Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Mad Men" frenzy: Gearing up for season three of Don Draper & Co.

By Meredith O'Brien/Mommy Track'd

It's hard not to notice that Mad Men madness seems to be everywhere. In a big spread in Vanity Fair Magazine. In New York Magazine. As early 1960s-styled Mad Men avatars pop up on Twitter and Facebook. With the Aug. 16 season three premiere of the Emmy-winning drama quickly approaching, what was once a show followed by a cultish, ferociously dedicated couple million people, has become such a staple of American pop culture that Banana Republic is using the show to launch a clothing line, both Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons have satirized it and Sesame Street is planning a Mad Men-ish parody for its new season.

AMC: The women of "Mad Men," Peggy, Joan and Betty

AMC: The women of "Mad Men," Peggy, Joan and Betty

I've adored this little AMC-show-that-could -- which follows the lives of Manhattan ad men and their families -- from the very first episode, which I caught while vacationing two years ago after seeing ads for it during the 470th showing of The Godfather on the cable station. Its no-holes-barred portrayal of hard drinking and hard smoking white collar New York City professionals, as well as their naked racism, anti-Semitism and sexism is brutally honest, its characters multi-dimentional. No series regular is a flat cardboard cut-out. And while its most notable feature is the deliciously handsome main character -- Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who is so ashamed of his background that he stole a dead man's identity and continues to lie and cheat as if his life depended on it -- it's the female Mad Men characters who make this show whole.

While preparing to write this column, I spent some quality time marinating in the second season DVDs, in particular, the audio commentaries by show-runner Matt Weiner and other members of the crew. After listening to what folks had to say, it confirmed for me this: Don may be the star, but the women (to complete a celestial analogy of which lyrical advertising guru Don might be proud) are the moon, providing the show its gravitational pull, which shouldn't be surprising given that seven out of the nine Mad Men writers are women. "The writers, led by the show's creator Matthew Weiner, are drawing on their experiences and perspectives to create the show's heady mix: a world where men are in control and the women are more complex than they seem, or than the male characters realize," a Wall Street Journal writer said.

"These women are finding their place and finding their power," said Hamm, during the audio commentary for the season two episode, "The New Girl," which featured Don's former-secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) asserting herself as Don's equal after his mistress du jour advised her, "You can't be a man. Don't even try. Be a woman. It's powerful business when done correctly."

Throughout the first two seasons -- which predated the feminist movement, in 1960 and 1962 respectively -- the female characters were struggling to be as confident as Peggy within their own domains, to prove to themselves and to the world that they had value. Peggy served as the poster child for the nascent 1960s professional woman. But it hasn't been easy for her, and her success as her company's only female copywriter hasn't stopped her male colleagues from asking her to make the coffee. After secretly giving birth to a colleague's baby and then putting him up for adoption in season one, Peggy was able to put her personal tragedy behind her and become a workplace creative force, with the support and guidance of her mentor Don, who was always trying to keep three steps ahead of his own personal tragedies. When Peggy benefitted from the firing of a male colleague who'd gotten falling down drunk one too many times while at work, and she took his office and account, she felt guilty about the way it happened. Don told her to man-up, "Don't feel bad about being good at your job."

All this from a guy whose college-educated, Grace Kelly-look-alike wife in season two finally threw him out . . . read the rest of this post at the Pop Culture & Politics column on Mommy Track'd.

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