Thursday, July 24, 2008

Madison Avenue Madness Returns

It's dark. It's clever. The writing sparkles and the 1960's period clothing is to die for. Yes, ladies and gents, the Madison Avenue gang from Sterling-Cooper is back for season number 2, this Sunday night, July 27th at 10pm on AMC. The phenomenal series Mad Men returns, carting a wheelbarrow full of 16 Emmy nominations. I'm placing my bet that it will win Best Drama and become the first basic cable program to do so. Shocking that it has taken about 20 years for a basic cable show to get this close to the golden winged statue for TV excellence. If ever a (non-HBO) program deserves one, this is it. From the the exquisite early 60's NY setting, to the smoke filled, sexist and sexy pressure cooker offices of a big NY Ad Agency at mid century...Mad Men is like a long, long drag of a Marlboro cigarette, only it won't kill you. It's a cold Manhattan straight up at the Bull and Bear bar in the Waldorf Astoria during a time when men wore hats and women wore steel belted undergarments like armor.

For those who may have missed part or all of the first season, here's a brief re-cap in advance of Sunday's Round 2 premier. If you plan to spend the weekend catching up on your recorded episodes (AMC played them all last weekend), don't read on. For those who can't, this study guide might help you dive in to Season Two with minimal confusion.

Don Draper (Joe Hamm) is the Creative Director for NY Ad Agency Sterling-Cooper. He is cold and enigmatic, and has assumed the identity of a fallen Korean War comrade in order to escape his small town past. His wife is a blond ice queen who keeps the house clean, dreams about doing the air-conditioner sales man, and sees a shrink for her "nerves". Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is the suave and silver haired boss who has suffered a heart attack at the end of season one. And who would not have a coronary at this agency, since they all smoke cigs incessantly in nearly every scene. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is the shifty, Teutonic, ladder climbing Account Executive. With his boyish face and slicked back hair, he is the office Anti-Christ for all seasons. Mucho evil lurks behind that pale, bland facade. The Art Director Sal Romano (Bryan Batt) is a hugely interesting character. Heavily closeted, he tries to keep up with the non-stop sexist banter. It's like watching Paul Lynde navigate a Stag party.

As riveting as the male members of the cast are, this program would not be as robust without the fantastic female leads. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) plays the flame haired Office Manager and femme fatale. She's like a Gilligan's Island Ginger with brains. But my absolute favorite is Jr. Copywriter Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss). A plain potted plant in an office full of orchids, we've watched her strive to crawl out of the typing pool through season one. She's actually a brilliant and creative advertising genius, and her attempts to climb the ladder of success along with the guys is (to me) one of the most compelling aspects of this series. Which leads to my one plot complaint about season one. Peggy's weight gain turned out to be a pregnancy in the season finale last year, a complication of which she was bizarrely unaware, right up until the birth. I thought this turn was hard to swallow, given that she was established as an intelligent young woman who proved she could swim with the sharks on Madison Ave. We'll see how the writers resolve this discrepancy in Season Two.

There are twists and layers and enough deception to satisfy even the most jaded TV viewer in Mad Men. But for me, the high point of last season, was the final episode ("The Wheel") and it showcases the reason I wanted to tune-in to this series from the very beginning. I believe the world of big Madison Ave advertising is endlessly amazing, and I had hoped, we would get a glimpse of its machinations amidst the soap opera story lines. In "The Wheel", Don Draper is challenged to create an advertising campaign for Kodak's new wheel shaped slide projector, which he renames the Carousel. He begins his pitch to the captivated Kodak execs saying, “This is not a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” As he describes what this product can do with precious family photos, it reveals the real poetry that fuels the creation of a world class advertising campaign. Absolute magic. It resonates with what motivated me to go into this media business, so many moons ago.

Well folks, that should wet your interest. Tune in this Sunday and see Mad Men on AMC. It is the best time machine you will find on TV today.


Lisa said...

Thanks for this great rundown! I am trying to watch some episodes before Sunday's preem! It's certainly getting plenty of press, including lots up here in Canada! Clearly it was the darling of the TV critics' tour this past couple of weeks. Good for AMC!

Lisa said...

I'm on episode six right now and might just get through them all by tomorrow's 2nd season preem. Let me say -- I LOVE this show! I had missed so many and was feeling so bad about it. Though the eps are not online at AMC, there are places to watch and let us know if you need leads to them.