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Friday, March 23, 2012

For Returning ‘Mad Men,’ The Times They Are A Changing

From left, Vincent Kartheiser portrays Pete Campbell, Jon Hamm portrays Don Draper and John Slattery portrays Roger Sterling in a scene from "Mad Men." (AP/AMC)

From left, Vincent Kartheiser portrays Pete Campbell, Jon Hamm portrays Don Draper and John Slattery portrays Roger Sterling in a scene from "Mad Men." (AP/AMC)

By: Ed Siegel

By the time “Mad Men” and “The Killing” wrapped up their last seasons on AMC, you’d be excused for saying “good riddance” to both of them.

The past season or two of “Mad Men” got incredibly tired as Don Draper got increasingly drunk, his ex-wife, Betty, got increasingly mean-spirited and the storyline went increasingly over the top. And fans of “The Killing” were furious with the show after it didn’t resolve the murder of the teenage girl at the end of the season one.

So it’s a pleasure to say that both shows have righted their ships as they sail back into port for their season premieres over the next two weeks.

Let’s first take “Mad Men,” the show set in a 1960s advertising agency, which has been gone for 17 months because of a dispute between the series creator Matthew Weiner and the producers.

“It’s the women of the show, though, who are the real soul of the series.”

– Ed Siegel, Here & Now critic-at-large

When Don Draper proposed to his secretary, Megan, at the end of the fourth season, it seemed to be a sign of both Don’s dissolution and the show’s desperation. But Jessica Paré as Megan not only gives Don a new lease on life, she breathes some new sensuality into the show, particularly when she does a little Jane Birkin-Brigitte Bardot mini-dressed dance number for him on his 40th birthday as the astonished members of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency look on. (You might be equally astonished at their make up sex a little later in the show.)

In any event, it’s emblematic of how the show depicts the last vestiges of the 1950s turning into the early stages of what we think of as the 1960s. We see the women of the show struggling with inequality. In terms of civil rights, the program opens with a group of black Civil Rights marchers being pelted by water bombs from the windows of Young & Rubicam, a rival adverstising agency. And the closeted gay character of the first season or two was heart-wrenching.

Weiner is particularly adept at using the ad agency to chart the changes of the time, as when the men from Heinz ask Draper to co-opt the demonstrations of the times by having college students hold up signs saying, “We want beans.”

It’s the women of the show, though, who are the real soul of the series. I’ve always loved Christina Hendricks as Joan, the Marilyn Monroe-ish secretary who began the series as Roger Sterling’s mistress before dumping him for marriage to a doctor — which seemed fine until that horrific scene when her husband raped her. Now he’s away at Fort Dix and Joan’s mother is helping her take care of her infant and telling her she should put thoughts about going back to work aside.

Unlike last season, every scene in this two-hour episode rings true. And don’t worry about Don getting too nice – there are shades of gray throughout Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Mireille Enos plays Seattle Homicide Detective Sarah Linden in "The Killing." (AP/AMC, Carole Segal)

Of course, everything is gray in “The Killing,” the series set in contemporary Seattle that focuses on the investigation of a teenage girl. As mentioned above, viewers had the impression they’d finally learn the identity of the killer at the end of the first season. Instead after the prime suspect, the mayoral candidate, was shot, it turned out he may have been framed. See you next year.

Don’t give up on it, though, as the series returns with a two-hour premiere of its own April 1st. The atmospherics – the eerie music, the rainy Seattle landscape, the hazy cinematography — suggest a brooding sense of menace and corruption But if last year was “Twin Peaks” meets the mediocre “Law & Order” series, this year is more “Twin Peaks” meets “LA Confidential” as it’s obvious that the two agents, Linden and Holder – shades of Mulder and Scully from “The X Files” — become convinced there’s a vast police conspiracy attached to the murder. Only Linden thinks Holder is part of it.

The writing is as sharp as ever, but not in the conventional sense.

The story is told more through grimaces, gestures and those atmospherics than it is through snappy dialogue — although Holder, played by Joel Kinnaman, is always worth listening to when he’s doing one of his politically incorrect Tarantino-like rants. And talk about gray. Nothing is more fascinating on the show than watching his angels do battle with his devils. Is he the best bad boy or worst good guy on TV?

So when you add “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” into the mix – and factor in some of the losers on HBO and Showtime recently — you’d have to say AMC is the hottest network on television right now.


  • Ed Siegel, Here & Now critic-at-large

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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