I have refrained from commenting on Mad Men in this precinct since I sense a great enthusiasm among the BAP gatekeepers for a TV series I find intelligent, lovingly crafted, and yet often irritatingly mannered and obvious. Why is it, for example, that whenever a Mad character turns on the TV, he or she just happens to come upon, say, Jackie Kennedy giving a tour of the White House? The regular historical coincidences strain credulity, and are cute, not acute.
But I have been enjoying the second season of Mad Men more than the first because the cracks are beginning to show in the porcelain foreheads of important smoothies like Don Draper, and I found the episode in which he appeared at the bedside of post-natal Peggy, advising her to forget about the baby she’d just birthed, to be at once shocking and thrilling (yes! Don is the only person independent-Peggy would take advice from!).
This past Sunday, art intruded upon the business of Madison Avenue in two ways. Robert Morse's Cooper had acquired a Mark Rothko, and the painting, mounted in his office, became a deep-orange litmus test for his underlings, its saturated colors seeping into their workaday minds. Everyone immediately supposed its abstraction was some kind of test of whether they "got it" or not, and by extension, were able to understand and fawn more effectively over their frequently inscrutable boss.
And then there was the wining and dining of Cooper Sterling Accounts Manager Ken Cosgrove by the excruciatingly closeted art director Salvatore. Ken, you may recall, has had a short story published in The Atlantic Monthly, which immediately made him the envy of many copywriters at the ad agency. (As someone whose first job was as a proofreader at Ogilvy & Mather straight out of college, I can tell you this rang very true. At the time I was also freelancing for Rolling Stone, and I had more than one copywriter tell me to flee the ad biz before I got promoted, and one middle-aged fellow who closed the door behind me and asked furtively how one got published in Jann Wenner's magazine. I think my response was an eloquent, um, you just have to like a lot of punk rock, send in your clips, and say yes when asked to review crap like Black Oak Arkansas.)
Ken the published literary writer is pure catnip to the sensitive, unhappily married Salvatore, and the scene in which Salvatore had Ken over for dinner — gazing longingly into the younger man's averted eyes as Ken lit his cigarette, while Salvatore's wife looked on in quiet agony — was one of Mad Men's… most clunkily obvious moments. Sometimes I think of series creator Matthew Weiner as Daffy Duck, slamming us -- whom I imagine he sees as a collective Elmer Fudd -- over the head with a baseball bat, screaming, "Get it? Get it? Boy, they were repressed in those days! These people were desthpicable!"
Weiner has upped the art-versus-life quotient this season, starting with the earth-quaking Frank O'Hara reference in the season premiere. I’m not sure it's really working. I'm much more caught up in the inter-office politics involving head secretary-queen bee Joan, and, on the homefront, the way Don's wife Betty has become so mercurially, cavalierly cruel to their son. These subplots strike me as being, if anything, more "literary" than the overt art-referenced scenes. Between the secretaries and the children, Weiner and company are evoking similar themes in the work of writers such as Richard Yates, John O'Hara, and Christina Stead the best way you can on television: by not overreaching for profundity. Perhaps you disagree?