Friday, October 19, 2007

Mad Men Or Mad[e] Men? Uptight Sopranos on Madison Avenue

Last night, I watched the finale of the intriguing period set-piece AMC drama Mad Men and have as many questions about the ending---which has a bit of "Who Shot JR?" ambiguity---which will presumably be answered next Summer when a new edition of the show will air. I went to Nikki Finke and found this link dated to last July:
The series was created by an ex-Sopranos writer/producer, Matthew Weiner, who actually got the gig at HBO’s mob series on the basis of his years-old Mad Men pilot script. It’s not hard to see why, either, since Weiner has an affinity for both the everyday coarseness and psychological shadings in a clubby male society. (And of course, working on a juggernaut like Sopranos ensures you’re as good as a made guy in television, which probably explains why Mad Men — add “e” to that first word, perhaps? — was snapped up by AMC so quickly afterward.) But Weiner also aims to channel the sadness of the time. Imagine a television series created by American literature’s preeminent gray-flannel-nightmare chronicler, Revolutionary Road author Richard Yates, and you get the idea.

I had a long conversation with Richard Yates while he was my sister-in-law's mentor at Boston U. He was a lugubrious chain-smoker with no literary swagger and a genuine interest in other people. He never went to college and was a literary auto-didact. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was his chief champion and one of his novels about Cold Spring Harbour is sticking in my mind as I write this. Nothing flashy nor metaphysical---not a phony bone in his body---that's the Yates I remember.

One thing that is entirely predictable---Dan Darling [Jon Hamm] will become a sort of hunky paradigm for the final cut on the Grey Flannel Suit. The end of Robert Abele's insightful review is good:
this isn’t a show that generates its mojo from getting you to fall in love with its characters — which was ironically what led to the Sopranos disconnect between David Chase’s icy existentialism and gangster-genre aficionados who wanted “closure” — but rather from the clinical charge of observing them moved around like lab creatures in a booby-trapped maze. (Although I can predict fan worship developing for the behind-the-scenes visual team, which includes production designer Dan Bishop, set decorator Amy Wells, prop guy Scott Buckwald and costumer Katherine Jane Bryant, who should all start clearing their awards mantels now.) There’s a surprise reveal at the end of the pilot episode intended to deepen our grasp of semi-conscionable Dan Draper’s complicated world, and while it probably won’t shock anyone, it shows that Weiner has a strategy for the way he develops his characters. Mad Men may thrive on a certain heartless suspense, but it’s definitely got a brain, one that’s interested in how our lives are a battle between the narrative we imagine for ourselves and the path we happen to be on.

Weiner has an uncanny knack the myriad details that evoke an age that now feels centuries ago. But at heart, there is no heart in the series, which makes it timeless in a test-tube sort of way.

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