Review: Mad Men 2×1

Not quite so mad



 

In the US: Sundays, AMC, 10pm/9c
In the UK: Acquired by BBC4 to air in 2009

Mad Men was something of a surprise for everyone when its first season arrived. Not only was it made by AMC, a network not really known for much – certainly not original dramas – it was very good indeed.

A period piece about Madison Avenue advertising men of the early 60s, it was stylish, clever and eye-opening, and spent considerable time demonstrating how much attitudes to just about everything have changed.

Unsurprisingly, it won a whole raft of awards. Now, here comes the second season, with much to prove. Yet set two years on, it’s appropriately relaxed and cool – it has nothing to prove.

Plot
Set in 1960s New York, the sexy, stylized and provocative AMC drama Mad Men follows the lives of the ruthlessly competitive men and women of Madison Avenue advertising, an ego-driven world where key players make an art of the sell.

Returning for its second season, the Golden Globe®-winning series for Best TV drama and actor will continue to blur the lines between truth and lies, perception and reality. The world of Mad Men is moving in a new direction — can Sterling Cooper keep up? Meanwhile the private life of Don Draper becomes complicated in a new way. What is the cost of his secret identity?

Created, executive produced and written by Weiner, this drama series stars Jon Hamm (We Were Soldiers), Elisabeth Moss (The West Wing), Vincent Kartheiser (Angel), John Slattery (Desperate Housewives), Christina Hendricks (Kevin Hill), and January Jones (We Are Marshall) along with guest star (and stage/screen legend) Robert Morse (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). Michael Gladis (Third Watch), Aaron Staton (The Nanny Diaries), Rich Sommer (The Devil Wears Prada), and Bryan Batt (La Cage Aux Folles") round out the cast.

The Premise: The series revolves around the conflicted world of Don Draper (Hamm), the biggest ad man (and ladies man) in the business, and his colleagues at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. As Don makes the plays in the boardroom and the bedroom, he struggles to stay a step ahead of the rapidly changing times and the young executives nipping at his heels. The series also depicts authentically the roles of men and women in this era while exploring the true human nature beneath the guise of 1960s traditional family values.

Is it any good?
If you’re expecting to be hit on the head with culture shock like you were with the first episode last year, relax. Mad Men now takes it as a given that you know that women weren’t treated very well in the early 60s. Instead, the Mad Men are learning all about being old and being young. 

The second season is set two years after the first. Don Draper’s now 35 and he’s starting to feel the pressure of age. He’s having to recruit youngsters to win accounts, since the cult of youth is on the ascendent, despite the fact that "young people know nothing". Then there are those young people in the White House. Why, Jackie O’s on TV, giving people guided tours without her husband.

Draper still has his secret identity to keep, but others have secrets too. His wife is starting to get flirtier with strangers, emboldened by meeting with a former roommate turned party girl, and isn’t telling her husband a whole load of things.

What’s happened to Peggy’s baby? Peggy isn’t telling anyone, not than anyone knows she’s had a baby, not even the father. And now she’s a proper account executive, she’s having to assert her separateness from the other girls in the office, who can’t quite understand she’s their boss now. Still, they’ve got a magic device called a Xerox to play with.

The second season already feels more leisurely than the first and isn’t going to great lengths to explain itself. It’s luxuriously taking its time to come to the point and that’s no bad thing. However, the needle-sharp observations don’t seem as clear this time round, as though, like Draper, the show’s already feeling its age. It feels more like a show about ad men than a show about the changes in society in the last 50 years, and while Mr and Mrs Draper and Betty seem well defined, the other characters still have a little way to go before they become fully formed characters.

All the same, clips of later episodes suggest that this is merely a very minor first episode blip. And it’s still a wonderful piece of work, something to be admired not just for the acting and the writing but also for its sheer style. Even if you turned the sound down, you’d still have something of beauty to admire.

If you’ve not caught the first season, please do so, since, again like Draper, the show isn’t feeling inclined to explain itself. But do watch it, whatever you do.

Here’s a YouTube trailer or two:

  • Everything about this show feels alien – the time period, the furnishings, the costumes, their attitudes, the real products mentioned (many of which no longer exist – product placement with no advantage).
    And best of all, the scripts just do not follow standard convention; it really keeps me on my toes as a viewer. Last season, every time I thought I could guess where a scene might go, based on hundreds of shows/movies I’ve seen in the past, ‘Mad Men’ would do something unexpected. (It happened last night with Betty’s encounter with the tow truck guy.)
    It does feel strange to basically be on Don’s “side”, when he’s clearly on the losing end of the coming cultural shift. Any other show would have made him the visionary of the youth-oriented future. But here, he’s the dinosaur resisting change.
    Okay, so I’m espousing those same old-boy network values here, but nothing said “Mad Men” is back better than seeing Christina Hendricks in her red dress!