Posted in Television

Farewell “Mad Men”

MadMenSeason3
Beginning again……

Unless you’ve been in Antarctica for the last several months, “Mad Men” has finally come to a conclusion. After all the eulogies, interviews, panel discussions, symposia, fashion shoots and miscellaneous soul searching, a show so firmly rooted in the 50’s and 60’s faded out on a California cliffside with Don Draper meditating, New Age style.

It was a fitting end. “Mad Men” has always been a series about reinvention. Dick Whitman becomes Don Draper, Sterling Cooper becomes Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, then Sterling Cooper & Partners, then ultimately nothing as Don’s powers to reinvent the business one more time are finally exhausted. It’s Don’s realization that you can’t really lose your past which causes his breakdown at the California retreat. When he hears himself giving the same “put it all behind you” speech to Stephanie that he gave to Peggy after the birth of her son so many years before, it all comes tumbling down. How fitting that phone call to Peggy was, as he most likely severs his last link with the Don Draper we knew, pushing him back into the cocoon for yet one more reinvention, evidently from King of the Road back to Madison Avenue Ace.

I’ve been engrossed with “Mad Men” from its first episode, though not as enthralled over the last two seasons as I had been earlier. After two stupendous back-to-back episodes in Season 5 in which Joan slept with the Jaguar rep in order to secure the account for the agency, and Lane committed suicide when Don discovered his embezzling from the firm, a significant amount of energy seemed to seep out of the show. An excessive amount of time was spent on Megan, Don’s failing marriage and his increasing navel-gazing at the expense of our enjoyment of Peggy, Stan and the latest advertising campaign. It was always the office goings-on that gave “Mad Men” its pulse; departing from this premise gave this show anemia, at least until the final three episodes.

“Mad Men” will be remembered for a number of things, not the least of which is its depiction of the fundamental change in women’s roles in the workplace and society as a whole. It wasn’t just the evolution of Joan and Peggy that caught the imagination—it was the manner in which they traded roles that always kept the show interesting. At one point Joan takes Peggy to task for firing an assistant for being insultingly sexist, saying she’s done herself significant damage–now they’ll think she’s nothing but a battle-ax. Yet in the end it’s Joan who waves the ACLU and NOW in Jim Hobart’s face when he refuses to take her complaint of sexual harassment seriously. Ultimately Joan and Peggy end up where they’re perhaps most suited—Joan, who’s always been a fixer, spearheading her own business, and Peggy, without Joan’s means (courtesy of that settlement from McCann and Roger’s assuring her son’s future), sticking with the security of corporate life. At least for now.

But what will remain of “Mad Men” is superb drama. TV critics and bloggers have spent the last month drawing up lists of the best and/or their favorite episodes, but to me “Mad Men” is a series of memory flashes:

Bobbie Barrett’s counselling Peggy on “Don’t be a man, be a woman,” Joan’s correctly telling her “They’ll never take youBert-Cooper seriously if you continue to dress like a little girl,” and Peggy’s finally asserting herself by calling her boss “Don” instead of “Mr. Draper” for the first time. All in the same episode.

Pete and Trudy’s Charleston and Roger (leave it to him) in blackface.

Every Don and Anna Draper scene, especially when he goes AWOL on his California business trip.

Roger taking LSD and seeing Bert’s picture on the bill he gives the cabbie.

Harry losing it during the meeting in which Don pitches his campaign for the Kodak Carousel.

The British partners’ visit to Sterling Cooper, ending with the unfortunate tangle with a John Deere lawnmower. Roger’s comment offered as comfort to Harry and Ken: “Believe me, somewhere in this business this has happened before.”

Peggy, eyes full of “What!?!,” walking into Joan’s office after Don announces his engagement to Megan, and Joan’s faux-innocent: “I wonder whatever could be on your mind.” Only this could have topped Roger’s classic “Who?” when Don drops Megan’s name as his fiancée.

The evolution of Peggy and Stan’s relationship from sworn enemies to workplace husband and wife to “Now that I think about it, I’m in love with you.” The growth of this over several seasons was particularly well written as we were shown, not told, how well suited they were for each other.

