It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Men World

250px-The_Bob_Newhart_ShowWhen I was a kid I grew up watching the Bob Newhart Show, and I don’t mean the one that took place in a hotel. I mean the old school show where Bob was the psychologist in the big city. I remember watching that show and dreaming of New York (I had no idea the exterior shots of the buildings used in the show were from Chicago), over the years I’ve always had a huge place in my heart for the Big Apple. Whether it was being saved by Spiderman, slammed by Seinfeld, blown up by aliens, backdrop for my favorite Woody Allen movies, or my favorite action movies, New York is my “dream city,” as much as I’d love to live in San Francisco, if I was rich I’d spend a few years living in New York before I die. Heck… I even watch the Today Show most mornings mainly because it’s such a New York show.

story_xlimage_2010_12_R4653_Times_Square_Photo_Contest_123010It’s the New York from the 60s and 70s that I remember from my childhood, the one from French Connection, Midnight Cowboy, Annie Hall, Muppets Take Manhattan… You know the classics. I’m fascinated by the idea of a completely man-made place where endless concrete and steel serves as the doorway to America. That from one side of Manhattan to the other it’s completely covered with streets, buildings, shops, houses… No rolling hills or tree lines like we have here.

Enter AMC’s critically acclaimed drama, Mad MenĀ which returns for its sixth season this Sunday, the latest chapter in the fictional history of New York. It’s the story of Don Draper and his struggles as he becomes one of Madison Avenue’s most celebrated ad men. The most compelling part of Mad Men is that Don is literally not who he seems to be. Spoilers aren’t needed, because it’s well known Don is really Dick Whitman, and has been hiding his identity ever since the real Don Draper was blown to bits in front of him in Korea. don-draperThe ol dog-tag switcheroo and Dick becomes Don, and gets a ride home from the war with a Purple Heart. Don came back from the war and started writing copy for Sterling Cooper, a prestigious New York ad company that was wrangling huge 1960s companies such as Lucky Strikes and Kodiak. Years of lying about his identity and acting as Don Draper have turned this man into a brilliant schmoozer, the king of the board room. Seriously, Don Draper could sell cigarettes in a iron lung.

Mad Men is set in 1960 in the first season, and has subsequently moved forward in time over the tumultuous decade. Mad_Men_Season_6,_Promotional_PosterOften the date is relayed through the events in the show, the Kennedy Assassination in the early seasons, and now the Civil Rights struggles has quickly become a hugely compelling storyline. It’s always done with genius and an eye for detail. Why do you think Mad Men won the Best Drama Emmy 4 years straight? I’ll tell you right now, it’s not because this is some stuffy intellectual show. This is the essence of the human condition, reflected through the lens of one of the most important times in history… And it’s SO New York. It’s got beatniks and junkies and smoke-filled offices filled with drunken sex and infidelity. It’s got smokey bars and taxi rides, high-rise apartments and back-alley infidelity… And I’ll tell you what else Mad Men‘s got. Joanie.

joanLike I said, season 6 of Mad Men starts this Sunday night, and season 5 was just put on Netflix today, so if you need to catch up, now is the time. I’ve got it queued up and ready to go. While I’ll admit the show has lost a bit of what made it great in the beginning, the pitches, the products, the Draper… I absolutely love how the story has evolved, things change, people die, while Don gets even more rich and powerful, his inability to keep his “Dick his pants” so to speak gets harder and harder. I guess that joke does work both ways.

If you look hard, you’ll even notice a similarity between the Bob Newhart Show and Mad Men, and that’s the AWESOME sunken floor in the Drapers’ new house. It’s a gorgeous house that we get a good tour of in the opening shots of season 5… Right before Sally (Don’s teenage daughter) goes all creepy-sexual over daddy’s new 20-something wife half-naked in bed. This show is SO good. I’m tired of pleading with people that haven’t watched it yet. Your loss! I’ll see you all Sunday night when we’re all glued to the TV.

And yes, I’ll be watching it without cable.

