The Real Thing

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Can people substantially change who they are? Or do they, as they get older, just become more of who they are?

Mad Men – one of the best-written series ever on television – grappled with the question of change and identity via the lens of the American psyche throughout its eight-year,seven-season, run. So it seemed only fitting – and simultaneously both obvious and brilliant – that this would be the primary question it answered in its finale episode.

A television program can only do so much but for my money and time there has not ever been a show to so accurately yet obtusely capture how Americans think, change or refuse to budge as this one. We have taken a lot of heat as a country for being a bit self-obsessed just as we have also always been lauded for our sometimes unsolicited generosity of spirit to others when their or our backs are to the wall. Perhaps America as a bastion of freedom that will always lend a helping hand and open door to those less fortunate has taken a beating in recent years. But the idea of the U.S. – and the desire for there to be a place where people can live free and be who they really are regardless of what they may or may not really be, observe or come from – is a concept that seems to only grow with power as time goes on and the world grows more (yet seemingly less) connected.

Don Draper's 1960 utopia

Don Draper’s 1960 utopia

The reason Mad Men was so often able to address these questions so brilliantly is that series creator Matthew Weiner chose exactly the right decade – the 1960’s – to tackle them. There has not been, nor probably will there ever be in the future, a ten-year period with so great a shift in cultural, political and social mores. It saw an unprecedented period of sweeping changes in how we thought, felt, and even dressed. Free love, the peace movement, a relaxing of social conventions that caused us to become (Note: Sometimes kicking and screaming) more inclusive and less discriminatory against the marginalized or less fortunate? Well, five plus decades later some of it would last – for a while – until segments of the majority in power (Note: Did I say the 1980s? Oh, now I did) decided to take a few more steps backwards from that advancing direction. But then again, all of this societal stuff tends to be cyclical anyway if you look at the rise and fall of any the world’s great super powers. At least we – well, many of the most fortunate of us, that is – still have a few more choices now than we did back then.

When one says Mad Men was about the sixties let’s be clear about something – it was really about the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The decade we really think was the sixties didn’t actually begin until after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Before that it was just the 1950s but with a more youthful glow. The 1960s then happened and took us through Vietnam, rock ’n roll, drugs and the search for love and that dirty term nowadays: self-actualization. But that ended after the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, television bringing the atrocities of the Vietnam War home, and the unmasking of all of the rest of the American dream for every bit of the invented sham it always was. That, in essence, was where our slow recovery – meaning the 1970s – began and continues to this very day.

Don's reading materials

Don’s reading materials

None of this is meant as an insult to the American dream or to negate the fact that many beneficial aspects to it still do exist. But make no mistake – it was and is invented and made up. The very nature of all dreams is that they are NOT REAL. Which, on the other hand, makes them no less true (or potentially true) in some form. I tell this to my students in every writing class I’ve ever taught when they voice concerns that their stories are too contrived. Well, of course they’re contrived! I answer. All of this stuff is made up, even if it’s based on real life. The task is to make it not seem like it is – to somehow have it evoke reality. That was hard fought advice I gave to myself after decades of self-flagellation whenever I myself grew overly frustrated that nothing I ever wrote seemed real ENOUGH.

There is no main character – nee protagonist, nee anti-hero or hero, depending on how you want to see him – to dramatically travel so effectively in, around and through these issues as a man whose job it is to manufacture American dreams, wants and desires – meaning an American advertising man.

From the pilot episode

From the pilot episode

And what kind of ad guy – how about one whose entire personal identity is made up from the very beginning – both literally in Matt Weiner’s mind and figuratively in the character of Don Draper, a man who is really named something else he didn’t like or want to be and instead chose to assume the name and new life of a dead man. This is a guy who is so perfect looking, so talented, and so continuously successful in everything he does even when he is failing miserably – that he couldn’t be real. In fact, he couldn’t be anything more than the invention of some smart and savvy mind on Madison Avenue – which is what he is.

Don Draper’s journey from stud, to family man, to phony man, to rich man who remembers being a poor man, to rogue, alcoholic, reformed rogue with half a heart back to pseudo real, tortured American stripped bare at the end of the decade, seemed iconic and ironic enough. But it was only in the last episode this weekend, where the flawed yet somehow always enviable Don Draper took center stage alongside such other fictional American icons as Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, Walter White in Breaking Bad and even All in the Family’s Archie Bunker.

Television's (now) former leading men... casting long shadows

Television’s (now) former leading men… casting long shadows

It is giving nothing away (Note: Or perhaps it is so if you’re a stickler for these kind of things you might want to skip over the paragraph) to say that at his seemingly lowest point in the series Don decides not so much to change but to pull himself together the best he can and achieve what in his heart of hearts he’s always wanted – something uniquely his own and thus personally iconic.

