No, I’m not making any references to the famous John Lennon phrase in the beginning at of the seventies (“the dream is over”), although this historical period will coincide – I suppose – with the historical time in the series when the storyline will be over.
I have not seen the second half of the last season of MAD MEN yet (it’s currently on). I’m in fact talking about the imminent end of one of the best and most revolutionaries TV shows of all time.
I clearly remember the first episode of MAD MEN – it was already more than 10 min into the show when I switched on the TV, and, already in the armchair, took a punch in the stomach by what I saw: I had no idea what I was seeing. Could not label or classify it in any of the common categories we use for TV shows and movies. Could it be the rerun of a famous movie of the nineteen sixties (the image looked too crispy and glossy for that, though), a soap opera, a miniseries? It all looked so strange and new. Regardless of what it was, I was immediately hooked by the vivid colors on the screen, the nuanced dialogue, the strange and depreciative way the women characters were treated in the workplace, the out-of-place boyish and silly behavior of grown men in what seemed to be the setting of an advertising agency, the glamour of the characters’ wardrobe. What was going on?
I remember clearly that the first scene I saw showed the character Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in the process of being hired for a job as a secretary (what else were women allowed to do back then?), but the atmosphere of the workplace seemed totally weird: men were being rude and sarcastic to women to their faces (some still do that today, but usually behind that backs), employees were chain-smoking at the office and nobody bothered. All the offices themselves seemed to have a fully stocked bar for whoever wanted to get smashed during work hours. Sexually inappropriate jokes were being thrown right and left among the male employees.
After hired, Peggy was given pointers by one tough Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) who seemed to be the personification of a sixties beauty – when women were supposed to be curvaceous, have a huge bust and impossibly narrow waistlines. Joan enhanced her looks by wearing stunningly colorful dresses for work, topped by a shiny updo of red hair, carrying an authoritarian dominatrix look about herself, exuding sexuality and power: I had just met one of the most original and nuanced characters on TV history.
Then enter Dan Draper (Jon Hamm), from a classic stock of handsome movie stars from yesteryear, not very fashionable nowadays, incredibly seductive with his square chiseled jaw and deep dark eyes, a man’s man, who seemed to seduce all the women around. With eyes glued to the TV and ears attentive to every bit of non-naturalistic but expertly crafted dialogue, which exuded excellence, humor, insight, and irony, I wondered if that was one of the Oscar-winning movies I might have missed from previous years,
The last scene of this first episode was very eloquent, and gave away this was a new TV show I was not allowed to miss: Don Draper gets home. Despite all the unashamed flirting he exercised during the office hours, he comes to a serene household in the suburbs, where a loving wife and two kids await. The spouse is blond and almost a caricature of a fifties housewife in the bland and domesticated way she looks, except you can immediatey tell from those eyes that Betty Draper (January Jones) is in reality a lot more complex psychologically than she lets on at first sight and more fitting for a jaded woman of the XXI century. Don walks up the stairs heading to the kids’ bedroom, tucks them in, and kisses them good night in their sleep, as we hear the beginning of the beautifully evocative chords of My Fair Lady’s song ON THE STREET THAT YOU LIVE. We immediately sense something is awfully off in that supposedly peaceful household. The credits begin to roll.
For the next 8 years or so, I haven’t missed one single episode of MAD MEN (I tend to buy the DVD sets with the complete season, and spend wonderful weekends binging on it, never ceasing to be amused, surprised, awed and moved by the beauty, sophistication, elagance of dialogue, pathos, superp acting and general charisma of Mathew Weiner’s show.
Well, all good things come to an end. Let’s just hope that in the near future American producers and writers will fight hard to put out modestly successful shows, by the standards of American movies and TV anyway – like MAD MEN, and THE SOPRANOS, which preceded it – undeniably too refined to be appreciated by the barbaric masses who crowd the theaters with their stinking huge bags of popcorn for the next installment of THE AVENGERS. In the case of Brazil, let’s hope TV people learn and try to shake and shape the sensibility of tired workers who get home after hours in the traffic to nagging wives and whining kids, and, beer in hand, can do nothing but resign themselves to watch catatonically the pathetic episodes of the latest prime time soap opera or Reality TV show.
Streaming TV (Netflix and Amazon) is the future – we need more shows that push the envelope and, through fiction and documentaries, provide us with unusual angles and insights into life, which, for now, only good literature can impart.
I say goodbye to Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Betty, Sally (the extraordinary child actor who plays the Draper daughter) and all the exceptional ensemble of the show with a deep pain in my heart. They will live in my mind forever, like characters of a Philip Roth novel.