News Column

'Mad Men' ends a divisive, but vivid season: TV Talk this week

June 21, 2013

YellowBrix

June 21--Don Draper is a philanderer. He drinks way too much. His attitude toward his job ranges from irresponsible lack of interest to ruthless power grabs. He treats colleagues with disdain. As a father, he's neglectful at best, a destructive influence at worst.

This is the Don Draper that "Mad Men" introduced viewers to all the way back in 2007, in Season 1. And it's essentially the same man whose troubled spirit has loomed over Season 6, which concludes at 10 p.m. Sunday night on AMC.

How you feel about the sixth season -- which has been one of the most divisive ever -- comes down to how you feel about Don, as played by the resourceful Jon Hamm. And amid the torrent of online recaps, comments and general gabbery this show inspires, a distinct thread has emerged: a lot of people are done with Don.

A commenter on Oregonlive who goes by "JeffR" spoke for many when he wrote: "In its sixth year, 'Mad Men' feels like a show that has run out of ideas, and has decided, when in doubt, just give Don another affair. Don's wandering eye is so recycled as to be boring at this point. Further, where Don was once a troubled figure, fighting to overcome a difficult past, now he is little more than a confirmed cad devoid of anything redeeming. Part of why the show deteriorates every season is its unrelenting cynicism."

It's not surprising that viewers who find Don too unsympathetic to care about may be tiring of the show. Because, as "Mad Men" creator and guiding force Matthew Weiner has said, the show is squarely about Don Draper and his struggle to find a way to live with himself and make some sense of his existence.

"I feel like Don is like a lot of existential characters," Weiner told Terry Gross in an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" in April. Don is "brave in the face of death but more deeply, deeply afraid of it -- and trying to find some purpose and some control over it -- because he is aware of the sort of meaninglessness of life."

Like the antihero at its center, "Mad Men" is similarly willing to wander through dark territory. In the first few seasons, the show's early 1960s setting was so novel, and the vintage fashions so chic, that even the dated, outrageous sexism and misbehavior of the men who worked in advertising had a roguish glamour to it.

But Season 6 takes place in 1968, what Weiner has called "in the top two or three worst years in U.S. history." The season opener found Don relaxing on a beach in Hawaii but consumed with reading "Dante's Inferno" (a gift, it turned out, from his mistress). Episodes have touched on some of the hellish events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the ongoing combat in Vietnam.

The season has been criticized by some for its handling of the social issues that were part of 1968's upheaval (African American characters and other minorities remain barely acknowledged) and reflecting real world tragedies through the lens of its self-absorbed characters.

While there's no doubt Season 6 hasn't had as many standout episodes as some, I'd argue the season has brought some of the most affecting scenes in series history. By this point, we know the characters so well, and their histories and relationships have become so rich, that watching Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) sit and drink and talk is deeply satisfying.

Weiner and the show's writers have long had a weakness for overly formal, spell-out-the-themes dialogue, which can make the actors sound as if someone's holding them on a leash, watching over every syllable. It's been a relief to hear the characters -- and the actors -- sound more relaxed.

I'm thinking of the intimate moments between Don and his ex-wife, Betty (January Jones), in "The Better Half," in which the now-divorced couple speak more freely and honestly than they ever did when they were married.

Equally striking was "A Tale of Two Cities," which featured an emotional confrontation between longtime workmates Peggy and Joan (Christina Hendricks). The dialogue and the performances spoke volumes about these two female trailblazers, who have worked to overcome office obstacles and sexism in dramatically different ways.

Even when the season's storylines seemed to be meandering, Weiner kept delivering little treats. New ad agency partners Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) and Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin, in a delightfully dry, witty performance) added office intrigue. Eager-to-please newbie Bob Benson (James Wolk) kept viewers guessing about what his agenda might be. Last week's revelation disappointed some, who found Benson's secret backstory too reminiscent of Don's not-what-he-seems origins. But to my mind, Wolk's terrific work all season has made Bob Benson an energizing addition.

