This week, something new for the column: I invited my fellow TV critic, Shaun Hamid, to sit in and discuss the highly acclaimed Mad Men.   I hope that our discussion will draw more comments from you readers and start a discussion about this celebrated show.  Consider it a sort-of Siskel & Ebert type of exchange, if you will.

Scott: Last month. AMC’s Mad Men became the first basic cable show to win the Emmy for best dramatic series.  This was quite a feat for a show that airs on the little-watched AMC. Created by Matthew Weiner (an executive producer for The Sopranos), Mad Men (the show derives its name from what the Madison Avenue ad men used to call themselves) is set in the early 1960s, when postwar conservative ‘50s values carried over into the new decade.  Men were the breadwinners, women stayed at home and raised the children, and anything outside of this “norm” was seen as controversial and scandalous. 

Mad Men does a remarkable job of capturing the tone and look of that era in the way the characters speak and act, as well as the meticulous attention to detail. The clothes, the sets, everything is pretty much pitch perfect. The main character is Don Draper, played by actor Jon Hamm. Draper is a rising star in the advertising world and a partner in the firm of Sterling/Cooper. When he isn’t gulping scotch, smoking endless cigarettes and proving that he has an undeniable gift for selling things to consumers, Draper is on his way to becoming a captain of industry and a member of the elite class. Yet, Draper isn’t all that he seems. He doesn’t lead just a double life, this guy harbors so many secrets he carries on a triple and quadruple life.  Born Dick Whitman, he’s the bastard child of a prostitute and grew up poor on a farm.  He fought in the Korean war and when his commanding officer was killed in the line of duty, assumed the fallen soldier’s identity to escape his miserable past.  By age 19, Draper began harboring the first of his many secrets.  That he has been able to rise to the top of the advertising world is a mystery, but it’s a good mystery and one that has kept the cult like fan base watching for over two seasons.

As Draper demonstrates, Mad Men is a show about secrets.  Marital affairs, hidden sexuality, children out of wedlock, discreet alcoholism, and most of all, secret identities — everyone is keeping something locked away. Choosing the 1960s to explore these themes was a brilliant idea since it was an era when everything was kept close to the vest, so to speak.  Yet, the times they are a changin’, to quote Dylan. The counterculture movement is beginning to rear its head and that, I think, is what will keep the show moving forward into the next season.  Draper acts as a reflection of ‘60s society, walking the line between the past and the future. In Draper you see a man who is a part of that 1950s mentality-family, home in the burbs, 9-5 job- but there is a part of him that feels so in touch with that wanderlust spirit of the bohemian crowd.  This was explored more closely in season 1 when he had the ongoing affair with his artist mistress (Rosmarie DeWitt as Midge-sorely missed in season 2).  Although he has a gorgeous wife (the underrated January Jones as Betty) and two adoring children, being the family man has been difficult. While there is a part of him that truly wants the domestic life and who truly loves Betty, there is also a part of him that just wants to fly, to get out and explore.  Draper’s yearning has been dampened through most of season 2, but the writers wisely returned to this character theme in recent episodes. While in Los Angeles for business, he meets a beautiful young woman who is a part of a group of European nomads (I get the feeling that they may be communists). They live in expensive houses and wear designer clothes, but they have no jobs and are ready to drop everything and fly overseas. With an invitation to join them, the allure of just dropping everything and starting anew pulls at Draper.

Of course, he’s done this once before, having ditched his poor farm origins and his God-given name of Dick Whitman to start a new life.  This is the one secret that Draper may not be able to maintain for much longer.  In season 1, his brother appeared out of nowhere to get reacquainted (before tragically committing suicide) and then the slimy Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) tried to expose his secret to his bosses at Sterling/Cooper (to no avail).  It’s only a mater of time before Dick Whitman’s name surfaces in front of Betty and the house of cards that Draper has built falls apart.

Shaun: I agree that the compelling center of Mad Men is Draper.  He is the personification of the decade of the 1950s.  One of the great design facets of Mad Men is that we are watching a group of men clinging to a doomed world.  It is akin to seeing the relatively quiet morning that preceded the Pearl Harbor attack.  The culture of the ’50s is the backbone of how these men interact with everything around them.  They indulge racism and sexism as aspects of their culture and the audience is sort of in on the joke that awaits them.  By the end of the decade they are in, the remnants of their world will be wiped away or transformed by the counterculture that will unsurp these men in the cozy corners.  That is part of the fascination with the events that go on in Mad Men. Draper is the eye we see this transition through.  Draper as a character and Hamm as an actor are the reason to watch the show.  Seeing him, “warts and all” to quote John Lennon, is what steadies you in the face of the often despicable things he and his brethren do.  His errors are human, and often we can see them in ourselves.