But he does this not through the personal epiphany he has in the scene before when, in a burst of uncharacteristic, unguarded emotion, he is able to identify with and even hug a fellow lost male soul in a California encounter group when the man compares himself to an unchosen item in a refrigerator and laments that people “look right through you” and don’t see you. I mean in that moment you wonder if what Don feels is not so much kinship for a guy to whom he is essentially saying – that’s right, I feel the same way, they don’t see me either and I know how you feel – or whether as he’s hugging this poor shlub he is really saying – Listen bud, I AM the ideal, the guy you always think they see and who, in fact, they do see and always choose, and it’s no better on this side either. I don’t feel like anyone really knows me because I don’t know me, and let me tell you, just like you that feels like shit.

Sally gets it. Especially when she tells her father (in this season's "The Forecast"): "Anyone pays attention to you, and they always do, and you just ooze everywhere."

Sally gets it. Especially when she tells her father (in this season’s “The Forecast”): “Anyone pays attention to you, and they always do, and you just ooze everywhere.”

This would seem to be Don’s emotional catharsis and moment of self-actualization and perhaps it is in that moment. But like all heroes in very American art this hero has to take what he’s learned and apply it to real life. Or as they say via our take on modern dramatic film and TV writing, The Hero’s Journey — he needs to Return with the Elixir from whence he came and put his knowledge into practice in his own ordinary world.

Though we’ll never know for sure, it seems that Mr. Weiner’s (and Mad Men’s) answer to all this is NOT to have Don go home and become a better father, join the Peace Corp or set up a foundation for other lost souls less fortunate than he.

No – what happens is that during a subsequent day of mediation (complete with a joint OHM and all that entails) a literal bell goes off in Don’s head and he smiles – presumably with an idea.

Suffice it to say this is not a notion for how to achieve world peace or the beginnings of a cure for cancer. Though perhaps it is the ad man’s equivalent of that – a brilliant idea for a …Coke Commercial?

Say what you want about all of us as a culture, or as artists, but there is no idea too pure or life event too personal that we are above cannibalizing if we can turn it to our benefit into great art or at least a great business idea – though hopefully both.

Which I couldn’t help thinking about when Mr. Weiner revealed Mad Men’s final song and image – Don Draper’s last great idea. Cue one of the most famous television ads ever seen – a multi-cultural group of young people of different colors and nationalities atop a mountaintop having HIS Kumbaya moment but singing a song espousing the benefits and joys of us humans one day existing in perfect harmony as we each drink…our Coca-Colas.

You tell 'em, Rita!

You tell ’em, Rita!

Anyone who is of a certain age remembers I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke.  If not click here. First it was an ad jingle, then it was one of the first world videos, and then, and only then, was it re-recorded with new lyrics where it would become an…international hit record.

It was the beginning of another era – that of media cross-pollination, which would eventually give way to mass corporate ownership of the arts and vertical integration of all its divisions into a new world order.

Yes, we do have the Don Drapers of the world to thank for that.

But only THE Don Draper – and those who created him – to thank for seven seasons of appointment TV that, even in our current and vast media landscape, will sorely be missed.

Mad Memories

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Every television series has an expiration date – like all the rest of us. And as much as we love and adore a program, ourselves or someone else – what is inevitable is that after the many joys, heartaches, exhilarations and disappointments it will be time for a finale. That time begins this week for Mad Men – one of the most unlikely, game changing and creatively successful shows in television history.

Tonight marks the first of its seven-episode final season so it is really, for lack of a better phrase, the beginning of the end. Yet like all culminations (Note: Death sounds so awful doesn’t it – as if the opposite never existed) it carries a myriad of emotions depending on how one chooses to see endings – especially the creative kind.

MAYBE I WILL, SALLY!

MAYBE I WILL, SALLY!

Two of my favorite people in the world – Stephen Tropiano and Holly Van Buren – are currently working on a book to be published at the end of the year on this very subject called TV Series Finales FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Endings of Your Favorite TV Shows. It will cover a broad spectrum of many of our favorite series and it is more than likely at least one or more of the programs you have enjoyed most over the years will be included.

I, for one, will never forget the ending of Six Feet Under, the HBO program that centered on the mortuary-owning Fisher family. It seemed so obvious it would all conclude with the flash-forward death moments of each family member since they spent their time with us having to deal with the expiration dates of all the rest of the various people (meaning the surrogate versions of us) who entered into their home.