For Mad Men

I don’t care what your excuse is, if you haven’t seen AMC’s iconic Sunday night show Mad Men, you are way behind. While it might not be the cup of tea for Two and a Half Men fans or Reality TV junkies, winning Best Dramatic series for three years might be a clue that you should be tuning in. In fact now is the best time to catch up on your Mad Men. Netflix has added every episode to it’s streaming service and AMC is preparing to rerun the entire show so far in lieu of the postponed March premiere of the next season. Normally those of us who define our Augusts by our Sunday night programming are euphoric due to new episodes of Mad Men, however due to the show’s producers wrangling with AMC over it’s future, filming is just now getting started for season 5.

In case you still haven’t seen it, Mad Men revolves around an old-school ad agency in the early 60s on Madison Ave in New York… and specifically it’s tormented, philandering, and extremely talented front man Don Draper. I could spend an entire post heaping rave upon rave for John Hamm‘s performance in this role (which has won him a Golden Globe and an Emmy Nom this year, by the way). Don Draper is the ultimate anti-hero, he’s handsome, smooth-talking, clever, and consistently makes every bad decision he can regarding his personal life. He is the ultimate American man of his time period- he drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney, and screws everything that walks in front of him… and whose world, so intricately built and maintained, comes falling down around him as the show progresses.

What the show does so brilliantly is reflect the changing perceptions in America in the early 60s, from the changing role of women (at home and in the workplace), divorce, and political upheaval, war, and the rise of the youth movement and television. That may seem like a broad stroke, but the genius of Mad Men is it’s ability to handle these issues while not ever becoming preachy or over sentimental (no Wonder Years here).

What I believe to be one of the best episodes of the entire show comes at the end of the third season, and forgive my partial spoilers, but if you haven’t seen the show- you’ll forget anyway. Don Draper, whose marriage to Betty has been on the rocks for a season now, gets a double-dose of bad news in one day. First, his long-time employer Sterling Cooper, the hottest small ad agency in the business is about to be folded into the workings of a larger, overseas corporation- meaning the death bell for the careers of almost every talented character we’ve followed so far.

Secondly, his wife hits him with the “big D” as he comes home one night from the office. Sadly, their three children are also caught in the middle. In a brilliant scene that I imagine would spark total recall for millions of Americans, Don and Betty sit the two older kids down in the living room to explain the upcoming change in the family- to which they respond with painful, childhood honesty. When Don states, “I’m not going, I’ll just be living elsewhere…”

The oldest, Sally, responds with, “That’s GOING, you say things and you don’t mean them, you can’t just do that! You said you’d always come home…” before storming out of the room to leave the 6-year-old boy clutching his father’s leg and begging him not to go.

While this isn’t a strange or even original scene to see these days, however the way in which it is handled, the humanity of the children and the impossible explanation from their divorcing parents is so well portrayed that it stirs something in our collective memory. For most viewers, it hits us in the gut. The feeling that we’re not just seeing the Draper family fail, but our own childhood memories of divorce and separation are echoed across time- as it is easy to imagine these two small children as our own parents- compiles with our own adult experiences of going through divorce. How masterfully the writers handle the great tragedy of the late 20th century- the perceived crumbling of the American family. We know that the characters will go on as much as we are able to conjure up the post-divorce lives we or loved ones have lived in reality, and yet the tragedy of the Draper family is the tragedy of tens of millions of people across the country.

A tragedy that Don gives a perfect point to later in the episode while trying to convince his ex-secretary-turned-talented-artist/copy-writer Peggy to follow him as he decides to strike out on his own in the Ad game. “Do you know why I don’t want to go to McCann [the company attempting to buy out the agency]? Because there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me… and something happened. Something terrible… And the way that they saw themselves… is gone… and nobody understands that… but you do… and it’s very valuable. With you, or without you, I’m moving on… and I don’t know if I can do it alone. Will you help me?”

When Peggy asks him if she says no if he’ll hate her and never talk to her again, Don responds, “No, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.”

Now if you haven’t seen the show, this might seem trivial… but in the context of the episode where Kennedy has just been shot and America has been turned on its ear… it is the perfect scene to highlight the truest of human tragedy- the loss of innocence and identity in the face of perseverance and the American dream… and it is this symbolism and nostalgia-laced loss that is the real genius behind Mad Men. That while we struggle to maintain the status quo, the world gives us curve balls impossible to avoid, and our fight against that change is the source of our greatest hope- and our most tragic loss.

Tune in, this show is a MUST SEE!