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.

Languor in the Land of Plenty

Is boredom of interest? The affliction troubling the two main characters of AMC’s wildly popular Mad Men seems to be some type of low-grade non-fever, the after effects of a suburban existentialist bomb that exploded far off camera leaving viewers wandering the frozen landscape of Draperville without the pleasure of fire. Don and Betty Draper are the ice-cold post-apocalyptic center of what is actually a nifty office drama whirling around them, but they move in the slow motion zombie dance of dead-eyed survivors – oh, so weary with life on Madison Avenue and Ossining and the country club. Maybe they’ll figure in Cormac McCarthy’s next descent to the depths – or George Romero’s, anyway.

Don Draper sucks the life out of the tasty little agency storyline slowly unfolding at Sterling Cooper; in truth, the man simply doesn’t have a real job. He shows up, sucks down nicotine, beds a client, tosses back a few drinks, and turns his thumb up or down on creative ideas like some early 60s Madison Avenue caesar. He never works. Not like Darren Stevens. Not like Jim Blandings. Hell, not even like partner Roger Sterling or sales director Duck Phillips, two far more authentic characters who you can genuinely sense have an eye on the agency’s bottom line.

And not like the band of ambitious junior people: Peggy, Sal, Paul and Pete. These people have plans. They have schemes. They have principles they’re willing to compromise in order to satisfy ambition. They’re interesting.

Betty Draper is a pouty mannequin; Don a brooding extra. They’re bored with their lives, having imagined more, but nothing seems to drive any real crisis. Moreover, they’re not likable, in the way that draws an audience to follow them. Sure they’re bad people. So were Tony and Carmela Soprano. But in The Sopranos, Tony and Carm dominated the center – the vast and fascinating ensemble moved around them. Don and Betty…no. Maybe they’re too pretty. Or maybe the writing isn’t up to scratch. And nor are they the literary successors to Frank and April Wheeler of Revolutionary Road, either. Yates told a suburban horror story in the guise of everyday life – he meant to horrify, and he did. (I’ll be curious to compare Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the Wheelers in the upcoming Sam Mendes flick to the cardboard Drapers).

So I’m watching Mad Men in the edges, and enjoying it more. Peggy’s ambition is growing and she’s willing to play by the boys’ rules to succeed. Pete’s feeling needed beyond his family’s wealth. And Duck’s dealing with the make-or-break midlife in the killing fields of midtown. These people feel real and their dialogue works; further, they wear their period outfits and settings well. Last week, Peggy’s move on the men’s club turned on her break room conversation with Joan – she got tough advice and she took it. Pete renewed his partnership with Peggy. Roger brokered a deal between the feuding Duck and Don. Paul took a chance on a big creative idea.

Take out the Drapers’ boring boredom, and you had movement – you had drama, in the collision of ambition and opportunity.