Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review: Mad Men "Public Relations"

Non Spoiler Review:
And so begins the summer's Sunday night double-header of True Blood and Mad Men. After the series finale-like events of last season, this feels like a new show, reintroducing our favorite characters and their lives as the show picks up about a year later on Thanksgiving 1964.

Sterling Cooper Draper Price has moved back to official office digs in the Time Life Building, looking strangely like a bizarro version of Sterling Cooper, right down to the wall panelling, with a mythical second floor.  SCDP is now the upstart new kid on the block trying to make a name for itself, but with the precarious Lucky Strike account making up over two thirds of its revenue, Lane is virtually apoplectic.

Peggy is even more confident these days (no doubt, considering Don virtually begged her to join the team last season). And the humour of the episode comes in a great scheme she and her creative cohort (boyfriend?) concoct to get publicity for a canned ham client.

This first episode back focuses on establishing where the primaries are at, and like last season, there is still a lot to find out about each character's personal lives, though Betty and Don get the main attention, while the firm has to deal with the repercussions of an interview Don does with a prominent ad magazine.

I'm very interested in seeing what's happened to Sterling Cooper, if it even exists at this point, given that Sterling used to lament the loss of Lucky Strike would close its doors.

This was a great start to the season, with lots of questions waiting to be answered, and if you haven't gotten into Mad Men yet, get on it! 

Spoilers Now!
Betty and Don have somehow managed to become even worse parents. Betty is living with Henry in the Draper house (much to Don's chagrin, as she is supposed to have moved out by this point and he's still paying the mortgage). Betty is despised by Henry's family, and likely her kids too. I'm not sure what direction Sally is taking this season, but she's getting a bigger role according to the promos. I wonder if she's going to turn into the 60's rebellious teen? Or maybe they might kill her off at some point, in order to throw Don and Betty back into the gongshow of their relationship? Despite the vitriol between the two of them, I still sense Don and Betty haven't completely written each other off.

Betty is quite happy living a lovey-dovey life with Henry and ignoring all the kids. She has a morbidly obese mother-in-law who hates her guts and doesn't want her son playing around in "that other man's dirt." It will be interesting to see how long Betty lasts before the bloom comes off the rose for the two of them and she starts looking elsewhere for fulfillment.

Speaking of Don, he's the new star on the Madison Avenue block, but royally screws up a magazine interview with his stoic Midwestern secrecy and loses them their cashcow client (Jai alai...the crazy new sport from last season). Everyone is on his case, so he comes home to get slapped around by his regular hooker, after going on a blind date set up by Jane. He also throws a fit in a meeting with some conservative clients and throws them out of the office when they won't listen to his creative.

The offices of SCDP look like a messier Sterling Cooper. They can only afford one floor, but speak of their mythical second floor of offices. Clients meet around a coffee table for a more intimate discussion, rather than a costly board room table. It's all a bit jarring at first as we get the walk through, expecting to see familiar faces like Ken and Kinsey, but realize this isn't Sterling Cooper at all. We get Joan in her own office, managing everything. And we get an even more confident Peggy with a stylish new do and a cute boy assistant who obviously has the hots for her as they mockingly pine to one another "Marcia...John...Marcia...John," throughout the course of the episode.

The humour in this episode really comes from Peggy's idea to spur publicity for a canned ham client by hiring two women to fight over it in a supermarket. It works, until one woman presses charges, and Peggy shows up at Don's asking for bail for one of the girl's as well as hush money to keep them both quiet. Despite the success of the stunt, it results in one of the best conversations of the episode, as Don admonishes Peggy, then tells her she won't be needed in the upcoming client meeting, to which she responds, "Now you're just being spiteful." She's certainly grown a pair, and it shows in spades as she leaves him with the jab, "All  of us are here because of you. We all want to please you."

Realizing he's made a mistake with his attitude, Don sits down with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal and pours on the conceit to tell them the true story of SCDP's rise from the ashes, leaving us to look forward to getting our bearings with the rest of the characters in coming episodes.

What Worked:
This is Mad Men. Pretty much everything in this episode worked, especially building on the excitment of revisiting these characters after a summer hiatus. 

I see Ken is in the cast photo, so I hope he comes back in some form to annoy Pete. I like Peggy's assistance, Joe, and Don is now dating the minister's wife from last season's True Blood. She looks a lot classier here. Will he decide to replace his former Barbie doll with another one?

And poor Sal. The last we saw of him he was calling his wife from what looked like a shady area of Central Park...nearly a year and a half ago now! What's become of him? I imagine after losing his job on the heals of his frame by frame re-enactment of Anne Margaret's Bye-Bye Birdie, might have spelled the end of his marriage. And Kinsey? Joan's husband must be off to Viet Nam by now so I'm sure nothing bad can happen with that. Perhaps his death will lead to a renewed affair between her and Roger.

Pete and Peggy seem to have a very friendly relationship these days. It's surprising, given the mess between them, but I guess it has been nearly four years since she had the baby. And where is that little dickens, who just disappeared early in Season Two? 

It will be interesting to see what the ultimate direction of the season will be, as the sale of Sterling Cooper really came out of left field last season.

What Didn't Work:
The only real criticism with Mad Men is the myriad of plot lines that come up and are never dealt with again. With such stretches of time between each season, we really only get a snap shot of these characters' lives and have to pick up the threads sometimes years later, left to wonder about those that have been abandoned.

As mentioned, there's Sal and his wife, Kinsey and his girlfriend, Peggy's baby, Price and his wife's hatred for all things Manhattan...just to name a few. Perhaps the writers plan to bring all of these things together over subsequent seasons to fill the big picture, but it can be frustrating to invest in what's going on with some of these characters and not get answers for half a season.

Best Line goes to Don:
Henry: "Don, it's temporary."
Don: "Believe me Henry, everybody thinks this is temporary."

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