Monday, September 21, 2009

Character Flaws

In her WSJ television column about a month ago, Dorothy Rabinowitz perfectly captured the core of the series Mad Men (sub req):

There was no mistaking the ­resulting instant relief--and the energy--that came charging through every scene, every line of dialogue, as soon as the action shifted to that Madison Avenue office. The life force of this period series, it becomes ever clearer, is business--the advertising business, the business of the interconnecting lives of the Sterling ­Cooper staff, all inextricably fused to the job, the place and career concerns. For, despite the grand dimensions that have been attributed to it as a work of social commentary, the series is at heart the latest addition to an old and honored television genre--the workplace drama. A highly distinguished one, to be sure, and far darker and more complex than, say, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

That the office is the heart and soul of Mad Men has never been more apparent then when watching this season's episodes. Up until last night, the focus of most of the Season Three episodes had shifted from the office and as a result the pace felt sluggish and even slow-moving at times. Granted it was still good dramatic television, far better than most of what fills the small screen. But it was lacking some of the spark and vitality that had marked the series in the past.

However, in last night's Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency episode the show's flair and style were back with gusto. The office was again the center of action and there was plenty to enjoy. Without giving too much away, any time you can plausibly work a lawn mover accident into an office storyline you're doing something right. The reaction of the British executives in the hospital after their wunderkind account manager lost his foot was priceless. In explaining why he would never work again, one remarked, "He won't be able to walk with one foot." The other added with emphasis, "He very well won't be able to play golf." An account manager who can't golf? Inconceivable.

It's easy to watch the 1963 workplace setting and marvel about how different things are from today. The smoking, the drinking, the dress code, the treatment of women, etc. But what really makes the Mad Men office world tick are the things that aren't that different. The details are not the same, but the office politics and personal relationships depicted are easily recognized by those who work in similar situations today.

Last night's episode featured a visit from the home office. The hopes and fears of the staff anticipating an organization shakeup were very familiar as was the individual reaction when the reorganization was rather hurriedly and awkwardly announced. While everyone's public face is all about the good of the company, privately each and every one asks, "What does this mean to me?"

I had to chuckle when the reorg was presented via an overhead projector with a transparency slide. No laptops and Power Point in 1963. Then, I realized that it wasn't that long ago (ten years) when I was still using an overhead projector with transparencies. Those were the days.

If you weren't nervous enough about presenting to a room full of people, you had to stand next to a projector that was emitting far more heat than light (flop sweats anyone?). Then you had to pick up each slide individually (stop shaking) and remember to place it properly on the projector so it showed up right on the screen. Chances that you screwed up the first slide no matter how many times you had done it in the past? About 90%.

That was if you were lucky enough to have the slides ready in the first place. I can vividly recall impatiently waiting to head into a meeting as the printer slowly pushed out transparencies. If it was a really important meeting, you could just about guarantee that it would run out of transparencies or jam two minutes before you were supposed to start. You can complain all you want about the overuse and abuse of Power Point these days, but I for one embrace the progress that's been made on this front.

One last point on Mad Men. While I generally enjoy the show, there are several nits to pick. The biggest for me is Don Draper's character. He's the handsome, cool, and unflappable creative director at Sterling Cooper with a mysterious past. He's a stud both in business and love and fits the bill "the men want to be him, the women want to be with him" to a tee. He's a hard-working career climber and can be a demanding boss. But he's also got a heart to go with his brain. He's a family man with a beautiful wife and three kids. And he sleeps with a string of women on the side from clients to stewardesses.

Wherein lies my problem. Does he have to be a lecherous adulterer? Isn't the very idea of the hard-boozing, easy-banging businessman who leads a double life--family man and pleasure seeking hedonist--itself one of the hoariest of entertainment clich├ęs? You could still retain his secret history, but would not his character have been even more compelling, more interesting, and more appealing if he actually lived up to his commitments as a loving father and a faithful husband? We can live with flawed and imperfect heroes. But they don't have to all share the same detrimental character traits.

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