Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mad Men Season 4 Character Report Card

A very fine season 4 of Mad Men has ended. Before I dismiss the class for the year, here are my grades for the characters (not the attention in the back row!):

Honor roll:
  • Don Draper: A+. Head of the class. This season cemented Don Draper's status as one of the 50 best tv characters of all time (Tony Soprano...yuh hearing footsteps?). He was a slime bucket, amoral, sexual predator, and a violator of about every HR rule known to corporate bureaucrats....but I couldn't help rooting for him. And a tip of the fedora to both the costume designer who clothed him this year and his barber.
  • Lane Pryce: A. The Pryce was right! Lance stole almost every scene he was in this year. What a complex character. He seemed to have a stick up his bum yet he knew how to party with Don. He's definitely Mr. Bottom Line because he's so buttoned up, yet his personal life is a mess. His relationship with the Playboy bunny almost made his character hop the track but I'm willing to overlook in an otherwise very strong season for Pryce.
  • Roger Sterling: A-. What a wonderful evolution of the Sterling character this year (although the Sterling character displayed very little character). What a weakling. What a mess. Here's why I didn't give Roger an "A": I like the stronger, more self-assured Roger. The pathetic, weak Roger isn't as fun to watch.
Teacher's Pets:
  • Pete Campbell: B: He's still a weasel, but he's more sophisticated and confident. I particularly liked how Mad Men shows his conflicts at home brought about by the financial pressures in the office. But Pete is hard to like and I wonder how he will develop.
  • Joan Harris: B. The gal with the figure 8 figure got herself behind the 8 ball with her pregnancy and that offered a nice twist this season. I'd like to see a softer side of this character. She's in danger of becoming too one dimensional.
  • Peggy Olson: B. I like her professional development. She's really the voice of the awakening women's movement. But she's so uptight at times, it makes me squirm on my sofa. And I'm not sure about the Lesbian friendship. Where is that going?
  • Ida Blankenship: B. The gag of the old secretary got old pretty quickly, but it was good comic relief. Her death at her desk was brilliant. She's gone...but she won't be missed (by me).
  • Duck and Freddie: B. Minor roles this season but they are strong, colorful, tragic characters and I hope they'll have more work next season.
  • Megan: B-. She was a good addition to the cast this year. She's smarter than she seems and that may set up her character nicely for next season. (What are the odds she gets dumped by Don?)
  • Harry Cooper, Paul Kinsey, Ken Cosgrove: C. Supporting players who contributed to the season but had nothing really distinguishing.
  • Sally Draper: C. Uneven. Her scenes with Don Draper were excellent. However, most of the scenes back in Connecticut felt forced and stilted. Can't tell you how many times I dove into my Blackberry when those CT scenes were aired. But this character could have a break-out year in season five.
  • Bertram Cooper: C. His character was not fully developed this year. And his abrupt departure from the firm seemed unnecessarily hasty. (Unless it means he's somehow coming back next year.)
  • Henry Francis: C. Bland character but I like how he's starting to give Betty some serious pushback. He could make the honor roll next year.
  • Betty Francis: C-. Debbie Downer or Juanita One Note? She used to be this icy but interesting blond but now she's just a bundle of bad news all the time.
Remedial Readers
  • Faye Miller: D+. I never got Don's long-standing attraction to her. So many of her scenes felt stilted. Her best scene of the year was when he dumped her. That was the only time I cared for her as a character.
  • Stan the art director: D. Johnny one note. Okay, so he hits on Peggy all year. Is that all there is to this character?
  • Midge Daniels: F. Honey, you're no artist and you're certainly not a strung out junkie whose husband will prostitute so they can get another fix. It was like she dropped in from a Tarantino movie.
  • Glen: F. Can't tell if this kid is a creep and if Betty's actions are justified. It needs to be fleshed out better.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mad Men Episode #13 (Season 4): Tomorrowland

Why Mad Men Episode #13 (Season 4) Worked:
  • Don's engagement to Megan. It was crazy, stupid, impulsive....but it was really a concrete manifestation of how Don's descent. Sure....who wouldn't fall in love at night on a terrace overlooking a moonlit-drenched ocean with a swan in a knockout black dress (on $70 a week salary....who's her daddy)? The engagement announcement scene in the office was priceless: so many nutty things happen in the personal lives of senior management that this seemed ok to staff. When Don breaks the news to the partners and says Megan's full name, Roger blurts out, "Who the hell is that?" Very funny, because it reveals how he knows so little about the junior people at the agency. Even funnier is when Roger follows up with the line, "This calls for a drink....Megan, get some ice." A beat, and then he cracks a smile.
  • Peggy's heart-to-heart with Joan after the engagement announcement.
  • Don's cringe-worthy call to Faye after the engagement is announced. Well written....another scene that felt real. And kudos to the fine acting by Jon Hamm and Cara Buono (who I've basically trashed all season).
  • Don's drinks with Betty in their old kitchen. Very poignant. You could see why they married. I love him finding the old bottle hidden in the back of the cabinet. I loved it even more when Don and Betty left the room and the camera held on the bottle like it was a character in the series. Which seems only right since booze plays such a strong role in Mad Men.
  • The pitch to the stuffy board of the American Cancer Society. That felt exactly right and it was nice to see Don creating his magic as only Don can.
  • Joan's promotion to Director of Agency Operations...but not with a raise. Once again, she gets screwed by a senior executive at the agency.
  • Betty firing Carla. January Jones (Betty) finally gets to act a bit more this season. She's not just spreading her wings, she's climbing on her broomstick and playing the role of resident wingnut witch.
  • Henry's fight with Betty about Carla. There's a nice foundation being laid to have Henry bolt in Season 5.
  • Megan and her friend going to the Whiskey A Go Go. That was the hip place to be seen back in the day. (But who was playing at the club that night?)
  • Don's LA threads. Very cool and James Bond. Do you think we'll see him in bell bottoms next season?
  • Joan's pregnancy. That was slipped in almost casually. There's surely a bullet in Nam heading for hubby but will Roger then step in? Stay tuned for season 5.
  • Megan's dresses. Stunning.