Bert’s farewell in the form of a production number. If anything, “Mad Men” amply demonstrates that the best things in life are not free, but it was great to see Robert Morse become J. Pierrepont Finch just once more.

Don and Peggy’s working after hours, whether on Samsonite or Burger Chef (and learning via Roger’s tape, of Bert’s–er–condition and Miss Blankenship’s notorious past). Not to mention the extraordinary scene when Peggy tells Don she’s leaving Sterling Cooper. Equally memorable, though perhaps the ugliest scene in the show’s history: his throwing money in her face.

Roger calling Joan after that bust of his daughter’s wedding reception on November 23, 1963. After dealing with all those uneaten dinners, a drunken wife and a dead President, his first words to Joan as she answers the phone: “So what’s new?”

Duck Phillips turning Chauncey out on the street (gulp).

Freddy Rumsen zipping out the rhythm of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” on his fly.

Lee Garner, Jr. forcing Roger to play Santa Claus.

Miss Blankenship. Enough said.

I’m sure people will spend acres of print hashing over the finale and pointing out what Matthew Weiner could/should have done in ending “Mad Men.” I for one am satisfied, though I do wish we had seen more of Anna Draper during the run of the show. And a return visit by Sal Romano in at least one episode in the final season. But these would have been icing, not the cake itself, which I feel Matthew Weiner baked very well indeed. Bravo.

P.S.: Yes, I have a favorite “Mad Men” episode, though it’s almost impossible to pick just one. The first photo in this post will tell you my selection: Season 3’s finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” works on so many levels it’s ridiculous. We see Don’s admiration of Peggy, how essential Joan and Pete are and once again, the premise of “Reinvent or die.” Not to mention Peggy’s perfectly flat “No” in response to Roger’s request for coffee during the marathon raid to steal the firm’s resources from the Brits.

Good times indeed.

A postscript is in order at this point: I loathed that Coca-Cola commercial when it was new, and I certainly haven’t grown any fonder of it over the years. It strikes me as the height of corporate cynicism, which no doubt is the reason why Matthew Weiner wanted to use it. Although I don’t buy the idea that this was Don’s creation, Weiner’s ending the series with this is a great piece of snark. The commercial’s goal of peddling product in the name of peace and harmony strikes me as something Roger would have thought up, had he been in the creative end of the business.

As always, your mileage may vary.

Peggy Strut
And beginning yet again…………
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Posted in Television

“Mad” Thoughts

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We’ll have to wait to see how it all turns out.

“Mad Men” finished Part One of its final season on Sunday, and the biggest surprise was that even at this late date, there were still surprises. Bert departed this earth in more permanent fashion than the Apollo 11 astronauts, Joan bit the hand that fed her, Don acknowledged the need for female equality and Roger confounded all expectations by riding to the rescue.

It’s no secret that “Mad Men” suffered a significant energy drain after Season 5, subsequent to two superlative episodes in which Joan slept her way to a partnership and Lane Pryce committed suicide. Since then the show has been mired in indifference—while the characters’ hair styles and clothes changed, their attitudes and behavior remained the same, even in the face of the vast cultural shifts of the ’60’s. “Mad Men” seemed to be devouring itself by repeating Season 2 and 3 plot lines, but with far less wit.

This season saw the agency fraying at its core again, this time with Don’s forced absence, Pete and Ted’s exile to California and Jim Cutler’s clashes with Roger. It really wasn’t much fun. One of the few things I did enjoy was Freddy Rumsen’s fronting for Don in pitching ideas to Peggy. Even so, you had to question her acumen if she believed he had dreamed up these radical approaches on his own.

Things started perking up when we learned the depth of Don’s need to belong through his work. When the partners listed their conditions for his return, I said out loud “Don’t do it.” How much humiliation can they lay on this man, and how can a partner be made to report to an underling anyway? But it was worth it for the payoff when he ultimately tipped his hat to changing times. His “Maybe they should” to Peggy’s objection that Moms don’t take precedence over Dads in her Burger Chef presentation was an eye-opener.

