so uncritical, but mostly because I write only about the TV shows I love. I watch plenty of mediocre to fairly good shows (In Plain Sight, the Closer, the Big Bang Theory, Bones, Reaper… Even Gossip Girl, though I actually think that is a fabulous show if you look at it the right way), I just don’t feel compelled to write about them. This is mainly a movie blog, after all, and I make exceptions just for the good stuff.

6 Responses to “Mad Men – Season 1 (spoiler free)”

  1. For months and months, Mad Men has been the show I keep hearing about and hearing about, and until five minutes ago I didn’t know what the darned series was, except I could tell it was a “period series,” which I find interesting unto itself. Ad execs in 1960?

    Thanks for the information, Hedwig. This is a series that I will have to catch up with on DVD.

  2. Kaj said

    I like that you write about good TV shows as well as films. As a matter of fact, your piece on Pushing Daisies will have me checking it out when it will be aired in The Netherlands this month, and your piece on Californication made me reconsider watching a show that I had dismissed after two episodes, and I thank you for that. And thanks to this, I will finish the final five episodes of Mad Mens first season. I watched it when the BBC broadcast it, but found myself caring less and less about most of the male characters. Don Draper and his secrets and indiscretions did interest me, but I wasn’t fascinated.

    Pete was ok, but mostly because I was surprised what a subtle actor Vincent Kartheiser, because after his always angsty & angry stint on Angel I didn’t think there was much to him as an actor. The rest of the male characters I hardly even remember, except for that one greyhaired guy, and it hasn’t been that long.

    Some of the female characters, the male-female relations and the sexism of the 60’s, the constant smoking and drinking (you don’t see a lot of that on TV anymore, especially since The Sopranos ended), in or out of office, and the gorgeous design kept me going for a while. But if, like me, you don’t care much for most of the characters, there’s not much to Mad Men, because there’s hardly a story to speak of. So why will I pick up where I left off the first time? That second image you posted. I really want to see how she gets from what I remember her to be to that place she is in that picture. And besides that, apparently I’ve missed some things you’ve described above. So thanks for another TV recommendation.

    By the way, if you want more shows “Like a bundle of short stories”, I suggest The Wire, although it’s perhaps more fitting to compare each season to a novel. Should you decide to watch it sometime, I’ve sorta got the first season on DVD, which you could borrow.

  3. Sam Juliano said

    I must confess I have not seen this, and have evinced no interest either. But then again, I rarely am able to see much on television, with all the other obsessions. Still I am happy to see you posting and will look forward to your next film thread.

  4. Best. Television. Show. On. Tv. Right. Now.

    I absolutely adore the show as well.

  5. Kaj said

    Ok, so I’ve watched the remainder of the season… and it was absolutely brilliant, with a fantastic Sopranos like ending. Can’t imagine why I ever stopped watching. Thanks again Hedwig.

  6. My DVD-box set of season 1 finally arrived today, I’m so thrilled. And season 2 starts on SA TV soon. Woot.

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