So So or So What Mad Men Returns

Mad As Hell Over Launch of Season Six

By: - Apr 08, 2013

Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad

There is always excited anticipation of the return of a favorite TV series. It may take a season or two to get established. Then there is a challenge to keep the critical edge that initially hooked us.

Even the great shows like I Love Lucy, Upstairs Downstairs, Miami Vice, NYPD Blue, Seinfeld,  Law and Order,  the Sopranos, Sex in the City, and Desperate Housewives, don’t last forever.

How do those classic shows stack up against current hits:  Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, The Good Wife, Game of Thrones, or the sixth season premiere last night of the much anticipated Mad Men?

In a recent conversation with an LA based actress who pursues roles in TV and film, I asked what happens to all those actors once their hit series ends?

“You see them all around town” she responded “In supermarkets and restaurants but nobody notices or pays attention to them.”

An actor like Dennis Franz, as the iconic Sipowitz in NYPD Blue, may have seemed indelible but after a few movie roles revealed his one dimensional ability, perfect for that single great role, he like so many others drop off the radar screen. George Reeves, type cast as Superman, jumped out a window discovering that the ersatz Caped Crusader couldn’t fly.

A handful of fortunate and versatile actors get recycled into other series. Or, like Jerry Seinfeld, live happily ever after living on their millions with the occasional guest appearance.

Some, like the  former Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini, have modest post TV careers as Broadway actors with supporting roles in film.

Tony’s wife, Edie Falco, went on to the hit series Nurse Betty. But what ever happened to Meadow, Paulie Walnuts, Big Pussy and Christopher? Actually, Chistopher (Michael Imperioli) switched sides as a detective in a short lived series. Since then, nada. Fuggeddahboutit.

But Steven van Zandt returned to gigs with Springsteen and a season of HBO’s truly dreadful Lillyhammer. Did you ever watch that turkey? I did. The entire series. Why you may ask?  

The one note samba of Don Draper (series star Jon Hamm) of Mad Men is now all too apparent. While he has racked up eight Emmy nominations (Mad Men and 30 Rock), making films before and after the hit TV series, he is an actor with a numbingly limited vocabulary. Did you see his stiff portrayal as an FBI agent in Ben Affleck’s  The Town?

In the season opener last night his limitations as the central character of the hit series were glaringly obvious. There is a certain ennui to the enigma of a stolen identity and dark background.  After five seasons, however, his brutal, underdog struggle to survive on cutthroat Madison Avenue is running on vapors.

With movie star looks on a par with a Cary Grant his Don Draper is chiseled but stiff. He lacks Grant’s humor and versatility. By now we know all too well Don’s moods and moves. The time line of the series has reached 1968, the apogee of an era of political turmoil, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. In that turbulent zeitgeist he’s a greedy, ambitious, morally bankrupt, alcoholic, chain smoking, colossally boring, establishment square.

Those three martini lunches and endless cigarettes are catching up with him. In one of the only surprising scenes last night he barfed during the funeral of his partner Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) 91-year-old mother.

Actually Sterling, the insufferably privileged, waspy, lazy, scheming partner ran away with the episode. He had all the best lines, moments, and scenes. When his sobbing secretary (that’s what they called them back then) informs him that Mom has croaked he seems more annoyed than sad.

He responds that, after all, she was 91 and, well, shit happens. What particularly annoys him is that he will have to arrange the funeral. Which proves to be an utter disaster. It was the only genuinely brilliant, hilarious reminder of what addicted us to Mad Men.

That is followed by Sterling on the couch with a bored shrink who doesn’t laugh at his jokes. Sterling asks why? “We’ve talked about that” the therapist replies. Why do they never give a straight answer?  

"Life is supposed to be a path," Roger complains to his shrink "and you go along and these things happen to you and they're supposed to change you. But it turns out the experiences are nothing… you're just going in a straight line to you-know-where."

Hell, as Satre stated, is “other people.”

On the beach in Hawaii Don was reading Dante. Has Mad Men elided into The Damned?

Back in the office, post funeral Sterling has a riveting moment. It seems that his shoe shine guy has died. He was so fond of him that the family has sent his shoe shine box. Alone in his spacious office Sterling opens it and hold us a brush. Contemplating it he bursts into tears. The grieving that he never expressed for his mother gushes out.

Brilliant. A terrific Mad Men moment.

Not so with the Drapers. Don’s eye candy, trophy wife Megan, Jessica Pare, was the highlight of last season. Her French Canadian character brought flair and sophistication to the romantic life of stodgy Don.

The episode last night found them in Hawaii comped by a hotel client providing background and field research for an ad campaign. As colleagues comment, with a sneer and snicker, it’s a chance to see Megan romping on the beach in a bikini. She even scores a joint for a bit of Maui Wowie before they shag.

Back in NY between the Holidays Don’s brilliant concept does not go over with the clients. He envisions a man who drops his business duds on the beach to disappear into that tropical Nirvana. He tried to explain "a feeling that's stayed with me" about a merger with nature unlike any other vacation. A desire to leave all the trappings of job, home and responsibility like a trail of clothes on the sand. Skinny dipping as the ad campaign.  

But, the client responds, isn’t that like James Mason in that movie, what’s the title, who wanders into the surf to drown? So isn’t this image of losing it all in Hawaii really a suicide scene. “A Star is Born” someone recalls.

Didn’t the guy in the ad die? "Maybe he did," Don responds poetically, "and he went to heaven. Maybe that's what this feels like."

