Saturday, May 16, 2015

Close the Door, Have a Seat

This Sunday is the series finale of "Mad Men," a show that I've been watching somewhat religiously since its third season. (I caught up with the first two in repeats.) I don't watch a lot of dramas, but the few that I do enjoy have a larger ensemble cast and an exquisite attention to detail.

What fascinates me most about "Mad Men" is the survival-of-the-fittest mentality that drives most of the action. When the series began, the setting was the Spring of 1960, and the partners of Sterling Cooper were the kings of their respective world. As the series progresses, however circumstances both within and beyond their control force them to adjust to a world that is making leaps and bounds of social progress. To an extent, the show is bifurcated between these two scenarios. The first three seasons finds the ad agency at the height of Madison Avenue's power; after getting bought out by a British firm, then find themselves on the verge of being sold again, they break off into their own independent agency again. This sets up the second half of the series, when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (later SCDP plus Cutler Gleason Chaough, then Sterling Cooper & Partners) is more or less a fledgling upstart with heightened competition.

Setting a TV show in the '60s also opens up the action to a feast of historical irony. Look at the clients that seek SCDP's prowess throughout the show's run: a dog food company that refuses to switch from horse meat. A swimsuit manufacturer that won't make bikinis. A southern-based chain of auto body shops expanding northward... that refuses to hire blacks. Jai alai. The agency's success is scoring major, familiar clients like Kodak or Chevrolet pales next to this imaginary graveyard of businesses that wouldn't adapt to the times. (Granted, Burger Chef lands somewhere in between...)

Above all, I'll miss the characters. Don Draper was an enigma for the ages, a man who put up the most labyrinth con in existence, but failed to maintain that double life and nearly lost everything. "Mad Men" was also about the journey of Peggy Olson, from naive secretary to jaded, savvy proto-feminist copy editor. Pete Campbell was the smug beneficiary of nepotism and old money, his greatest asset becoming his greatest character weakness. Joan Holloway Harris, who used her feminine wiles to her advantage, would eventually be trapped in the role of a sex object. Media guru Harry Crane went from office punching bag to Machiavellian tool. One of my favorite characters of all was Roger Sterling, son of the agency's co-founder and man of many vices. It wasn't until SC&P was bought out by McCann Erickson that Roger realized he basically whored himself out of being an advertising power player.

"Mad Men" was AMC's first scripted series when it bowed in the summer of 2007, and in quality and consistency it has been eclipsed only by its network neighbor "Breaking Bad." It was the tentpole of the third (maybe fourth) great era of American television, and the countless essays written about the show in recent weeks have been both insightful in substance and deserved in magnitude. (Also, thank you for "The Suitcase," the show's center point and arguably the best hour of television in the last five years.) I can't do justice to the layered performances and attention to minutiae that enthralled me over seven seasons, other than it totally enthralled me.

Next Week: my tenth annual fantasy Emmy ballot.


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