Monday, 10 March 2008

So Mad, These Men!

Mad Men has been screening on BBCs 4 and 2 for a couple of weeks now, and other than the odd rare comment about it being slightly obvious, the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. Most critics are besotted with the show, while some (Kathryn Flett in particular) are pledging their ovaries. We maintain a more objective view of it. Having watched three episodes during the original American run we were not hooked quickly enough, and it fell by the wayside, despite the critical reaction there being as rapturous as it is over here. Some of our complaints were niggling. On a surface level Canyon finds John Hamm somewhat oily (I'm agnostic), while I find Christina Hendricks's transformation from her previous attractive self in Firefly into a pinched and terrifying fascimile of such in this to be somewhat disconcerting (see below; something about her has changed, and it's not the hair or the startling boobies).

However, both of us agree that the dialogue is not as great as has been asserted by the critical monolith, ranging as it does from the good to the cringe-inducingly anvilicious. Quick example: when Don's wife Betty starts to get numb shakyhands that prevent her from putting her own make up, the wife of Don's boss, Mona, helps her out, and mid-lipstick application says, "Look at those lips! I bet it's not hard for you to hold onto a man like that," to which Betty replies, "It's hard to hold onto anything right now with the children and running the house." Plus, you know, the fact that she has terrible terrible shakyhands. They make it hard for her to "hold" things. In case you hadn't noticed.

Having come across many complaints that Lost is badly written over the last few days (including being told to my face by someone just a few hours ago that they no longer trust my judgement any more because I love that lovely lovely show), I'm especially annoyed to find this show getting universal praise when scenes as bad as that are getting a free pass. That said, many people whose opinion we respect says that it's worth sticking with, so we definitely will, but we're hoping that once the show stops being so pleased with itself for being so "clever" (which it's not, really), it will settle down to some quality character drama that doesn't revolve around repeated points about how people sure were repressed in the early 60s, by golly!

I have been enjoying two aspects of it, though. One is the casting of some actors who look so "60s" that it's scary. In the above picture, Salvatore Romano, played by Bryan Batt (he's the guy in the middle), looks like the quintessential 50s man, with a face that Jack "King" Kirby could have drawn. I also appreciated the casting of Robert Morse as snooty executive Bertram Cooper, which is surely a nod to his roles in A Guide for the Married Man and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, both of which are hyper-chirpy predecessors of this show.

The other thing I've enjoyed is filling in the gaps in Don's personality. This week we had some horribly written scenes where Don's wife made a point of commenting on Don's attempts to avoid discussing his inner thoughts, preferring to hide behind his glossy façade (much like everyone and everything else in the show), and after he falls asleep lies next to him and wistfully says, "Who's in there?"

That she didn't follow that line with, "I just feel like I don't really know the real Don Draper, or even if there is a real Don Draper, behind this wall you have created, like we have all erected walls, because the world of the early 60s is a false world, one where only those mad mad alpha white males hold all the cards. Now, where's my lighter?", is a small triumph. I also would have liked her to have knocked on Don's head, which would ideally let out a loud clang. This is how I entertain myself throughout the show.

Still, even while driving his car one handed and being well louche, it's true that Don seems to have a mysterious inner monologue going on all the time, though I do wish he was allowed to express this via actual acting instead of by obvious dialogue. He has hinted that he's more than capable of doing just that, and hopefully he will get a chance to impress me soon. However, it struck me today that such a monumentally relaxed mask as his can only hide the most crazed inner self, and I realised that I reckon it looks like this.

Yes, that is Kenshiro Kasumi, from Fist of the North Star, in full fury mode preparing to use the North Star Hundred Crack Fist to punch some evildoer until his head explodes, which is about as furious as I imagine the real Don Draper is, a reality obscured by much whiskey-drinking and beatnik-shagging. I like that this episode ended with The Great Divide by Masticator's favourite band The Cardigans, a song that begins "There's a monster growing inside our heads." If that song actually began, "There's a Hokuto Shinken expert who lives in a horrible post-apocalyptic dystopia growing inside our heads," I reckon it would have been closer to the truth.

Before I even realised about Don's inner-Kenshiro, I had taken to narrating his monologue while watching the show, and my shouty interjections tend to go something like this.

Hopefully once the mid-60s arrive he can get some free love and Mary Jane and chill out before he goes on a punching rampage up and down Madison Avenue.


sjwoo said...

I subscribe to the Malcolm Gladwell principle of "Blink" -- your first impression tends to be your strongest impression. Neither of you enjoyed the show from the get-go -- so it'll now be that much harder for Mad Men to be a show you'll enjoy. I think if you stick with it, you'll come to like it a bit more, but I'd be highly surprised if you end up loving the show as much as we do.

And a word of warning: I'm afraid the "by golly" moments of the 50s will be pointed out over and over again throughout the entire run of the show. Wait until you see the kid running around with a bag over his head.

I can't imagine comparing Lost to Mad Men in any way. They are such completely different shows. About the only thing they have in common is that they are serial dramas. If you examine any show at a line-by-line level, you're going to find some bad ones. Even Shakespeare wrote duds!

But I'm glad it finally made it over there, so others can enjoy the show. I'm eagerly awaiting the DVD release, though right now, it's all about In Treatment, which is utterly unlike anything I've ever seen on TV.

Admiral Neck said...

Sure, comparing the two shows is a bad idea, but the point I was attempting to make is that episode of Lost was considered a poorly written one because the dialogue was a bit on-the-nose (which wasn't apparent to me), but Mad Men gets a break even though it is full of anvillicious exchanges and ironic comments (I can't think of any specific examples right now, but the ones that annoy me are like, "Hear about these Beatles guys from England? They'll never catch on!"). And yes, we saw the kid with the bag on his head just a day or so before you mentioned it, and Canyon raised her hands to the heavens and yelled, "WE GET IT!!!"

It just irks me that the genre show gets dissed but the prestige drama gets a break, but that's a long-brewing irky thing and I'll come back to it over and over and over again. As a sci-fi fan, I'm sure you have seen that prejudice in action as well.

Anyway, the fourth episode was great, though the fifth and sixth were not so much, with the odd great moment and interesting plot development to keep us watching. What it needs is to stop reminding the viewer that things were different back then with all that obvious dialogue, and get on with creating interesting dramatic situations, which it is doing, albeit a lot slower than we would like. We'll definitely finish the season, and our opinion is slowly changing, though perhaps not enough to launch this into our favourites list (at the moment, the only "prestige" drama that gets on there is Big Love).

And what about that! Don does have another person in his head! I called it! I still maintain his inner self is perpetually enraged and capable of doing great damage with his fists.