Now ensconced at a rival firm, Don’s former protégée Peggy Olson, (Elisabeth Moss) is having similar responses to a campaign for Koss stereo head phones. Her tag, a quote from Shakespeare is “Lend me your ears.” As in Marc Antony’s funeral oration “Friends Romans Countrymen.”

There is a macabre connection to the Vietnam War. It seems the grunts are taking trophies of their kills. They are wearing necklaces of severed ears. This prompts a standup to make a terrible joke on the Tonight Show guest hosted by Phyllis Diller.

“For seven months,” Tiger Force of the 101st Airborne Division, “moved across the Central Highlands” of Vietnam, “killing scores of unarmed civilians—in some cases torturing and mutilating them,” the Toledo Blade reported in 2003. “As the ground troops swept through, in many cases they gunned down men, women and children,” according to the New York Times, “sometimes mutilating bodies—cutting off ears to wear on necklaces.”

Although it’s New Years Eve Peggy, acting more and more like Don, will keep her creative crew working all night for a new voice over to save an ad that there isn’t time to reshoot.

It’s the second oblique reference to Vietnam. In Hawaii Don had a chance encounter with a smashed soldier and his passed out buddy in the hotel bar. The soldier is on R&R and due to complete an eight month tour. He is getting married in the morning stating that married men have a better chance of surviving. “The have something to live for.”

Don, identified as a lieutenant and veteran, is asked if he was married while serving in Korea? There is a terse “No” as we are reminded that Don’s identity theft started when he swapped dog tags with a dead soldier for a fast track return home.

Ever since, Don has been living a lie with ever more complex layers of deceit.

That is evident when the Drapers entertain their high rise codo neighbors for New Year’s Eve. Megan, the fabulous hostess, served fondue in the pot she found in the home accessories department of Bloomingdales. “Which has everything” she gushes.

Their neighbor, a surgeon, is called to the hospital for an emergency. Megan observes that it’s New Years Eve, snowing, past midnight, and there is no way of getting a cab. Duty calls as he and Don explore the basement to find the doctor’s skis. While he is off to save a life Don seized the moment to bone his wife.

Post coitus she asks "What do you want for this year?" "I want to stop doing this," he said.

What is it about this guy and his complete lack of a moral compass?

We cut to his now fat, ugly Betty (January Jones) former wife. She is remarried to a political stiff and step father to her bratty spoiled kids with Don. Watching her compulsively munching on cookies we wonder what Henry sees in her.

Betty reveals a petulant dark side which repulses and fascinates him. In bed Henry (Christopher Stanley) comments on 15-year-old friend of their daughter's who had played the violin beautifully. The gifted girl states that she is headed to Julliard.

Responding to his interest in the teenager Betty suggests outrageously "She's just in the next room. Why don't you go in there and rape her? I'll hold her arms down."

Good grief, this desperate house wife is a piece of work. Early on in Mad Men she was svelte and sexy, rich, and socially connected.

Over breakfast the sleep over guest reveals that actually she didn’t get accepted to Julliard. She is intent on leaving home and living with some cool kids she found in the Lower East Side. She doesn’t want to go to college, meet a guy, drop out, get pregnant and repeat the cycle that Betty and her mom are mired in.

In a totally off the wall, improbable sequence Fat Betty attempts to track her down in a crash pad, squatters commune in the Lower East Side.

It was precisely at this time in the late 1960s that I lived in a storefront at 303 east 11th street. While rough it was not the squalor conjured by the writers of Mad Men. Their setting was more like a bombed out Berlin.

Betty in the crash pad is just total gonzo. She doesn’t find the girl but recognizes the violin. The smarmy leader of the commune claims he bought it from her. Betty demands it back. He offers to sell it her for ten bucks. It’s probably a Strad or something. Oddly Betty claims it but then leaves it behind.

Rich girls from Connecticut flocked to the flower power of the Lower East Side during the Summer of Love.  The headline grabbing slaughter of Linda and Groovy (James Leroy Hutchinson and Linda Fitzpatrick, October, 1967) went down just a few doors down from me. It was not uncommon to see cops taking out body bags.

The Village Voice reported that “Linda's velvet-draped casket was carried down an Episcopal aisle while the minister chanted from the Book of Common Prayer. She rode to her burial in a gray Cadillac. Groovy's funeral was conducted in a Baptist minister's parlor. As a eulogy, Galahad played the harmonica that was part of his friend's costume.

“Neither coffin was notably arrayed with flowers, which was appropriate. Both were victims of such symbolism. They were beautiful people, and beautiful victims. They followed their supposed assailants into the basement, exuding love and groove. And they died near a pile of their clothing, not merely rubbed out, but smashed faceless...

“The mindblower is not that love is dead in the East Village, but that it has taken this long to kick the bucket. Flower power began and ended as a cruel joke. ..”

I rescued a runaway who stumbled through the open door of my storefront. She was hungry and scared with black marks around her throat where someone tried to strangle her. I took her to the Polish restaurant next to Tompkins Square Park and fed her pirogues. I urged her to call her parents. That’s the last I saw of her.

It’s why Mad Men often rings falsely with me. Like Betty’s over the top visit to the East Village where I once lived.

Don and the ad men of Madison Avenue were a part of a different and boring world. While the Stones were blaring the anthem of “Street Fighting Man,” the Beatles sang about “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Hendrix asked “Are You Experienced,” and Dylan told us that “The Times They Are a Changing,” the Drapers were getting blotto on martinis, counting piles of cash, and grooving to Montovani.

Which is why I can’t wait for next week’s episode.