On the other hand, I’m liking Joan much less these days. She and Don always seemed to have each other’s measure–two of a kind, both knowing the score. But she boarded the Jim Cutler train, ostensibly because Don’s problems resulted in the agency’s inability to go public. In reality she bought Jim’s brand of salesmanship over Don’s skill in selling by creation. And this wasn’t the first time—her failure to believe in Don’s ability to win the Jaguar account on the brilliance of his concept alone led her to that car dealer’s bed. For better or worse, she’s a partner who’s about to secure her financial future by selling her share to McCann. She’d hate to hear this, but Joan now resembles one of Ms. Magazine’s early icons–the woman who’s figuratively becoming the man she always wanted to marry.

Peggy remains the most interesting “Mad Men” character. I love how she’s continuing to grow into her own as her relationship with Don consists of less mentoring and more peer-oriented coaching. That they could flip roles for the Burger Chef presentation spoke volumes. Their dance at the end of “The Strategy” was lovely: she, exhausted after rethinking her presentation from the ground up, resting her cheek on his chest, and he, kissing the top of her head like a proud Papa. I’m still rooting for the two of them to walk off into the sunset in the series finale to start their own agency.

In non-news, Jim Cutler is such a snake, though I enjoyed his voting himself out to receive that big payoff. Kudos to Harry Hamlin for consistently maintaining that ever so condescending tone in Jim’s voice. Regardless of what McCann says, Ted Chaough is expendable. And Harry Crane, try as he might, will never make partner.

I’ll miss Bert Cooper. Originally I thought Robert Morse’s casting was simply an in-joke, given his role as the first J. Pierrepont Finch in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” But I came to enjoy his version of Bert’s zen, and wished that we had had more of him. However, I was delighted to see that he may yet be proven wrong about Roger.

Roger Sterling is becoming a mensch. He knows Don’s value, and contrary to Bert’s assessment, can indeed lead and make the tough decisions. His position hasn’t been easy since Day One, what with his father being THE Sterling in the agency’s name. And after the old man’s death trying to be on equal par with Bert, who heartily disapproved of so much of Roger’s life—the womanizing, the expensive divorce from Mona, the second marriage to a trophy wife. Now, without his father’s ghost and Bert looking over his shoulder, Roger’s in charge—or is he? Don’s always loathed the idea of working in a factory like McCann Erickson. Will this latest move prove Don’s fears to have been justified, or will it turn out to be what Roger envisioned?

Like the old Brooklyn Dodgers, we’ll just have to wait ’til next year.

Posted in Television

Mad Men: One Big Yawn

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Don: “The partners voted: That green jacket has got to go.”

I can’t remember the last time I was this disappointed in a TV show.

Do you recall Benjamin Franklin’s astute observation? “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” Something similar can be said for TV shows that go beyond the five season mark. Unlike network shows which can run forever, or as long as sponsors can be found, cable TV drama usually does best with a limited shelf life. It was five seasons and out for “Six Feet Under” and “The Wire”; “The Sopranos,” which got up to Seasons 6A and 6B, only felt attenuated because of the lengthy gap between seasons.

Until this go-round, “Mad Men” always seemed to have an unusual capacity to surprise us, to exceed our expectations. The principals of Sterling Cooper engineering their own firing to form a new agency, Joan’s sleeping with the Jaguar dealer to secure the account as well as her own future, Layne’s suicide after Don’s discovery of his embezzlement, Peggy’s leaving the firm—the unexpected was always a possibility. In contrast, was anyone really surprised to see the firm force a leave of absence on Don in this season’s finale? The guy’s been a drag, sinking deeper and deeper into a morass. I’m not the only viewer with a newsflash for Matthew Weiner: given what we’ve seen of Don in the last five years, this is neither interesting nor entertaining. I’m tired of the whorehouse flashbacks, Don’s rotten childhood and his self-destructiveness. Put all this to bed or reconcile it without further ado—it’s no longer making for good drama.

