Book saga sequels aside, most film goers are looking for a two-hour experience. Some laughs, some shrieks, maybe even some crocodile tears.
But television works on a more intimate level. A great film is an expensive dinner at that restaurant you’ve been dying to get to. Great television is comfort food in your favorite chair. Meat loaf or macaroni n’ cheese. Leftover ziti?
I will not pretend to be a prolific tv viewer. I prefer a baseball game over most of what the networks are dishing out.
The comfort food I grew up on? Mary Tyler Moore, Happy Days, and Hogan’s Heroes. In recent years, I was late to Lost, but did catch it in its non-linear and illogical entirety on DVD. Loved the finale. I fell for The Sopranos early, watched it sag in the middle, then finish strong. For the record, I loved that ending too. I devoured the tragically short-lived Firefly (13 glorious episodes), and could not get enough of HBO’s Carnivale. Two seasons of the densest, most thought-provoking examination of good vs. evil you will ever find on television.
Then along comes Mad Men and a new standard has been set for episodic writing.
But why is it so good?
Easy. The characters are well written.
Okay, maybe that’s not so easy.
Ever notice how some nights you settle in to watch one of your favorite shows and it just doesn’t feel right? Something’s off and you can’t put your finger on it? It is almost always because the characters are acting out of character.
Very rarely is this the case in creator Matthew Weiner’s 1960s Manhattan advertising playground.
Let’s examine this past Sunday’s brilliant installment. I could just as easily dissect “Mystery Date” from three weeks ago to make my point, but I’m still giddy over”At the Codfish Ball.”
As much as I love all of the unsavory and unscrupulous melodrama, for me Mad Men is at its best when it is talking shop. Okay, I happen to find advertising fascinating, and for my money, nobody knows the ad game better than ‘Don Draper.’
The wrong writer would have inserted a smidgen of territorial jealousy or protective chauvinism when ‘Don’s’ wife, ‘Megan,’ nervously offers up her concept idea for Heinz Baked Beans. But true to character, ‘Don’ pounces on the idea without a moment of hesitation. Why? Because his business brain says “best idea wins.”
Then, notice how ‘Peggy’ reacts when she learns the pitch has changed to go with ‘Megan’s’ idea, clearly pre-occupied by the phone call she just received from her boyfriend. She still manages “Good for her.”
Best idea wins.
Now for the melodrama.
We are introduced to two new characters, ‘Megan’s’ French parents, and they not only seamlessly fit into the complexity of the drama, but they serve to illuminate a half a dozen different ongoing themes of this season, Mad Men’s 5th.
Ah, don’t we all pretend?
How about ‘Peggy‘ going to ‘Joan‘ for advice after being invited to dinner by her swarthy Bohemian beau, ‘Abe.’ Fearful she is about to be dumped, ‘Joan’ sets her straight with “Men don’t take the time to end things. They ignore you until you make a declaration of hatred.” Ouch. Some writing is so good it hurts.
Then, excited from her new optimism about a potential wedding proposal, ‘Peggy’ asks ‘Joan’ if she should go home and change. ‘Joan’ glances ever so nonchalantly down at ‘Peggy’s’ frumpy work attire and says “Better yet – go shopping.”
Ya see, Weiner knows his female characters so well he can endear the show’s sexiest siren to women as well as men. No small task.
Nor is it a small task to make ‘Don Draper’ a sympathetic husband and father. What with all the womanizing and bad behavior. But there he is, stopping his daughter ‘Sally‘ in her tracks, all dressed up and ready to attend his award ceremony. After taking in her beautiful new outfit “Now go take off the makeup and the boots.”
What surprised me most about this episode was the obvious pro-marriage declaration. The slow burn on ‘Peggy’s’ grill as she realized she was not getting the proposition she had hoped for, dignified but disappointed for certain. “Do you still want to eat?” ‘Abe’ asks her after he has weaseled his way into her apartment. “I do,” she responds, taking what she can get in the vow department.
Then ‘Peggy’ has to share the news with her mother, who, on a good day, looks down on her daughter’s lifestyle with a sour smirk. But ‘shacking up?’ Not having it. “This boy will use you for practice until he decides to get married and have a family. And he will, believe me.” Pow! Right in the chops.
Back to ‘Megan’ and her Euro rents. What a pair. Some of their exchanges were priceless. “Have a drink,” the aristocratic Marxist snob tells his wife. “Become nice again.” Or, after smooth ass ‘Don’ lights her smoke and tells her to pace herself for the cognac “I see, she’s convinced you she is particular – I’m living proof she is not.”
So good then, when ‘Roger Sterling‘ enters the apartment. “Do you want a drink?” aks ‘Megan.’ “No – I mean yes,” says the silver fox. Then the bitter and boozy mother immediately hones in on him to help him tie his bow tie. “You look like you were born with one on,” she flirts as she ties it. “I didn’t tie that one either.” Vintage ‘Roger Sterling.’ Dry and spot on. Expertly directed.
How about the dialogue between ‘Peggy’ and her creative team. “So, is Mr. Heinz the down to earth kind of steel town German Polish drinks beer out of a can kind of guy?”asks ‘Ginzo.’ “No, he’s boring, he’s got a daughter,” responds ‘Peggy.’ “Maybe that’s where he gets all his shitty ideas.” The sexist office banter is classic and such a reminder of what used to be the norm. Yet ‘Peggy’ rises and shines. What a great character she is.
“He’s too good-looking for you,” one colleague tells her after ‘Abe’ exits the office. She just smiles. Happy to be wanted – even if he won’t marry her. “Do you want me to be alone?” she asks her mother.
How about ‘Roger’ chatting up his ex in hopes of snaring a favor. She just grins at him, knowing he is divorcing his secretary trophy wife “I thought you married Jane cuz I had gotten old. And then I realized it was because you had.”
Game, set, match.
Not a fan of the show yet? Well, all of the prior seasons are waiting for you at Best Buy or Target, or that rarest of rare findings – a book store. So…”go get ’em tiger.” Inside joke. For Mad Men fans. Best show on television.