Trapped in a Rat Pack Suit on a Soundstage, Looking for Grit

Among true fans of Mad Men, Jon Hamm’s loss at the Emmys was something of a body blow. Hamm’s portrayal of the surly two-faced creative director Don Draper on the early 60s period drama was the favorite going in, a buttoned-up Madison Avenue heir to Tony Soprano – the new leading leading man.

But as good as Hamm is physically – and he does seem literally cut from the paper doll outline of Matthew Weiner’s storyboards – his character slips and slides, particularly in this second season as the rest of the Sterling Cooper ensemble cast rises so surely. At times violent, at times wistful, at other times seemingly confused, Don Draper doesn’t so much drive the action on Madison Avenue as drift along with the current; we won’t speak of the strangely-locused Ossining sub-drama, a distracting bit of melodrama (tinged with faux existentialism) unworthy of the soaps for which Sterling Cooper’s non-superstars wrote copy.

In her magazine column, The Times’ Virginia Heffernan took to worrying aloud for the Hamm character:

It’s Jon Hamm I worry about. The star of “Mad Men,” Hamm is a swoon-inducing, physically graceful actor — a through-and-through Hollywood person, without much training in New York’s Method-derived acting styles. As he remembered it in a panel discussion in January, the first scene he shot of “Mad Men,” in which he plays the evasive and cruel Don Draper, required a flurry of stage business. Cigarettes had to be lighted, rooms had to be crossed, shirts had to be changed, ties tied. Hamm says he struggled with this manual ballet, but anyone who saw the first season of “Mad Men” can testify that he made it look natural. And not only natural but also intensely expressive: Hamm in the first “Mad Men” season made midcentury pantomine both nervous and beautiful, elegant actions that sublimated Draper’s anarchic energies.

But this season, the Draper character is losing his touch, and the part doesn’t require so much dexterity. Draper loses control of his car and his reputation; he shows less Rat Pack finesse. The camera seems mad at Draper, and it gives him long, stung looks, during which he has almost nothing to do but be. Sometimes these are cutaways from when another character is dressing him down, flattering him or exposing him. Sometimes they are close-ups on moments of self-doubt. But Hamm, the actor, does not seem to like the silence, and he has a hard time staying steady as Don in the quiet interludes.

At these times, an incongruous vulnerability presents itself in the reptilian Draper. Accidentally, Hamm seems to flash on an exaggerated look of melancholy or distance — as if the actor were thinking, I don’t want to be this man. Perhaps Hamm, like many Hollywood stars, wants to be liked above all, and Draper is written as less likable in nearly every episode. If the show is to mature and last, Hamm will have to risk being hated.

The demands of what Heffernan quotes Vincent Canby as defining as the “megamovie” on television – that is to say, holding a cinematic emotional center week after week after long, long week – may not be possible for Jon Hamm in Mad Men. James Gandolfini, as Heffernan says, “was responsible for ensuring the show’s continuity and coherence even as everything perpetually changed around him: directors, writers, cast, crew.”

But I’d suggest Gandolfini had a huge assist not just from his supporting cast (most notably Edie Falco as Carmelo Soprano, who carried an emotional weight a hundred times greater than the cartoonish Betty Draper character) from one key decision made at the outset: setting The Sopranos in northern New Jersey and shooting all its exteriors there. If Matthew Weiner had taken one key aspect of The Sopranos with him to Mad Men, it should have been Chase’s move to liberate a big dramatic series from the soundstage.

Gandolfini inhabited a real landscape, from the bottom of his suburban driveway to downtown Newark to the various Turnpike exits and strip malls. They helped to make Tony Soprano real. Not only is Jon Hamm in super-stylized costume, he’s also very much on the super-stylized set. Quite a bit of the real New York on 1962 still exists, but we never see Don Draper walk its streets. Instead, we get obvious Hollywood backlot exteriors and banal gaffes like Draper parking his car right in front of Sterling Cooper on near-empty Madison Avenue, and Betty riding horses in what is obviously Southern California.

Tonight, it looks like the ever-developing cast at Sterling Cooper is evolving still; in this second season, the best moments of Mad Men have some out of the workplace. That’s beginning to seem real. I’m suspending my disbelief from 9 to 5. But not fully from 10 to 11 every Sunday night. Because they haven’t given me New York.

Race, Drugs and Murder: A Brooklyn Tale

The best book ever written about the scourge of drugs and the racial chasm in the deep interior of Brooklyn was Greg Donaldson’s gritty 1994 true life new journalism book, The Ville. It covered the lives of two men – one a Housing cop and the other a gang member – along with a vast cast of extras in a two-square mile area encompassing parts of the Brownsville and East New York. In The Ville, justice was elusive and escape from “the life” almost impossible. But it was the portrayal of race and an endless cycle of urban failure that stayed with this reader.

The new first novel by Justin Peacock, A Cure for Night, doesn’t really pack the same chilling portraiture as Donaldson’s non-fiction account of the early 90s, but it does build a cinematic and dramatic story that contains the same elements of crime and race and failure in the public housing projects of New York. At its center are two public defenders – Joel Deveraux, a former white shoe litigator whose personal drug habit destroyed a highly-paid career, and Myra Goldstein, a feisty and committed defense attorney – drawn together over a shooting in the courtyard of a Brooklyn housing project.

The story unfolds mostly in dialogue and it’s got a ripped-from-the-headlines feel that ties it closely to some of the best crime procedurals on television. Peacock’s story is undoubtedly authentic, based on his own experiences as a defense lawyer, and he reveals a healthy disrespect for a criminal defense system that seems like a revolving door of poorly-tried cases and quickie plea bargains.

The crime at the center of the novel forces a view of the racial realities of life in inner city public housing that is free of any blinders: a white college student is killed during a meeting with a black drug dealer. Naturally, the murder hits the tabloids. Peacock’s lead character is weak, only semi-skilled, and easily pushed about by the currents in his life – he’s a follower. Luckily, he’s paired with the best of the Brooklyn Public Defender’s office, a young woman driven by both her belief in the law and her own abilities.

It’s a procedural whose best moments lie not in the highest drama, but in the mundane turning of the court calendar and the droning job toward a verdict. It’s a darkly liberal book: some victims clearly have no chance in the society Peacock presents. But it’s also a tale that is frost-bitten by a cold existentialism; this is life in New York for many people and it will always be so. The title is, in a way, a kicker to a journalist’s front-page story – there really is no cure for the night.