Thursday, September 26, 2019

TV Re-Watch: Mad Men - Season 1

In my head, I walked around knowing full well that Mad Men was the best television I had ever, or would likely ever, see.  And the minute the show ended, I pledged to rewatch the whole show from beginning to end, but other things catch up with you, new shows come on, and at some point you start to say to yourself: you know, you may well put the show on and start to get that uneasy feeling as you realize that this thing you loved?  It doesn't hold up.  You weren't wrong at the time, but we've all moved on.  But, sure, rewatch out of nostalgia.

Having just completed a rewatch of Mad Men Season 1, I am reporting that Mad Men is better than I remembered.

The press at the time of the show's release focused on the period details, the costumes, the dead-sexiness of the cast, and it's also true the show arrived in a window when we were transitioning to more complex TV in the wake of The Sopranos.  Frankly, as popular as the show was, I am not certain that audiences or some critics (who are humans, too) fully got what was unspooling on their televisions as each episode hit.  I know I didn't.  I gave up the first time after six episodes.  Sometime in the second season I stumbled across an episode on TV, liked it, and went back and started over.

What's most odd watching in 2019:  in the short window since the show ended in 2015, it's hard not to blanch at the idea that the show couldn't be made *now*.  If the reviewers of 2007 took a near anthropological interest in the world of the show, social media of 2019 would never have the patience to allow characters to have a journey, work in gray moral zones, and not have every character show up as an exemplar of human excellence or be condemned as a villain.

But that's the thing about how the show was viewed in 2007...

Both audience and critics were still applying rules of how TV soaps worked, how we expected narratives to unspool from Pro Wrestling to Erica Kane.

Example:  At the time, it seemed both social media and some reviewers bemoaned the Betty Draper character and storyline, some going with a "heroes and villains" angle in their perceptions - taking Don Draper as our protagonist and therefore, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that our viewership of his journey must make him at least mostly *right*.  And, therefore, Betty - unhappy with Don - must be *wrong*.  A walking model of period ideals for gender roles (at least as presented in media), the idea that Betty herself was unhappy and imperfectly sorting through a life built on gaslighting was unwelcome stuff compared to the fun, catty sexiness of Joan or plucky determination of Peggy Olson.  That Betty Draper reflects mid-20th Century values, idealized gender and sexual roles, as well as bouncing back to the audience the impact of Don Draper's character upon others (look, the show is about Don and Peggy) in the pre Betty Friedan era is amazing writing and - despite how January Jones is often discussed - acting.  Maybe they used Jones' natural self, but, Christ, Betty is heart breaking in every scene.

But, instead, we decided she was a killjoy and, therefore, we decided she must be seen as against Don and us as the viewer.

So, apply that writ large to the show, maybe with Betty as the most obvious of the misreads.  Heck, on a second viewing, Pete's neediness, his desire to shine, his fury at his own self-created disasters (never seen as such) - all feels more connected and character driven rather than a trait applied to a television character.

Even in shows I treasure, like Fargo, there's simply not the level of nuance and crafstmanship of characters that would need to find themselves with a smoking gun in their hand to draw the attention of the showrunners in anything like the same way, instead of peeling back characters to the bone and seeing what makes them tick in ways that can feel familiar, alien, sympathetic or otherwise.

I'm not saying "oh, we all got it wrong" - I'm saying, I guess - on a second viewing, with the benefit of hindsight, awareness of what's coming for the characters, and not just treading water to keep up and get distracted with those period-appropriate coffee cans and type-writers, the writing and acting are both phenomenal.  And, maybe even more so because these aren't larger than-life-characters for the most part.  We're not showing royalty or dragon wizards or mobsters or vampires or what-have-you.

Really, the most fascinating bit in Season 1 is that *everyone* is given or developed a fully realized character worthy of their own show, or at least getting shoved to the forefront on a different ensemble show.  Whether we're talking Ken Cosgrove or even a B-lister like Pete's secretary Hildy (she of the affair with Harry Crane), the specifics of characters living and breathing in the offices of Sterling-Cooper have a reality too them that so many other shows do not.  Their motivations are clear enough, and drive who they are (even if it's "just get through another day, this is a good job" in the case of some of the secretaries).  Characters don't simply do things because the show needs conflict - everything comes from a completely buyable place.  And it doesn't hurt that we don't really have heroes and villains - we have distinct people butting up against one another.

Anyway - One could easily write a book or three on the series, but it's a joy to return to and find it better than I remembered.

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