Monday, November 4, 2013

Mad Men (TV show)

These things happen.

And now a word about Mad Men. My wife and I are behind, because we must be behind, there isn't time in the day to watch TV on any regular basis (though we did begin watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a family event on Tuesdays and I am beginning to regret that) but when we have a free evening, we will catch and episode or two of what must be the best-written program I have ever enjoyed.


On several occasions TV networks have tried to capture the 1960s in a bottle, through movies like The 60's (1999) or more recently the series American Dreams (2002 - 2005). From what I understand, these programs failed because the goal of these projects was to once again remind us what an amazing time the 1960s were, that there was never a period of history more important than that one, and that we must once more venture into these heady days, if only to understand, man.

They were, of course, created by Baby Boomers. Like the movie Forrest Gump, another tribute to that era which ironicly puts a moron at the center of great, historic events even though he has no idea how he got there ... like most Boomers who didn't actually do anything but just lived it and feel they earned their place in history. Like George W. Bush.

Mad Men, however, tricked everyone into thinking it was a cheeky period piece. Created by a member of Generation X (Matthew Weiner, b. 1965) he chronicles the events at a fictional advertising agency during a period before he was even born, starting in 1960. And in its way (because I know too much about what is going to happen already) this series stands out in its ability to tell the story of the times and how they were a'changin' better than anyone has for the obvious reason that he started with interesting characters, cast great if largely unknown actors, and have provided them with powerful writing.

Last night we took in the episodes The Fog and Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency back to back.

Let me start by saying my brother tipped me off, maybe a few months ago, that there will be an awful moment involving a lawnmower. And let me say that, in spite of this warning, when someone literally rides a John Deere mower into the office of Sterling Cooper, I was paying such deep attention to all the details of every storyline, that it didn't even occur to me that I was looking at a lawnmower and that something terrible was about to happen.

Back up. So Don's wife Betty (January Jones) is having their third child. Watching childbirth on TV, anything to do with it, always presents an ick factor for me. Because I know what it is to be afraid, every single time. Sometimes they die, these things happen. But not on TV. Even the episode of Six Feet Under, a TV show about death, gave one of the main characters a preeclampsia scare which concluded with a healthy baby and mother. These things happen, except not on TV.

Well, there was that one episode of E.R. I watched, the only episode of E.R. I ever watched, where Doctor Mark Green misses the signs, but even in that one the mother dies, not the baby. Never the baby.

Actor Matt Bushell has a featured role as a prison guard who is expecting his first child and shares the waiting room with Don (John Hamm).  The wife and I were marveling afterwards at what totally amazing scenes they shared together. Bushnell had this incredible, fully-formed character for these few scenes, going emotionally toe-to-toe with John Hamm, it's just another example of what great writing and acting and directing has the potential to be. The guard's anxiety and fear about losing his wife (who is having a very difficult labor, it is a breech birth) and what might happen if he needs to raise a child on his own are palpable and real. His euphoria at the news of the birth of his first child, a son, are beautiful.

After Don's child is born, he visits Betty in the hospital with flowers. He passes the guard pushing his wife down the hall in a wheelchair, Don smiles brightly, the guard looks blank, catches Don's eye, a smile of recognition flickers but then he looks down and away. Cut to Don, who appears confused.

It's such a brief moment. It's never referred to again. These things happen. Who caught that?

Episode reviews:
TIME: Like many of you, I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of the shamed look Dennis [the guard] seemed to give Don when he ran into him in the hallway. But I wonder if it goes back to his pledge that having the baby would make him “a better man,” and realizing now that it was just nerves and the Johnnie Walker talking.

The A.V. Club: And what does the later scene when the two men pass each other in the hall mean? Dennis can’t acknowledge Don. Is he a reminder of a promise already broken?

The Guardian: When Dennis ignores him later on, you almost wonder if their exchange really happened.
Most reviews I found do not even mention this moment. They were all so preoccupied with the guard, with Don, and with Don's issues, no one notices what is so terribly obvious.

The guard, his wife. There is no baby.

As for Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency - one of the most (literally) painful puns in the history of television - I can hardly share the pertinent details. Suffice to say I woke several times in the middle of the night, rubbing my feet together like a neurotic grasshopper.

What is shocking to me is that this program, Mad Men, which received a great deal of attention at the outset because it featured smoking and drinking and wild office parties, and presented this kind of nostalgia for the good old days when men were men and women were women and no one sued you for being an asshole in the workplace, evolved slowly (but not that slowly) into a rumination on the fragility of human existence.

Even in the midst of an ordinary day, you can die. Someone you love might die. A complete stranger can be horribly maimed, right in front of you. You can put your love hope and trust into another person who will hurt you. You can be vaulted from joy to the deepest sorrow, in a moment, just by moving through the ordinary pathways of life.

I have watched in horror as my wife split her brow, my son's skull was fractured, my daughter's forehead gashed, and I have held a dead baby. Ordinary life fucking scares me.

If moments like the lawnmower incident were commonplace in the storyline, the show would be grotesque. Seeming as it so totally random (except, come on people, don't drink and mow) is to me just one more reminder that these things happen, all the time, and we must be careful.

Originally posted on Daddy Runs Fast.

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