Adding to the problem was the show’s incorporation of so many of the events of 1968 into the narrative flow. I was a high school senior then, and believe me, living through that horror show once was enough for me. In any event, “Mad Men” seems to do best when it’s only lightly peppered by real events. Inescapably we’ve had Election Night, 1960, because of Sterling Cooper’s work for the Nixon Campaign, and of course, the Kennedy Assassination, the watershed event of a generation (In my Top 10 of “Mad Men” scenes: Roger calling Joan after his daughter’s disastrous wedding reception, held on November 23rd, and greeting her with “So what’s new?”). Going any deeper by focusing on Vietnam, the Chicago riots and the King and Kennedy assassinations to the extent “Mad Men” did only added to the prevailing gloom.

But as always, Peggy came through and provided some of “Mad Men”‘s best scenes this year. Unlike most of the other characters, she’s still on the ascent; her energy and drive are key elements to the show. I love her scenes with Stan, whom I think is her real soul mate, not Ted Chaough. And her complex relationship with Joan was deftly written and played, especially when these two confronted their misconceptions about each other. Peggy’s bailing her out as Pete was about to lower the boom over the Avon prospect was sheer genius, and the follow-up (“You better hope that he calls”) sealed the fact that she’s got Joan’s back. Too bad Don still doesn’t get her, though. I really hated his lie to the St. Joseph’s people that it was the late Frank Gleason, not Peggy, who had come up with the “Rosemary’s Baby” concept for the commercial. While it may have been Don’s attempt to save Ted and obtain more money from the client, that move basically castrated Peggy by depriving her of some well-deserved credit. And as a long-term veteran of that particular war, I can relate. Totally.

Even though Bob Benson is an irritating boil, it was interesting how Pete handled his sexual orientation in contrast to Don’s dealings with Sal several seasons ago. Pete just wants to win. As long as Bob keeps his hands to himself, Pete’s OK because he knows Bob will deliver.  On the other hand, I suspect Don would have eventually found a pretext to fire Sal even if he hadn’t rebuffed Lee Garner, Jr. And speaking of Pete, I think his drunken conversation with Peggy during their Ocean Spray trip with Ted was a terrific scene—what a welcome relief from all the doom and gloom.

On the fashion front, I’ve got to say that Harry Hamlin, as Jim Cutler, rocks those horn rims (in addition to being a great dirty voyeur). And Harry Crane! Look at you with sideburns, mod hair and style!

With Season Six ending in November, 1968, the Apollo moon landing, Woodstock, Stonewall and Charles Manson are looming in the year ahead. Will Don return to Sterling Cooper & Partners sporting a mustache, long hair and love beads? Will Sally become a Stones groupie? Will Pete ever lose that baby-face along with the rest of his hair? Will Peggy, Joan and Stan split off to form their own agency? One can only hope.

christina-hendricks-and-elisabeth-moss-at-an
Out of character and still great!

Posted in Brain Bits, Observations, Television

Brain Bits for a Boston Week

B StrongI love New England. I was proud to spend my college and law school years there, and being able to return to visit family and friends is always a pleasure. So when the bombs went off on Boylston Street on Monday—on Patriot’s Day, no less—it was like a knife to the heart.

The site of this week’s carnage was midway between my law school apartment and my alma mater, which at that time was located on Newbury Street. So I didn’t need to watch the videos of the attack to visualize where this happened. But I did. And I didn’t have to see the photos of the horror that ensued. But I did. And I didn’t need to be glued to NPR while I was at work on Friday, listening to the feed from Boston, in order to picture the lockdown in Boston and what was going on in Watertown. But I was. And on Saturday afternoon I cried when Fox Sports cut away from the Mets/Nationals game to the crowd at Fenway Park, led by Neil Diamond, singing “Sweet Caroline.”

I’ve written before about being a native New Jerseyan. But today, while the Jersey Shore may be in my DNA, my heart beats for Boston.

