Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Mad Men Of Madison Avenue Get Wobblier

By Lars Trodson

The 17 Emmy nominations given to “Mad Men” for it’s fifth season is a gift from the television gods. This is a show that has only been around for five short seasons (13 episodes a year) and it derailed almost completely in the middle of the fourth season after a wobbly third. We won’t go into the fifth season here because a lot of you are probably waiting to see it on DVD. I hope the Emmy nods gives a kick to the writers, because they need it.

The second half of the 1960s was bad enough without these people ruining it all over again.

This is not, by the way, a good show to watch on DVD. There’s too much human rot and soullessness to take in all at once. Back-to-back viewings (as I’ve done) also highlight the shows flaws, which primarily have to do with a lack of definition for any of the main characters and a grave inconsistency in tone.

I know, I know. You’re going to tell me that Don Draper has no character, that even he doesn’t know who he is. Maybe so, but the scene in which a prostitute slaps him during sex came so far out of left field it was almost laughable. What were we supposed to think? That Draper hates himself? Well, almost everything written about his character before showed that he was in fact quite self-satisfied -- even self-loving. This was an act of desperation by a writer that didn’t know where to go. I don’t think old Don has been slapped since.

Who is Peggy Olson anyway? A woman wrestling with her religion, or is she a bohemian wild child who’s not afraid to strip in front of a co-worker whom she obviously dislikes? In real life we can be many things, of course, but the problem here is that this is fiction. We need a center, and Peggy has no center. One minute she’s taking charge, and the next she’s quivering in the corner. Or she’s sleeping with a guy from the bar, or with Duck. That nascent hippy party that she went to in the village was so weirdly staged that it didn’t look too much different than anything Maynard G. Krebs might have gone to.

The only two characters that seemed remotely made of flesh and bone were Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway Harris. But the writers committed an act of murder on Roger Sterling in the fourth season that was so awful that it should go down in the annals of character butchery. Roger is certainly a cad, he’s worse than that. He’s also a drunk. But he also seemed fearless. So when the writers had him hide out in a hotel after the Lucky Strike account dropped him you actually didn’t feel bad for Roger Sterling, you felt bad for the actor, the great John Slattery, who had to have known he was being knifed in the front.

Just as Roger is going through his paroxysms of self-doubt, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) all of sudden decides to sop drinking and become a philosopher. He’s writing down his thoughts in a notebook! Like an artist in a cold garret, punishing himself for his dream.

Nothing about Don Draper seems terribly deep, and I’m afraid that this isn’t helped by the fact that Hamm is an actor of modest talent. I’m being kind. He has about two expressions, one of which is pulling his bottom lip inward as though he’s about to cry. Don Draper musing is not something I want to spend a lot of time listening to.
Thank God for Christina Hendricks, and I don’t mean that in a cheap way. She’s managed to hold on to her dignity, even after marrying that idiot. In the episode where the management team of Sterling Cooper decides to break off on its own, Joan hadn’t been around for a while. When the larcenists realize they don’t know where anything in the office is located, Roger calls Joan.

A few moments later, Joan comes swinging into the office. I actually cheered. But by then I knew the love affair was almost over.