Beginnings are difficult for everyone – even Mad Men. Not that the season 7 premiere Sunday night was bad. But just like the announced passing of the CBS late-night torch to Stephen Colbert from David Letterman last week, it leaves a lot unresolved as to what the final verdict will be.
This is, of course, what great writing, great TV and a great life are all about. What’s the point if from the very start you know what the outcome will be? You have to take risks, be a little messy and certainly subvert expectations a bit – especially if you want to land at the very top of your game by the time you get to the finish line.
This is echoed no better than in the words of Mad Men’s anti-heroine Peggy Olson – the slightly mousy 1960s gal from the boroughs who has now made it all the way to her supposed dream advertising job of creative director – when she flips out at all the easy-answer mediocrity surrounding her and screams at anyone in the office who will listen:
You’re all just a bunch of hacks!
Never mind that Ms. Olson, who is clearly correct in her assessment, ends the episode crying alone on her living room floor in sheer exasperation at what her life has become. Please, who among us hasn’t done that at least more than once in their lives while striving for greatness? Well, if you’re not among them then you’re also not a part of the very large group of us who have also bellowed in frustration about the sheer creative laziness of co-workers and/or competition in your industry and the ways in which that type of behavior goes rewarded.
Count me among both the screamers and the criers AND as a Peggy Olson-esque persona who is damned proud of both. Not that this is any guarantee of happiness. Though certainly it does not mean you are sentenced to a lifetime of misery. All it indicates is that you’re willing to take the chance at following your own path.
This ensures a constant lifetime barrage of new beginnings – of starting over and over again fairly consistently – never sure of what the final result will be but positive that at least you are doing the best that you can. And that if your best doesn’t work you can always start over once more. AND that, in the end, you are okay with that.
What’s fascinating is how the reaction to those who live this kind of life credo has not changed all that much through the ages. For example, though Mr. Colbert taking over the late-night spot held so long by David Letterman evoked all kinds of positive responses last week, there was also an equal amount of hysterical trepidation. Would Colbert on one of the major networks be de-fanged and become the dreaded kinder, gentler and horribly bland comedian? Isn’t the late-night big network format in general too old for words, ensuring that anyone with an edge or formerly known for having an edge and now trying to become mainstream, would surely be doomed to failure? And then there’s my favorite – why can’t we just have The Colbert Report and The Daily Show starring Jon Stewart forever? Why does television always have to mess with a good thing in search of more audience, much more money and the most in ratings?
There’s only one simple answer to this and all of life’s questions – evolution.
You might think now that you want an eternity of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show but at some point they will seem as dated as the recording of last year’s Blurred Lines is now finally (and thankfully) beginning to feel. And I know this for sure because I’ve lived through eras when Vanilla Ice, Kirk Cameron AND Arnold Schwarzenegger were all at the very top of their fields and seemed unlikely to ever disappear if the public had its way.
Mr. Colbert is smart enough to know all of the above as well as a lot of other stuff. That’s why he is who he is and where he is. He’s not afraid to evolve and his fans should allow him to lead the way. Besides, how extreme do any of them think that change will ultimately be? Has anyone watched Late Night with Seth Meyers? I’m a big fan but much of the first half of his show, especially his monologue, is nothing more than an expanded version of the Weekend Update segments he rose to fame with on Saturday Night Live. Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show is simply a slightly modified riff on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with a few more mainstream jokes and celebrities and a slightly better set. Though it is technically 60 years old, the current Tonight Show has evolved into something quite different from those led by the five and a half hosts that came before Fallon (Note: the half being Conan O’Brien). Tune into Fallon any night of the week and you’ll hear not only a different theme song but see a series of fan-based, softball interviews that have nothing at all to do with what Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson or even Jay Leno did with their guests.
As for Colbert, he will be NOTHING like Letterman but probably more than a little like the fictional Colbert character he played for years on Comedy Central sans the self-reflexive conservative bigotry. That’ll be yet another in a string of new beginnings that, when you look closely at them, are really much needed readjustments and jump-starts moving us (and him) to the next level and the future.
Which brings us back to Mad Men. It is now 1969 and there is nothing as prescient as looking at one of the most turbulent social upheavals in American history through the lens of hindsight. Women like the aforementioned Ms. Olson didn’t seem to have a chance back then – except when they did. But Ms. Olsen didn’t know that and it is this struggle that makes Mad Men so endlessly fascinating even when one fears it is drowning in a series of clichés.
No decade or the music or the clothes it spawns seem trite, corny or overdone at the time. Which is why everyone should bridle at the all-knowing critiques of the first episode’s portrayal of late 1960s L.A. fashion, housing and slang. Yes, women wore earrings THAT BIG and skirts THAT SHORT. Yeah, men in their thirties, forties, fifties and sixties grew out their sideburns, donned love beads, smoked grass and said phrases like FAR OUT. And if not every young person in their twenties hit their parents with lines like anger can’t make anything better, only love can those that didn’t certainly didn’t find anything out of the ordinary when that kind of thing came up in conversation.
The year 1969 in America is probably one of the most difficult to film and not merely because of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, the moon walk (Note: Neil Armstrong’s, not Michael Jackson’s) and the various other socio-political events of the day. It is because that year was still full of unbridled idealism about the power of love and the non-violent changes it could evoke. It was also due to the fact that the world was still filled with bright primary colors that were seen as hipper than hip rather than a silly throwback to the faux lollipop world of childhood. And, as a west coaster of 30 years I am proud to say it is in part because California was undeniably THE go-to destination city for a front row seat to every last drop of all of it.
Watching an iconically handsome, square-jawed Madison Avenue idea man like Don Draper maneuver through an over-accessorized Canyon home in 1969 Los Angeles is a bit akin to seeing the oil-slicked fish of the Louisiana gulf coast struggling to survive the BP oil spill. We know something has gone terribly wrong and even though what we’re seeing is true and probably important, in both cases it’s just not very pleasant to watch. Even when Don goes back to his fabulous penthouse in New York City it doesn’t feel much better. He’s lost his footing – as most people his age had in 1969 – and the cold cruel reality of change is beginning to literally enshroud him by the end of the premiere episode. Much like the decade itself, there was little irony to be seen in that.
Matthew Weiner, Mad Men creator and the writer of last night’s premiere, as crafted yet another new beginning for a TV series that continues to reinvent itself for every year of the changing decade it portrays while remaining essentially the same at its core. He knows what he’s doing even when the rest of us have our doubts and that is how it should be. Artists, like friends, family members and even some politicians, earn your trust over time by living their lives this way – either publicly, privately or both. It doesn’t much matter whether they fail or succeed with each decision they make or in any given moment they decide to create or even live. What matters is the overall effect on both the world and on you. As a die-hard fan of Mad Men and the 1960s who knows all too well the value of new beginnings I’m willing to trust the process for now and go along on the ride. If things go awry, I can always protest. Or maybe create another new beginning and do better on my own.