Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World: "Mad Men", Season 3 Review

My litmus test for TV shows is pretty rough: if they're not The Wire, I'm generally disappointed. You'd know this if you read our decade-end retrospective, and, if the comment boards are any indication, you didn't.

Although AMC's Mad Men unfortunately does not pass the test per se ("This version of The Wire has no black people!"), the show happens to be my favorite thing on TV right now and proves how stupid that test is.

Mad Men, if you've had your head completely up your ass, focuses on fictional Manhattan-based ad agency Sterling Cooper as it gets buffeted by the cultural sea changes of the 1960's. It was during this decade that all the morning boozing, chain-smoking, and blatant misogyny we see on the show started to look a little sketchy. Science started, uh, doing its job, and women realized they could do stuff.

Smack-dab in the middle of all this revolutionary social change is the impossibly handsome Don Draper (seriously, how did Jon Hamm not work before this show?). Don's a creative visionary, a womanizing jagoff, and a profoundly tragic figure all rolled into one deceptively smooth package. One of the most brilliant things about Hamm's performance (and casting) is that we're sold on the fact that such a perfect-looking man could be so tortured.

His past is famously mysterious: a stolen identity here, a forgotten family there. At some times, the severity of the trauma in Don's past is enough to excuse his quixotic behavior. At others, we practically scream at the TV, "STOP SCREWING WOMEN THAT AREN'T YOUR WIFE."

Betty Draper (January Jones, seemingly brilliant, but suffering from Scarlett Johannsen's disease, where I can't tell if she's underacting perfectly or not acting at all) is almost equally problematic. She plays the victim for much of the show, but despite how drop-dead gorgeous she is, Betty's still a hard character to love. She is, by turns, cold and immature, prone to insensitive outbursts at her children and general pouting.

While the relationship between Betty and Don is at the center of Mad Men in general, it takes up an even larger chunk of the third season. We, accordingly, see less of the show's cast of secondary characters this time around. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) gets considerably less screen time; perhaps creator Matt Wiener thought the story about her illegitimate child with Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) had run its course? Peggy's character seems to have two purposes on the show: to deal with the poor treatment she sometimes receives as Sterling Cooper's first woman copywriter, and to feel guilty about accidentally having a kid. Unfortunately, Peggy has already "done her dramatic job" on Mad Men, and she's consequently being pushed to the margins.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Joan Harris/Holloway (Christina Hendricks), and the aforementioned Pete Campbell, however, aren't in the same boat as Peggy. That we get less of them this season is more distressing.

But if Don and Betty take up an inordinate amount of this season, at least they justify their upgraded presence with fascinating storylines. The conflicts over Betty's father moving into the house, Don being forced to sign a contract with Sterling Cooper, and the continued shakiness of their marriage never failed to keep me fascinated.

The show's trademark mysteriousness remains firmly intact: unexplained dreams, flashbacks, and hallucinations abound. It's wonderful to watch a show where the creator is confident enough in his vision not to hold the audience's hand the whole time. A friend once said, of Harold Pinter, that "he walks the line between mysterious and inscrutable perfectly." Creator Matt Wiener strikes that same balance.

But the thing that makes this season of Mad Men perhaps my favorite is that stuff is actually starting to happen, if only by the season's end. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that all those social changes we saw bubbling at the show's margins are finally starting to leak in to the lives of the characters (that photo of Don underwater really does sum up the season perfectly). The men and women of Sterling Cooper have thus far been content to let the '60s happen around them; the decade is finally happening to them. As I watched the season's stunning finale, I couldn't help but wonder what Don might be up to 10, 20, or 30 years in the future. What would he look like if he were still alive today?

The unhurried pace of this show is finally starting to speed up. Maybe the best is yet to come.