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Mad Men Wins Raves, Not Ratings

The hit series has all the earmarks of appointment television, but viewers keep forgetting to put it on their calendar.

by
Christian Toto

Bio

July 26, 2008 - 12:00 am

AMC’s original series Mad Men only has a single season under its belt, but it’s already become a staple of nearly every television critic’s “Best of” list.

Maybe it’s the cigarette smoke getting in their eyes. The flawed but fascinating series just picked up 16 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series.

Being beloved by the critical masses hasn’t inspired an equal sized ratings boost, and it’s hard to see that changing any time soon. No one gets whacked on the show, and lead actor Jon Hamm remains such an inscrutable sort it’s hard to rally to his cause.

To the show’s credit, it’s not acting like the new king of cable television. The first episode of the show’s second season, which lights ‘em up at 10 p.m. EST Sunday night (July 27), is in no hurry to reveal just where it will tread this summer.

In that way, it mirrors the uneven greatness of HBO’s The Sopranos, which never tied any single story thread into a bow for the audience’s sake. It’s no accident that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner once wrote for the HBO mob drama. Mad Men expects viewers to patiently follow along, but the primal juices flowing through The Sopranos were far more engaging than anything on display here.

Mad Men snuck onto the scene last July, born on a channel not known for original fare. It won’t catch viewers off guard again, but if it doesn’t offer a little more potent storytelling, or characters to which viewers can relate, it may not rally enough of an audience to matter.

It remains a show more to be admired than cherished. It’s got all the earmarks of appointment television, but viewers keep forgetting to put it on their calendar.

It’s now 1962, and Sterling Cooper’s ad agency guru Don Draper (Hamm) is a man at a personal crossroads. His doctor informs him his drinking, smoking, and hard-charging career are starting to take their toll, and he’s still a few years shy of his 40th birthday. It’s just one of several new story lines teased in the opening hour that will likely play out, slowly, over time.

Draper’s latest account, a coffee company, is demanding younger ad executives have a say in its campaign. The proclamation puts the existing ad men on edge, and also bridges the gap between the show’s ’60s era commercialism and today’s Miley Cyrus Nation.

Newly svelte Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) gives a female co-worker a lesson on interoffice manners, while viewers learn nothing new of the whereabouts of her new baby. Meanwhile, Don’s wife Betty (January Jones) is more than a little curious about the lifestyle led by an old roommate, who she learns is now working as a call girl.

Clearly, the women of Mad Men are starting to appreciate, and flex, their growing cultural clout.

The episode’s humor flows from the arrival of a monstrous copy machine, a device so large it can’t fit easily into any existing office space. That doesn’t stop coworkers from turning the machine into the firm’s de facto water cooler. The copy machine scenes add a welcome dose of levity to an often dour episode.

Still, it’s easy to see why Mad Men inspires such slavish devotion. The series’ period details are impeccable, and its overall production values, from the crisp cast to the wondrous sets, put most broadcast shows to shame. Factor in a refreshing cast of mostly unknowns who merge seamlessly into the era’s trappings and you have the ideal antidote to Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

And there’s precious little original material to compete with at this time of the year.

Yet the show can be a frustrating to process. Wasn’t the first season’s subplot regarding Don’s true identity, and the subsequent war sequences, the kind of stuff you insert into a show’s flagging fifth season?

And why does the new season start without coming to grips with why Betty returned to Don’s side?

Mad Men’s moral ambiguity starts with Don’s character. Just watch him instruct his underlings on how to concoct an ad for a major airline. He doesn’t want the conversation to start and stop with “sex sells.” He’d rather envision the beaming face of a child waiting for her daddy to get off the plane.

But is that a rare attack of conscience, or an indication of the character’s growing affection for his nuclear family?

Mad Men exists, in part, to remind and punish this country’s past transgressions. These were not Happy Days by any stretch.

It rarely takes time to enjoy the era’s pleasures, like being able to leave your front doors unlocked or the wholesomeness streaked through the culture. Don and Betty don’t spend a minute worrying about the over sexualized images streaming from their television sets.

Perhaps that’s why Mad Men has yet to connect with a larger audience. After all, cynicism can be the toughest sell of all.

Christian Toto is the Assistant Editor at Big Hollywood. Before joining Big Hollywood, he contributed to PJ Media, Human Events, the Washington Times, The Daily Caller, and Box Office Magazine. His film reviews can be heard on the nationally syndicated Dennis Miller Show.
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