However, I don’t believe that Hamm as Draper is indicative of the show as a whole. Its indulgence of the early ‘60s is often abrasive, as though they are trying to force the culture down your throat.  Most of the peripheral characters live up to their second billing too often.  Two particular standouts are the aforementioned January Jones as Betty Draper.  Her gradual development into a stronger and more present female character in a show woefully low on strong female characters is a welcome presence. That is followed very closely by Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson. Her character mirrors Draper in a way that connects her strongly with the arc of the series.  You believe that Peggy will be the shot fired that will unrest the world that these men live in.  The beginnings of that are seen from her arrival in the first episode, through her secret pregnancy and through to her ascension to a role with the boys in the office.  Like Draper, in spite of her rather dark choices, you believe that there is something inherently good inside of Peggy.  You believe that, like you do with Draper, because Moss is an evocative actress in a role that stands out from the many sometimes unremarkable characters that surround her.

Scott: The women had stronger roles in the first season. In season 1, you had the three women Draper was intimately involved with.  Two were strong and independent (Midge and Rachel Menken, a rich, lonely client-portrayed by Maggie Siff), while Betty gradually came into her own as she began to cast off Draper and become her own woman (something that’s been explored in greater detail in season 2).  And of course there was Peggy. As you said, Shaun, she is the mirror of Draper.  We’ve learned throughout this current season that Peggy is pretty good at keeping her own secrets.  The only other woman with any significance is Joan (Christina Hendricks).  Unfortunately, I feel like more is made of Hendricks’ voluptuous figure than her fine acting or what her character is going through.  Betty’s development has become the central female storyline and the rest of the male supporting cast has been brought to the fore throughout these recent episodes.  Most notably, Salvatore’s (Bryan Bratt) slow realization of his homosexuality and the always effective John Slattery’s Roger Sterling’s mid life crisis.  If I have one fear for this show, it’s that as season 3 comes along there will become too great an effort to make every  character relevant and that will distract the writers from following through and completing the story and mystery of Don Draper and the a lesser extent, finishing the arc of Peggy’s story.  You see this happen with almost every drama series.  It happened with The Sopranos, that’s for sure.

It’s funny, when a show is as good as Mad Men, critics start digging for reasons that the show isn’t perfect.  You could also include that lack of any characters of color in this show as a knock against it.  However, even racism has and seems like it will be explored more deeply in subsequent episodes (the series was just renewed for a third season).  We have seen on supporting character involved in an interracial romance and how his co-workers reacted to it.  Moreover, that same character drove south to work in the civil rights movement.  Should the show jump ahead another year or two like they did between seasons 1 and 2, I would hope that race begins to become an issue they explore.  They have handled Salvatore’s sexual orientation so graciously, I have no doubt they would tackle the race issue with equal aplomb.

Shaun: I agree that the handling of Salvatore’s sexuality has been amazing.  In fact, in a recent episode the character Kurt, played by Edin Cali revealed his homosexuality so casually that it jars the viewer quite effectively.  The most resounding brilliance of this scene is the stunned envy Salvatore shows.  I believe this is the power that Mad Men has in a nutshell.  The social issues that seem universal today were held down or hidden away from the men in this world.  They make you so comfortable with that, when something breaks that up you are jarred.  Your comfort watching the show is just as rocked as the world these men live in.  I am also curious to see how the race issue is invited into the show.  The movement was in full-swing by 1962, the current year in the show.  Rosa Parks’ boycott and the university integrations had all already happened.  Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is less than a year away.  I do not think that their absence is an oversight, but rather it is a demonstration how insulated from the turbulence that is overcoming the country this world really is.  For all their sophistication, in many ways these men are the sheltered children of the world.

The issues of the sixties are not really ignored at all.  A large storyline in season 1 was the election of John F. Kennedy.  It was an effective introduction to the show’s concept of the power of marketing.  A fact that is illustrated by the better marketed candidate winning the election for President of the United States.  In spite of the weakness of its supporting cast, and the sometimes uneven nature of their place in the story, where Mad Men consistently excels is when the cast backdrops this old world.  When you are so transfixed by their place and time that you forget your own knowledge of the world that follows it is when you understand what the writers are intending with this show.  They are embedding what we see coming in every moment of the show.  They do this with some of the most monumental events in the history of the United States.  The most effective statement is that this almost always happens most effectively when Draper is on the screen.

In spite of the few complaints Mad Men is an important show for all its skill.  It plays well at once as a timepiece, mystery, and drama. Furthermore, it consistently constructs a storyline that resonates with you even a few days after you watch it.  You are trying to figure it out while you are letting it move you, and that is a sign of a show of remarkable achievement.  It’s a testament to its quality, like Scott pointed out, that we try so hard to find faults within it.  Mad Men may not be a perfect show, but it is possibly one of the first dramas in a long time to advance the art form and find a new and  distinct voice in the genre.  That is a fact that it is hard to find fault with.