Meditations on MAD MEN, Manhattan, and the TV Medium – served with a Martini (Scroll to end for recipe)

Contrasts. It’s the contrasts that set MAD MEN apart from everything else on television presently.

Mad Men poster

The show begins somewhere in early 1960 – a time we recollect as being colorful and brash. Yet the show is so deliberately, almost meditatively paced – more like a European drama or a Sidney Lumet film circa 1972 than something as buoyantly frisky as – say – HOW I SUCCEEDED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (also featuring the boyishly charismatic Robert Morse – my God – an inspired casting choice for AMC – his brilliant performance as protagonist Don Draper’s eccentric head-honcho needs to be put into a museum for posterity).
All of the dressings of the show – the costumes, the art direction, even the hair (often a dead giveaway as to the decade any period piece is created) have a tangible authenticity. Yet – the show’s content, direction, and tone seem to pointedly examine how social, financial, racial, and sexual mores have changed over the past 5 decades.

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One scene in particular shows how the program is speaking to the urbane television viewer of 2007 – not 1960. January Jones’ character scolds her child for wrapping herself in a plastic dry cleaning bag and playing “Space Alien” (or something equally silly). The mother scolds the child NOT because the bag presents the danger of suffocation – but because her dry cleaning might be spread all over the living room floor. It’s not that the mother is calloused or insensitive to the danger. It’s a tip-of-the-hat to the fact that the plastic bag was – in 1960 – a wholly new phenomenon that nobody knew the implications of. The first sandwich bag would have been designed only 3 or 4 years before the first season is set.

But as much as we’ve changed – we seem to keep making the same mistakes and suffering from the same insecurities.

As with all great storytelling – the human drama at the center of the whole thing is so compelling and so well performed by the able cast – I imagine this thing will still be relevant in 20 years.

The show is huge in New York City. I’ve heard ratings for the show across the rest of the country are decent – but nothing like they are in NYC. True – the show is set in New York – so I imagine there’s a fair amount of geographical identification for a local audience.

But I think it’s deeper than that.

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The show deals with the savage world of advertising. It deals with the art of selling and the nature of buying. It also deals with the responsibility of gender roles – and to the confusion of how we’re supposed to be as men and women. Men wrestling with what it really means to be men. Women wrestling with what it really means to be women. New Yorkers – always struggling with whether to acknowledge and accept the “norm” OR buck against it entirely – should easily identify with this.

And – ultimately – the show’s characters speculate on what does it mean to SUCCEED? And when do we know when we’ve finally done it?

I think a New York City audience responds to these questions differently than other audiences because – hell – sometimes it’s a different universe here than other places in America. We all pile into the five-borough area chasing dreams – living on top of each other – spending way too much for essentials – not to mention luxuries other places take for granted. A postage-stamp of an apartment costs a ridiculous amount if its in the heart of Manhattan. And the people who can afford it are only able to enjoy it two to three hours a day because they’re out working ridiculously long days trying to afford it.

In New York City – we’re all trying to sell something. Talent or goods or property or personalities. And we’re all trying to sell something to the toughest audience in the fucking world.

So – of course we’re all watching it. We all get it. Because we all LIVE IT.

I finally broke down and watched the first season of MAD MEN in a manner I usually watch television shows I’m horribly behind on – in one or two sittings over a day or two. I had seen the pilot some time ago and been terribly impressed. But I also felt this show – going forward – would end up being a think-piece I was going to have to sit down and absorb very carefully. So I put off watching the rest until I had the time – and the energy – to drop down this meditative worm-hole.

friday-night-lights-pictureIt’s striking how close to the chest it plays its melodrama. Similar to the equally fetching (and equally deliberate) FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, this show maneuvers somewhat soap-operatic twists and turns with a grace that could have easily fallen into camp. They play it with a nuance that keeps it riveting and REAL.
Again – the contrasts in the thing prove to be its trump card.

What has struck me as really fascinating is this: the college students in the office have been going on and on about it for a while now. And not just MAD MEN. Late teens and early twenty-somethings dissecting and debating new, televised material in much the same way my contemporaries and I were evaluating art-house films in the mid 90’s – smoking cigarettes in the smoke-pit behind the theater waiting for rehearsal to start.

Is television the new art-house cinema?

HBO came along and introduced THE SOPRANOS and SIX FEET UNDER – as if they wanted to be America’s answer to the BBC. Provocative, mature, and still engaging television that was just as handsomely produced as any decently budgeted film.

twin_peaks_3articleOf course – it’s unfair to say that the quality of television in the early to mid-90’s was so sub-par compared to now. Cinematic television may have very well been invented in the 90’s with ground-breakers such as THE X-FILES and TWIN PEAKS.

I think what has fundamentally changed is the access we have to digesting shows in their entirety. In the mid-90’s – it was much more difficult to catch up on a show that you were two or three seasons behind on. There was no DVR, BitTorrent, or RapidShare. DVD box-sets were still a few years off.

Film was easier to keep up with. I never could – for the life of me – keep up with all the TV shows in college because I would have needed an organizational system of immense proportion to be sure I was either – a.) seated in front of a television when my show came on – or b.) setting a VCR before my show came on. I had a hard enough time keeping my schoolwork in order (and often failing at that) – much less my tv schedule.

But film was easy. Pop over to the local art-house between class and rehearsal and catch the latest whatever hot-shot film was garnering all the acclaim.

Now – Netflix, VCD Quality, YouTube, iPlayers. There seems to be no excuse to get behind on anything right now except the usual constraints of time – and willingness to lose an entire afternoon to the worm-hole.

buffy-the-vampire-slayer-comics-the-long-way-home But isn’t that something TV has that film just can’t have. Time. TV has time. TV can spend hours developing a character – developing an arc – developing a world. A film or a play has to do it in approximately two hours. After that – the audience starts to get restless. But TV – especially TV by way of Netflix – is like reading a novel. You can pick it up and put it down at your leisure. You can attack the story in fits and starts. Film is the artistry of a LEAN story. TV is the artistry of exploration. Some shows are great in this respect. Seminal shows like ST. ELSEWHERE ended in very different places that where they began. Some of them meander – working out kinks and figuring out just what they want to say. After viewing a wonderfully quirky first season of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, I sometimes struggled through subsequent seasons – not sure how to respond to a show that was uneasily balancing fantasy-adventure and teen-drama UNTIL SEASON 5 – when the whole thing suddenly felt so sure-footed – a show with real gravity and real heart. BUT – would we have arrived there had we not meandered in the seasons before? And I’m sure there are those out there that would take to me to task on my evaluations (I hear Season 3 is actually the FAN-FAVORITE).

So – TV has time on its side. And thank God – because I have Season 2 of MAD MEN downloading presently and am looking forward to another worm-hole later this evening. Stay tuned.

And – while watching it – I will be having the following:

(thanks to Colleen Graham at About.com for the recipe quoted below)

The traditional Martini connoisseur will tell you that this variation of the Martini is anything but “perfect” but the name is what it is. However, this is a very good drink and a nice alternative for any Martini lover when they want something just a touch sweeter. Perfect Martinis vary from classic Martinis by using equal amounts of dry and sweet vermouths.
Ingredients:

* 2 oz gin
* 1/2 oz dry vermouth
* 1/2 oz sweet vermouth
* green olives or lemon twist for garnish

Preparation:

1. Pour the ingredients into a mixing glass with ice cubes.
2. Stir well.
3. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
4. Garnish with the olive or lemon twist.

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~ by saturdaysinthedark on January 13, 2010.

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