Nothing beats Brenda's "Death from boredom"

Nothing beats Brenda’s “Death from boredom”

Comedies like Newhart also gave us an equally creative finale – perhaps borrowed from The Wizard Of Oz, where in its very last scene Mr. Newhart wakes up from a dream in bed next to the woman he was married to from his previous 1970s series, The Bob Newhart Show. He then recounts to his 1970s wife, played by the deadpan and quite hilarious Suzanne Pleshette (Side Note: I met her at a Hollywood restaurant once through a mutual friend and she was down-to-earth and equally hilarious), the last eight-year synopsis of the other program as if it were some wild fever dream. To which Ms. Pleshette responds, among other things, Go back to sleep, Bob.

Absolute classic

Priceless

There are a variety of many other conclusions. The poignant M*A*S*H final helicopter departure; the more harsh, black comedy moment of the Seinfeld gang sitting in jail together, alienated from the world; and what will always seem like the pitch-perfect moment in Breaking Bad when Walter White’s reign of – shall we call it terror or victory? – finally comes to a close.

We all have our personal highs and lows and they’re often dictated by how and what we related to the entity that is ending – and even more so how we react when told by the Cosmos – or in the case of TV, a network or show runner – that despite what we might want there will be NO MORE.

Though perhaps some of us, myself included, are now thinking:

This metaphor doesn’t hold for TV anymore, Chair. What about all the sequels, reboots and reinventions? Maybe you should finally take a seat in your long overdue ROCKER!

Well, not quite. I know you’re all thrilled about the recently announced reboots of The X-Files with its original stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and the return of Twin Peaks with the always Agent Cooper Kyle McLaughlin. The same way I was jazzed for that second season of Valerie Cherish this year in HBO’s The Comeback 10 years after the fact. However, the simple truth is that none of these shows is or will ever be the same as they once were – or are truly a continuation of what we knew them as before.

In the case of The Comeback – for me it was better. I mean, I’m 10 years older (which in show business years is truly almost a lifetime) and I now have an infinitely better understanding of Val’s trials and tribulations as a creative person in Hollywood even though I thought I knew just about all there was to know about it before. Perhaps that’s why I thought the second season was far deeper and more effective than the first – though it still could’ve rested there anyway since even that end was pretty good at the time.

I cherish you

I cherish you

Though I can’t say the same about the original ending of Twin Peaks I do admit its resume scares me even more since the black comedy dramatic irony it first pioneered 25 years ago in prime time has now been adopted by about 75% of most creative enterprises across the board in 2015 – and for quite some time. On that note, I can’t even imagine what Mulder and Scully will be up to on X Files – though I pray it won’t involve an introduction of alien spouses (Note: Wait, maybe I do!) even as I hope it will finally reveal what the heck happened to David Duchovny’s on-screen, never before seen sister. (Note: Yes, I’m sure it won’t work and I’d regret it if they did, but, well, as long as we’re going there, can’t they….Yes, I know).

One can’t hold on to time today and pretend it’s 10, 15, 20, 30 or 50 years ago. This is something the governors of both Indiana and Arkansas learned the hard way this past week when they were forced to deal with the severe public, not to mention financial, backlash from new religious freedom laws that could make it perfectly legal for businesses to choose not to serve gays and lesbians purely on religious grounds. This goes to show that even if one tries to recreate and build on something that once existed but doesn’t anymore it is impossible to get back to that moment of the first ending – or become overly nostalgic about that time in the past in this age and as the person you are now at this moment in time.

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As for impending endings and how best to deal with them – it would behoove all of us to simply revel in the final moments we have with ourselves, our friends and loved ones, as well as our favorite stories. (Note: That’s what my Mom used to call her soap operas). This is not a morbid thought because, well, many endings can go on for quite a long time. I mean, the final season of Mad Men has actually lasted more than a year due to AMC’s prescription of stretching it out that long to make more money and build audience ratings. And not to get too heavy (too late?) it can also be argued that we all are in the process of our own endings even when we think we are just beginning – given the constraints of existence. A pretty heady thought – especially for a Sunday blog. Or well, any day for that matter.

Though this seems appropriate for a show like Mad Men, which was, if nothing else, extremely heady (some called it dense) even as it was hilarious, devastatingly dramatic, sad and ironic. This gave it many detractors, including one person very close to me who in the past has often noted that despite its brilliance it often felt interminably slow – like watching paint dry.

Sometimes literally. (Season 4, Episode 3 The Good News)

Sometimes literally. (Season 4, Episode 3 The Good News)

Okay – fine. But why say that like that’s a negative thing? Isn’t life like that more times than we want to admit – mixed in with the excitement, fun and everything else?