Why Mad Men Episode #13 (Season 4) Didn't Work:

  • All of Glen's scenes. The kid can't act.
  • Don taking Megan to Los Angeles without any kind of pushback from anyone in the office and not an eyebrow raised. Seems like there could have been a 15-second scene written in.

Overall Grade for Mad Men Episode #13 (Season 4):

  • B+. While I'm generally positive on the plot development of Don proposing to Megan, I thought it felt a little out of left field for me. I would have liked to have seen a bit more scenes leading up to it. That prevented me from giving this episode an "A."

Later in the week I'll give my grades to the main characters of Mad Men Season #4.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mad Men Episode #12 (Season 4): Blowing Smoke

Why Mad Men Episode #12 (Season 4) Worked:
  • The overall sense of panic, confusion and dread as the agency continued to lose business and not land accounts. It felt very slice-of-life and underscores the strength of this series. The business scenes from the world of advertising feel real. Don Draper's lunch with the Heinz executive who implied SCDP might get a shot at the company's business in six months (wayyyyy too long for Don's company....they need the business and cash flow NOW) was pitch perfect. And I loved the way the news was delivered about SCDP not getting a shot at the Philip Morris business. A half dozen faces hit the floor as subordinates tried ease-dropping through the walls. A cold wind is blowing.
  • Pete's scene with his wife when he tells her they need to dip into their savings account for at least $25K to help prop up the agency. She tells him he can't. He shoots back: "You don't get to forbid me!" That scene showed how the pressures of work spill into the home. We realized Pete's dilemma and we also could see Trudy's point of view.
  • Don's "Why I Quit Tobacco" essay/ad in The New York Times. That was great writing and direction with his voiceover and shots of various people reading the published copy. Maybe it wasn't realistic that a partner would do this, but the troops needed a big gnarly idea and this was it. I particularly loved Don walking into the office fresh as a daisy asking his secretary if he had any calls and he was given a two-inch stack of messages. And everything that happened after that was great. The fake Bobby Kennedy call. Don's speech: "I'm not going to explain to you what I did. It's an ad for this agency. If you don't understand it, you shouldn't be in this business." Megan saying that she loved the letter (Fess up love all things Don.)
  • Don's hat. Dude knows how to wear a lid.
  • Don's smooth way as peels bills from his pocket. So much cooler than slapping down a credit card.
  • Don paying Pete's share to keep the agency afloat.
  • Peggy asking Faye for a drink. Sisterhood is powerful.
  • Betty's outfit when she finds Sally with her boyfriend. Kudos (again) to the wardrobe unit.

Why Man Men Episode #12 (Season 4) Didn't Work:

  • Don's encounter with freelance illustrator Midge Daniels and her visit to her village apartment. That hit all the wrong notes. First of all, I forget who Midge was (help me here) and I'm a pretty faithful fan. I never bought that she and her husband were junkies. Was the point of the scene to draw a line between cigarette addiction and heroin addiction? I couldn't tell. Worse yet, I didn't care.
  • Sally's scene with Glen the neighborhood boy. The show starts crawling when they pop up. And the boy who plays Glen can't act.
  • Cooper resigning from the agency. Huh? Did that really happen? Seems like that kinda slipped in through the back door. Shouldn't that have been a bigger moment?

Overall Grade for Mad Men Episode #12 (Season 4)

  • B. Solid effort marred by scenes with the freelance illustrator and the Sally scenes. The problems at the agency are especially riveting.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mad Men Episode #11 (Season 4): Chinese Wall

Why Mad Men Episode #11 (Season 4) Worked:
  • The sense of panic in the agency when word leaks out that they've lost Lucky Strike, their biggest client. Once again, the writing (kudos to scribe Erin Levy) excels and provides a realistic sense of the near panic and desperation of an ad agency in a free fall. The sequence of events started with the brilliant scene with Ken at dinner with his fiancee and her parents, and he learns from a rival that his company lost the account. That triggers a series of phone calls and meetings, all strung together in rapid succession. Textbook minimalist writing.
  • Don's heart-to-heart talk with his creative team about the problems they face and how to deal with clients. Anyone looking to learn about management should study this series. Don Draper may be a sh*t, but he knows a thing or two about leading a team in a crisis. I also liked his line to Peggy: "I'm counting on you." Anyone who's ever been told that by the boss will definitely bring out his or her "A" game.
  • Megan's (Don's secretary) outfits. It's like she's on a Paris runway. She's graceful like a swan. And like night follows day, we know what will happen...
  • Don's hook-up with Megan. Come on. This was inevitable. How could Don help himself? It's like asking a Lassie not to bark or Flipper not to swim. But did you notice that she made the first move? And Don's office couch is getting quite a workout this season!
  • Pete being offered a full partnership with rival agency CGC in the hospital waiting room, while his wife was in labor.

Why Mad Men Episode #11 (Season 4) Didn't Work:

  • Don's apartment. It's bugged me all year. It's dark and creepy. I don't buy that he'd live in that dump as a hot on-the-town advertising executive. I see him in an Upper East Side modern apartment with a terrace.
  • Stan the art director. The character hits only one obnoxious note week after week. I'd like to see another side of him.

Overall Grade for Mad Med Episode #11 (Season 4):

  • A-. I'm really into the financial problems of the agency and can't wait to see what happens. And Don's in a real love triangle between Faye and his secretary. Sunday can't come fast enough.