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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

TV Review: Mad Men Season 2 is What Great Television is All About

Great television to me is when the medium is used to take film and stretch it out in time until it has the depth and texture of a great novel. The Wire did this, as did The Sopranos at its best and The Shield. Mad Men, which is at the midpoint of Season 2 is right there at that sweet spot and this weeks episode "The New Girl" is one of the best hours of TV all year. It encapsulates what's different from Season 1, itself stellar.

The first season was very much centered on the work life and play of Jon Hamm's sleek Don Draper, the creative director of early 1960's ad agency Sterling Cooper and the course of Peggy Olsen who goes from secretary to copywriter under Draper's tutelage. Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy, is every bit as deserving of an Emmy nom as Hamm and lets hope they catch up with her next year. Peggy with her enormous eyes is emerging in her own way as a lead character and counterpoint to Don - she's capable of seeming coltish and inscrutably cold all at once.

This is deepened in the current season which takes us from work into the family lives of these characters. Don's marriage to gorgeous Betty (played to heartbreaking perfection by the delectable January Jones) seems to teeter on the edge from moment to moment with both husband and wife too aware of how easy it is to break their vows. Peggy's family which is proud and dissaproving of her all at once. Slimy Pete Campbell played by Vincent Kartheiser with weaselly perfection crows about his wonderful sperm to his crestfallen wife upon learning that he isn't to blame for their difficulty conceiving.

This week brought us two scenes that are fulcrums on which the entire series will pivot, and on which Don and Peggy spin. First is the advice Don gives Peggy in a flashback - a keystone as it turns out to both of their characters: "Get out of here and move forward. This never happened... it will shock you how much it never happened."

Phew I got goosebumps when he said it.

Then there was Peggy's scenes with the mercenary Bobbie, a woman who has a measure of power and independence in a man's world but who still finds herself helplessly entangeled with Don. Bobbie sizes Peggy up and tells her she should act like an equal to Don to get ahead, but "... you can't be a man. Don't even try. Be a woman. It's powerful business when done correctly."

When Peggy firmly asks for the bail money she fronted Don earlier in the episode and he pays up sheepishly she says "Thank you Don", a big change from her usual "Mr. Draper."

The theme of the show gets stronger and deeper throughout the season and the episode: we invent ourselves. We have the power to be who we want to be, not who we are. The problem is knowing what it is we want to be.

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