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What with season finales, series returns and shows dangling over the precipice awaiting word on renewal, there’s a lot going on in TV land. Sunday night is a virtual head-on collision of stalwarts, with “Game of Thrones” airing opposite “Nurse Jackie,” followed by “Mad Men.”

My scorecard so far reads like this:

“Game of Thrones”: Despite (or maybe because of) all the grue and gore, probably the most entertaining show now on the air. Yes, it’s getting complicated with all the different houses vying for the Iron Throne, but some time spent on the HBO web site or reviewing the family trees which appear as an appendix to each of George R.R. Martin’s novels should keep your head straight. And how can you resist Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell, pulling the strings as Margery’s grandmother? Or Danerys Targaryan and her dragons of renown? Not to mention Tyrion Lannister, the unlikely hero of this saga? Sunday can never come soon enough.

“Nurse Jackie”: Getting a bit tired here. When did Kevin get to be such a bastard? I hope the show runners aren’t going down the Alzheimer’s path with Akalaitis. And why oh why did O’Hara move to London? Eve Best has got to return, otherwise this show will be a prime candidate for the trash can.

“Mad Men”: Flaccid. Limp. Sorry for the imagery, but what a disappointment the first two episodes of this season were. The two hour premiere was an exercise in tedium—Don Draper doing his “man of mystery” number again while screwing his neighbor’s wife, and what else is new? (By the way, I never would have recognized Linda Cardellini if her name hadn’t appeared in the closing credits). We already know what a rotten childhood Don had, but Matthew Weiner insists on belaboring the issue. At this point I want no more Draper flashbacks whatsoever unless they feature Anna Draper.

Based on the background news casts in last week’s episode, it appears we’re at the beginning of 1968, but where’s the creative snap of this era? Advertising was exploding at that time, what with the “let it all hang out” attitude, yet you’d never know it from what we’ve seen so far. And what’s Joan up to, besides putting down Mr. New Jersey Jaguar Dealership? She’s a partner in SCDP, and should have taken Lane Pryce’s job (though you can bet the boys won’t make her a VP). I enjoyed the Peggy scenes, especially those with her gossiping with Stan, but the show as a whole seems stuck in a rut. Relief is desperately needed.

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southland-cast-regina-king-michael-cudlitz-shawn-hatosy-ben-mckenzieThis season of “Southland” (and perhaps the entire series) ended on a fitting if unhappy note last Wednesday. As a big fan of the show I’d like to see it renewed, but if it isn’t, I have to say the producers left things in a logical place. Former Detective Sammy figured out that Ben was behind the robbery at his house, and their confrontation may have been the best scene of the episode. If “Southland” does return I suspect one of these men will be stuck with Dewey as a partner, which would be great comic relief.

John Cooper was left with nothing, perhaps not even his life. His ex-wife decides not to have a child with him, his ordeal at the hands of two meth heads keeps him off the streets and his sergeant refuses to override the brass’s decision on that score (Cooper’s pistol whipping the noisy neighbor demonstrates exactly why). While it looks like he’s gone, a return of “Southland” would no doubt bring word that the neighbors were indeed engaging in cannabis horticulture, thus exonerating Coop. We’ll see.

Only Lydia seemingly got a happy ending (though Sammy talking to his 18 month-old son like an adult is a joy). I say “seemingly” because while Tom Everett Scott is always easy on the eyes, I’m not sure I’d be trusting an ex-partner who threw me under the bus to save his own skin. But hey—if Lydia is happy, I’m happy.

In the meantime, we can only sit, wait, bite our nails and besiege TNT with emails begging them to renew “Southland.” Let your voice be heard by way of this link on TNT’s website. It can’t hurt.

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I love a good pun, and this one is especially welcome, given the events of the last week. It’s a great play on words, and I’ll give you a hint—it’s from a modern dress production of a certain Wagner opera. Sing out if you get it:

Bayerische Staatsoper

Posted in Television

“Mad Men” Unfulfilled—Again

Hopefully the dawn of a new day

The end of each season of “Mad Men” always brings more than a whiff of sadness—we know we’ll be missing the ladies and gentlemen of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce until Matthew Weiner, AMC and/or Lionsgate get their act together and the show returns. But Season Five, which ended last night, leaves us with a new, unsavory feeling. It was like sitting down to a multi-course meal of uncomfortable variety—the appetizer was somewhat routine, the salad was zesty (spiked with LSD), the entrée was spectacular (“The Other Woman” and “Commissions and Fees”), but boy, did the souffle fall flat (the season ender).

