Monday, August 25, 2014

#TVDoneRight: Mad Men

As far as I'm concerned, Mad Men is some of the most perfect television I've ever watched.

Mad Men is the story of Madison Avenue ad man (see what they did there?) Don Draper in the 1960s. Much has been rightfully made of the show's attention to historical detail, from the set design and costumes to the overall zetigeist of the year (and there's a big difference between 1960 and 1969). But it's the writer's attention to character that makes the show.

I've always seen Don Draper as the epitome of everything we disdained about the age of advertising: good looking and seductive, he's also painfully self-aware and knows that he's a fake. He's not even Don Draper; that's the name of the man he switched identities with after an accident while he was in the army. Poor, unloved Dick Whitman suddenly had the chance to rewrite his life story, and he took it without bothering to think the consequences through, including the loss of the little brother who looked up to him and the "acquisition" of the real Dick Whitman's wife, who became the one person he didn't have to lie to.

The difference between Don Draper and a Ken doll? Ken just might have a soul.

It's not just that Don's biography is built on lies; it's not a stretch to say that he is as empty as the ad slogans he comes up with. He sleeps around like it's a job requirement, and even more so when he's married. And while Don has been known to show glints of humanity that spring from knowing what it is to hold a secret and be on the outside looking in, letting Don find you vulnerable can be dangerous. Don ruined Sal's career not because he was gay, but because he wouldn't put out for their most important client; when Lane temporarily embezzled funds, Don forced him to resign, which immediately led to Lane's suicide; and, perhaps most injuriously, he disapproved so much of Ted and Peggy's attraction that he thwarted every attempt of theirs to be together.

Overall, just about every character on the show is perfect. My favorite: Joan Holloway Harris, who's gone from biding her time as an office manager while she waited for a suitable husband to a well-deserved partnership in the firm...which she didn't get until she was convinced to sleep with a powerful Jaguar dealer from Jersey. Other favorites: callow but ambitious Pete Campbell, the young man born with a tarnished silver spoon in his mouth who can't socialize but who manages to come up with brilliant insights almost in spite of himself; and how do you not love jovial and witty Roger Sterling, even when his peccadilloes end up causing a restructuring of the ad agency?

Joan used her sex appeal to get what she thought she wanted, then realized her intelligence was her best asset.

January Jones doesn't have to be a gifted actress for her to easily telegraph Betty's frustration at being reduced to a shiny bauble.
Of all of the characters, Betty Draper, Don's ex-wife, is arguably the hardest to take, and that's due in large part to the weakness of the actress who plays her. In a way, however, that makes her perfect for the role of a woman who has perfected the art of being a beautiful object but struggles with being a real person (and those struggles are most painful to watch when she's interacting with her children). As far as I'm concerned, finding a way to use a weak actress effectively is a sign of a clever writer.

Thanks for stopping by! Please visit Jami Deise tomorrow to find out what her TV Done Right pick is.