What will happen in the season finale? As usual, Weiner's not dropping hints. All we know is that the episode title is "In Care Of," and has this hilariously cryptic plot description: "Don has a problem."

Only one?

With the next season of the show expected to be its last, Weiner may be setting us up for some major changes. Will there be fallout for Don, now that his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) knows that he's been having sex with Sylvia (Linda Cardellini), his married neighbor? Will Megan (Jessica Pare) give up on trying to make her marriage to Don work?

At this point, things aren't looking very appealing for Don. To Hamm's credit, he hasn't shied away from showing us Don stripped of his appeal, the inner emptiness apparent in his creased, sweaty face. His repeating loop of escape mechanisms -- affairs, booze, cigarettes -- keeps leading Don back to the same place.

Questions linger for Don and everyone else as 1968 nears its end: Who can you trust? What happened to the old ways of doing things? What will the new ways look like?

History has taught us that there aren't easy answers to any of those questions. But "Mad Men" has never been about easy answers, not for its characters, or viewers. That may make it maddening -- but it's also what makes "Mad Men" consistently fascinating, challenging and surprising.

"Portlandia" gets out the Emmy vote: The promotion team at IFC is nothing if not creative. Now they're following in the footsteps of last year's "Put an Emmy on it" campaign for "Portlandia," which featured a playful spot in which then-Portland Mayor Sam Adams made the case for "Portlandia" getting nominated for Emmy awards. This year's Emmy campaign brings another unlikely strategist: James Carville, Democratic operative extraordinaire and well-known Ragin' Cajun.

In a tongue-in-cheek video, Carville -- the "deputy campaign strategist" for the campaign -- is initially confused about what he's stumping for. "A show about what," he says, "is trying to get nominated to what?" But then he makes the pitch for Emmy voters to nominate "Portlandia."

But wait -- there's more. IFC sent a package to the office including buttons ("Baristas for Portlandia"), bumper stickers ("Bike Messengers of America Say 'Put an Emmy On It!'"), and a poster of show co-creators, co-writers and co-stars Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen.

The promo package included a DVD with two episodes "For Your Emmy Consideration." They're among the best of Season 3, "Alexandra," featuring guest star Chloe Sevigny; and the season finale, "Blackout." These are also the two episodes Brownstein recently told me were her favorites from Season 3.

There's also a Tumblr page (voteportlandia2013.tumblr.com) showing "Vote Portlandia" swag displayed around Portland, as well as farther afield in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles.

Last year, "Portlandia" was nominated in two primetime Emmy categories, outstanding directing for a variety series, and outstanding writing for a variety series. It didn't win, but they didn't have Carville on the campaign team last year.

And there's always next year, and the year after that -- as IFC announced recently, "Portlandia" will return for Seasons 4 and 5 in early 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Program of the year? With so much good programming on TV, it's no easy task deciding which shows and performers are the very best. It certainly wasn't for me, when I was among the critics submitting nominations for the Television Critics Association (TCA) Awards, the annual recognition of the year's top achievements in TV.

This year's TCA Awards nominees have been announced, and among the shows earning spots are the standout FX freshman series, "The Americans"; the Netflix-streaming series, "House of Cards"; "Mad Men"; "Game of Thrones"; "Veep"; and "Parks and Recreation."

Nominated performers include past winners such as Louis C.K. ("Louie") and Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad"), as well as Lena Dunham ("Girls") and Tatiana Maslany ("Orphan Black," on BBC America).

Perhaps the most notable news is the strong showing by "The Americans," the FX series set in the 1980s Cold War era, about married Soviet agents (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) spying while living undercover as Washington, D.C., suburbanite parents. The series started out strong and kept getting better, and TCA voters nominated it for four awards, including outstanding new program; outstanding achievement in drama; and program of the year, along with "Breaking Bad" (AMC), "Game of Thrones" (HBO), "House of Cards" (Netflix), and "The Walking Dead" (AMC).

Which one would you vote for as program of the year? It's not easy to decide, is it?

-- Kristi Turnquist

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