Let’s begin with the core of the show—Don Draper. Here’s a man who’s not in touch with the zeitgeist, but who’s in a profession where this is essential. Don still thinks like it’s 1960, in his marriage and his business, but the culture is exploding all around him. He knows the Beatles, but that’s it. No wonder he’s threatened by Ginsburg, leaving his better Sno Ball idea in the taxi on the way to the client presentation. Yes, he wowed Jaguar, but look whom he was addressing—a bunch of old fogies like himself. Don may be only 40, but in 1966, 40 was a lot older than it is today. It was the 1960’s that made that change, as “Mad Men” is beginning to illustrate in its usual deft fashion. We’ll see more of this next season, I’m sure, because last night ended at the outset of 1967. The Summer of Love is dead ahead.

Let’s talk about what “Mad Men” got right in Season Five—the portrayal of the various choices women of that era were forced to make (and still do). I can’t say enough about “The Other Women” and the juxtaposition of Joan, Peggy and Megan as they confronted major issues and responded in illuminating ways. Joan’s sleeping with a key Jaguar decision-maker to secure the account for SCDP tore the heart out of many viewers (myself included), but I can’t argue with the fact that for her it was a practical and sound financial decision. Peggy’s leaving SCDP for a better paying job at a rival agency was long overdue, particularly since we saw her treated so poorly all season long. No lobster for lunch was the least of it—watching Don throw money in her face was the ugliest act we’ve been forced to witness on the show. And aspiring actress Megan’s encountering the cheesecake, if not the casting couch, side of the business was the final punctuation to perhaps the best episode “Mad Men” has aired to date.

We learned more about the characters we thought we knew, not all of it neatly packaged or even nice. Bert Cooper’s non-objection to Joan’s involvement with Mr. Jaguar was a shock. Here’s the zen master himself, a co-founder of the firm, not staking out the high moral ground. Yes, he told Pete to make it clear to Joan that the option was hers, but this was not a reaction the audience expected. On a lighter note, we saw Roger find enlightenment (and end a bad marriage) through LSD in what was the funniest sequence of the entire season. His hallucinating Bert’s picture on the bill he handed the cab driver was priceless. It was fitting that in the closing montage of last night’s episode we saw Roger, buck naked, tripping while meeting the dawn. And though she had little screen time because of January Jones’s pregnancy, we saw Betty Francis acting as both Bad Mom (attempting to poison Sally’s view of her father by revealing his marriage to Anna Draper) and Great Mom (her reassuring and comforting Sally after she got her first period).

The acting on the show remained spectacular. In a season of wonderful performances from Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elizabeth Moss and Kiernan Shipka, Jared Harris cops top honors. His Lane Pryce was haunted all season by the low esteem in which he knew his partners held him, his unfulfilled dream of bedding either Joan or Delores (the woman in the photograph), his tax problems, and ultimately the repercussions of his forging a check on the company account. Harris’s performance in “Commissions and Fees” was nothing short of stellar. I predict that Don’s confrontation with Lane will make the Top 10 list of the show’s best scenes no matter how long it runs.

What I found most irritating about last night’s episode was our being forced to spend so much time with “Mad Men”‘s most annoying characters, namely Pete Campbell, Megan Draper and her mother. While it was not surprising to see Pete sink to even greater depths by setting up Joan and Mr. Jaguar through a series of half-truths, why did we have to endure not only his affair with a fellow commuter’s wife, but her return? And I’m really tired of Matthew Weiner’s crushes on January Jones and Jessica Pare. Neither they nor their characters are all that interesting, and it borders on criminal how much air time was wasted this season on Megan, whether at SCDP or acting class, whether with Don or one or more of her parents. The engine that makes “Mad Men” go is the ad biz, and we didn’t see enough of it this season.

