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'Mad Men': Is the Product Past Its Exasperation Date?

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009

It's no great pleasure to stare for hours at a show that everyone is supposed to (nay, commanded to) adore and come away feeling depressed, underserved and unhip in every way except for a renewed appreciation of teak.

As "Mad Men" returns for a third season Sunday on AMC, the viewer is meant to take the show as an icy meditation on human cruelty, ambition and the emptiness of the sell -- but whose emptiness? Don Draper's, as conveyed by the studiously -- stud-ishly! -- morose Jon Hamm? Our own emptiness? Empty is ultimately the sole point. Never has a show soared to such critical altitude and niche devotion on the art of the cold stare, the unfinished sentence, the trailing plot point.

Some would call it minimalism or strong design. A viewer can only imagine that the scripts for "Mad Men" are padded out with directions that read something like:

Joan, seething, now stares into the middle distance, past the vintage Xerox machine. . . .

Sal fondles the lighter in his fingers and stares ahead in the cathode-ray glow of the TV as it emits canned laughter. . . .

Betty, gripping steering wheel, sits perfectly still without blinking. . . .

Don contemplates the amber hues against the ice in his tumbler. . . .

Fans are only too happy to read "Mad Men's" every gesture, biding time between the show's leaps from one supposed bombshell to another, in every other episode or so. (Don Draper is not really Don Draper!, etc.) They are helpless in the strong, starchy arms of "Mad Men's" effusive sense of cool and the earnestness of its creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writers and actors.

Everything "Mad Men" claims to be about -- from the deception of advertising and the idea that nothing and no one are really as they seem; to the moments just before postmodern American culture exploded; to the imbalances of gender, sexuality and sometimes race, then and now -- it comes by in such a subtle way that at times it has been quite irresistible.

But also disappointing. Boring, somehow. Heretical as it may seem to say, "Mad Men" is the truest example of style over substance. It is shackled by its attention to subtle detail and early-1960s clothing, objects and furniture. (In my house, we call the show "drag for straight people." Now everyone's in on the act, changing their Facebook profile pictures in recent weeks to customized "Mad Men" caricatures, supplied by AMC, stylizing you, you and you with horn-rimmed glasses, sack suits and skinny ties; or bouffant hair and a pencil skirt.)

"Mad Men" promises to eventually sprawl across the social tumult of the Kennedy era and into the Me Decade. Weiner's overarching mission -- to show us our vacuous 21st-century present by metaphorically plumbing our vacuous 20th-century past -- has become the show's burden as well. "Mad Men" has importance sickness, and its idea of levity is to inject moments of utter callousness. Even so: You simply have to watch! The pressure to partake is strange, a byproduct of media fragmentation and vested nichedom these days; no one ever just says "you might like this show" anymore.

In Sunday's opener, some time has gone by. It's now 1963-ish. (The first season began in 1960-ish; last year it was 1962. Weiner and company prefer to leave us guessing until history intervenes with a fixed point, such as the Cuban missile crisis in Season 2.) We might reasonably expect the Kennedy assassination before this season's end, and I wonder what Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) will think of the Beatles.

Briefly, so as not to spoil much but proceed with caution: After his California sojourn, Don Draper (né Dick Whitman) is back and is back in the saddle as creative director at Sterling Cooper, but haunted still by his dark, secret origin story -- in the pre-pre-Google age, he assumed the identity of a dead Korean War soldier.

Don stares into space . . . as he warms milk for his wife, Betty, in bed and ripely pregnant with their third child.

The ad agency, now subsumed by a British agency, eighty-sixes the head of accounts and surreptitiously promotes conniving Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and good-egg Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) as new, competing heads of accounts. I am most satisfied when "Mad Men" busies itself with old-fashioned work of Madison Avenue; listening to Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) divvy up the list between the two ambitious men is a lyrical chant of Sterling Cooper's prowess: "Bacardi, Bird's Eye, Cadbury . . . Chevron Oil, Dunkin' Donuts, Kodak, Popsicle, Warner Bros. . . . Lucky Strike, Maytag, Pampers, Playtex, Utz." ("Why does he get Utz?" Ken interjects.)

Don and sad Sal Romano (lots of staring off into space, which in Sal's case is a deep walk-in closet of covert gay urges) are dispatched to Baltimore to tend to the London Fog account. Bawl'merans are in for a brief treat here: a fleeting look at a re-created Hausner's restaurant! Other "Mad Men" fans will appreciate the episode's locating itself (and Don and Sal) in a hotel, on a business trip, with a bellhop to tempt poor Sal and a stewardess on layover to bag Don:

"It's my birthday," he sighs into her neck.

"Really? Is it?" she says. "Let me see your driver's license."

"That's not gonna help," he says.

A sublime moment, but soon enough, a familiar torpor sets in. Try as I might, "Mad Men" fails to resonate, settle in, tell me something. It can no longer get out of its own way so as to allow its multiple story lines to experience actual forward momentum. (Only the calendar does that.) And, true to its narrative of workplace discrimination, it never seems to give enough material to its outstanding female cast (Hendricks, especially, and Moss, and January Jones as Betty), which can act circles around the men.

Increasingly, even the cigarette smoking looks off, too studied, and now Banana Republic is on the kick, compelling the American consumer to watch (and dress like) "Mad Men." Much of what the show sells as a theme now has to be helped along by the devoted analysis of its thinky fans and, not ironically, the marketers who sell "Mad Men" purely on cool '60s aesthetic. Lately there have been all these catch-up guides, fashion spreads and other primers in magazines and on Web sites, meant to aid the uninitiated in telling their Ken Cosgroves from their Pete Campbells.

On average, "Mad Men" is watched by 1.5 million or so viewers when it actually airs -- barely anyone, in relative terms, so the show depends on a vast afterlife on DVRs, "On Demand" requests and Netflix rentals to keep the hype alive. This is perhaps "Mad Men's" most delicious irony: Hard-core fans and newcomers prefer to wave the magic wand of commercial-elimination before they will watch a show about the most glorious days of advertising.

When the Don Drapers of the world roamed the land, a TV show was just a TV show. It was on when it was on; if you missed it, you missed it. You certainly wouldn't build your life around talking about it or telling other grownups they had to watch old episodes of it in order to catch up. You were supposed to give it two seconds' thought, and you were supposed to buy the products of its advertisers.

Don rolls over, stares at the wall, reaches for his watch, stares at it. . . .

Don ponders the middle distance while the milk on the stove boils over. . . .

Don gazes out the airplane window. . . .

A little dab of "Mad Men's" style goes a long way. If you find yourself with a stack of old episodes, getting ready for more of the "Mad Men" craze, and you want to believe, and yet you lack faith, I am here to absolve you. You read it here first: You do not have to watch "Mad Men."

Mad Men (one hour) airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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