Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Boys of Summer (part 1)

Thought I'd take a break from all this comics stuff to talk about two new summer television shows. Though both are very different from one another they both are period pieces that are high on the testosterone.

The first is AMC's dramedy, Mad Men. The show is set at the end of the 1950s in a Madison Avenue ad agency (hence, the title of the show), during an era when WASPs were still the majority, and cigarette smoking, sexual harassment, and the two-martini lunch were socially (and legally) acceptable in the work place. The ad and junior execs at the agency portrayed on the show were the Masters of the Universe of their time. The show takes place at the height of the space age, when skinny ties and pomaded hair were in, and the show captures the era well.

The main protagonist is Don Draper, a steely senior ad exec at Sterling Cooper, a topnotch New York City ad agency. He's surrounded by a bevy of ambitious junior execs who they see him as their role model but, in the cutthroat business world, also are after his job. The show follows the professional and personal lives of the various characters on the show and the ad agency—ranging from Scott to the junior execs, to the office secretaries—within the context of the era. All of the secretaries, for example, are subject to the advances of the business executives (whether they are married or not is irrelevant).

Some of the funniest moments in the show come in showing the difference mores of the time. At one party, for example, a pregnant woman is seen smoking and drinking (interestingly, I saw a similar joke in Hairspray as well). In another, a little girl runs around placing "astronaut" with a plastic bag over her entire body without anyone batting an eyelash. And, of course, everyone smokes like a chimney. (Another funny running gag in a couple episodes has involved Republicans trying to recruit Scott for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign who's described as "smart, good looking, and a World War II vet." There also is the obviously gay art director whose nearly every uttered line is a double entendre, yet its clear he does his best to pass as straight.)

Yet the show also has a vague, off-putting Blue Velvet feel to it. This primarily is embodied by the character of Scott, who despite his success projects a sense of ennui and emptiness; his character seems self-aware and conscious of the vacuousness of his job and the era (which I suspect will lead to some reveal about his past at some point in the show).

Actor Jon Hamm, who portrays Scott, does a great job anchoring the show, projecting a real William Holden-like masculine presence that's not often seen among actors today. The other standout on the show is Vincent Kartheiser as the baby-faced Pete Campbell who both idolizes and resents Scott, while also lusting for his job. The most ambitious and alpha-male among the junior execs, his character initially came off as a typical frat-boy exec, yet some interesting facets to his character have emerged that suddenly have made him one of the show's more intriguing personalities.

The show has a quiet force to it, and all of the drama is in the personalities. It's a compelling show and I'm curious to see where it goes in upcoming episodes.

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