Draper & Olson, anyone?

The highlight of “The Phantom” was without a doubt the scene illustrated on the left. Peggy and Don, equals at last. I have no doubt whatsoever that we haven’t seen the last of Peggy Olson, because in “Mad Men” World her story is second only to Don’s. Given the setting of the show, it hasn’t even reached its peak. I anticipate that she and Don will be reunited, but she’ll be a full partner on her own terms. And since we enjoyed the welcome sight of Freddy Rumsen and Paul Kinsey once again, can’t Sal Romano return to this show for at least one episode next season? He would have been made for the ’60’s, and logically with Peggy now traveling in different professional circles, their paths should cross. While all of this is supposition, we can bank on at least one sure thing—Bert will finally get an office again.

I’m not looking forward to the “Mad Men”–less months ahead, even with the show’s cracks in the wall. It’s still by far the most engrossing hour on TV, and we’re so much the poorer without it.

Posted in Television

Welcome Back

The long wait has finally ended. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is once more open for business. Not, however, without potential problems.

It’s always difficult to get the momentum going again—“The Sopranos” had the same issue, as the gap between seasons continually lengthened. Last night’s two-part “Mad Men” opener got off to a slow start, Megan’s “ooh-la-la” routine notwithstanding. Things felt somewhat off-kilter during that first hour, all stemming from the same cause—the newly joined couple, Don and Megan Draper. This situation has skewed office relationships considerably—by the end of the episode’s second hour, when Megan questions the propriety of her continuing to work there, the entire world is going “Gee, Megan—think so?”

There was an even more important problem—Joan is not totally Joan unless she’s in the office, and one hour and 45 minutes of her at home with her new baby and her hyper-critical mother was no fun at all. Yes, we’ve seen her entertain dinner party guests with her accordian-playing prowess, but nothing tops Joan at work. And I didn’t even like her when the show first began. She reminded me of every office queen bee I’ve ever encountered—disapproving, territorial beyond reason and far from supportive of other women. But my opinion did a 180 with “The New Girl,” the second season episode during which, among other things, Don and Bobbie Barrett are in a car accident and Peggy comes to the rescue. And aside from Peggy’s finally calling her boss by his first name, Joan does her an invaluable service by telling her something she’s needed to hear for quite some time: “You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl.”  Joan’s been one of my favorite characters ever after, and her wry “Whatever may be on your mind?” to Peggy after Don announced his engagement during last season’s finale made me fall off the sofa laughing. Even though Lane is somewhat weird (what’s up with Delores?), I’m glad he appreciates her worth to the firm.

Fortunately Joan’s return to her native habitat is imminent, and the universe righted itself once again though the fallout from Don’s surprise party continued. Harry made an ass of himself on more than one occasion, Pete swung his weight around, Stan was surprisingly funny (especially when he supplied the soundtrack for Peggy’s “Bean Ballet” commercial) and karma did Roger a turn in the form of a bogus 6:00 a.m. meeting.

As was expected, “Mad Men” nailed the appropriate cultural markers with the appearance of weed and equal opportunity picketers. But what makes this show so interesting are changes in the characters and their circumstances: Peggy’s total assurance in client meetings, even when the outcome is disappointing; Roger’s superfluousness at the agency and the souring of his marriage to his trophy wife; Pete’s ruthlessness in baiting and then minimalizing Roger; and Don and Megan’s train wreck of a marriage (he’s the loneliest character on TV and last night’s anvils clued us into how great an actress she is, albeit with a very dark side).

Coming attractions: Looks like we get more than a glimpse of Chez Francis next week with a healthy helping of Betty’s mother-in-law from hell. I’m curious to see their new house in Rye—bet it won’t hold a candle to Don and Megan’s penthouse (the house in Ossining did indeed pay off on resale). And with Sally on the verge of teenhood (my, how Kiernan Shipka has grown), the conflicts will be endless. Can’t wait.