Well – who the hell knows? All I am clear about is that while I dread the time two months from now without one of my favorite programs ever, I also know in my heart of hearts the moment has arrived to say good-bye. A relationship I stayed with far too long in the 1980s taught me that when I actually thought that I could…well, we don’t really need to get into that here. As for Mad Men, think of it this way – do you really want to see Don Draper in the 1970s? Not to mention – the eighties and nineties?   Now that would be sad.

i don't do polyester

i don’t do polyester

More happy are the seminal memories from the past. That is what I try to remember about all the people in my life who are long gone and it is what I choose to recall about what I consider – the consistently BEST WRITTEN SERIES ON TELEVISION. In the spirit of that, let’s close with the five best scenes of seven seasons that gave us so much more – not to mention so much more to think about.

#5 ROGER STERLING TAKES LSD

Season 5, Episode 6 Far Away Places

What happens when the middle-aged silver fox blue blood partner of an ad agency takes LSD with his much younger second wife? Well, the truth – of course.   At least that’s what it felt like in the mid-sixties. Drugs had a much different connotation then – freedom, creativity, inner understanding and, most importantly, eternal youth. In that one moment, MM captured not only a key moment for one of its characters but a significant moment in the cultural zeitgeist that too often gets twisted into more – and less – than it really was.

#4 – JOAN F-CKS THE JAGUAR GUY

Season 5, Episode 11 The Other Woman

You can’t say they slept together because office manager Joan knew exactly what she was there for – a partnership in the business. In a desperate attempt to keep a luxury car account, it is suggested that savvy Joan literally prostitute herself in the name of the firm and in an ironic, almost pre/post-feminist moment she agrees to for promise of a financial future far beyond the wildest dreams – or possibilities – of a woman in her situation during that time period. What made the scene (Note: Which is really a series of scenes in the course of the episode) particularly harrowing was that in some strange way her character had always served as the moral conscience of the show. She seemed to have an innate understanding of everyone and everything and the ability to keep it together her way. WE didn’t want her to DO THE JAGUAR but Joan always makes the right choice for herself before we get there. Or does she? This moment still leaves us wondering – and wondering why we’re judging. Not to mention just what our own price of a partnership is or could be.

#3 – GRANDMA IDA PAYS A VISIT

Season 6, Episode 7 The Crash

Come over here and give a hug to your Grandma Ida, says the middle-aged Black woman (NOTE: She is later referred to as an elderly Negro woman) to Don Draper’s very White pre-teen daughter Sally. Say what??? Of course, this is right after Sally catches the woman rifling through her remarried father’s living room in one of those divorced kids visits, so she’s confused and doesn’t respond. But Grandma Ida does with a condemning stare and the words: Now don’t you be rude to me, You come over here and give me some sugar.

Well, that would have been enough for this kid of divorce and I was almost Sally’s age during that time period and just as snide and mouthy. This said more about what it was like to be young enough to be a kid but old enough to understand more than the adults thought you did (though not quite as much as you thought) than almost anything else I’ve ever seen on television. I mean, could Dad really be…or have been raised by….? Not to mention how it addresses the issue of race. It’s still uncomfortable to talk about and still gives me the willies.

#2 – PEGGY TELLS PETE SHE HAD HIS KID AND GAVE IT AWAY

Season 2, Episode 13 Meditations in an Emergency

Click here for full clip

Click here for full clip

If it was difficult to believe that a young woman in that era could be pregnant in denial about it almost the moment she gave birth, it was also liberating to know that same woman could figure a way to pull herself out of it and back into normality. Except nothing about Peggy Olson, the smart, ambitious but sheltered young 20 something woman of her time, is NORMAL. Of course, what is normal anyway? Certainly not the 1960s, in retrospect. If you’ve ever known anyone, including yourself, who successfully managed to explain away the unexplainable with twisted logic – well, you gotta love Peggy here. And fear her – and for her – just a little. This scene is not the showiest and won’t mean much to non-fans, but if you’re a regular viewer and/or binge watcher you’ll never forget it.

#1  DON DRAPER: AD/MAD MAN GENIUS

Season 1, Episode 13 The Wheel

The heart of Mad Men is Don Draper – the handsome, square-jawed guy every woman wants to have and every guy wants to be. But it’s not Don’s looks, sexual prowess, success or reinvention that stand apart when one looks at the series of a whole – it his ability to deliver the goods when it counts. This is helped along greatly by brilliant writing delivered by the absolutely perfect casting/acting of Jon Hamm in that starring role. This scene more than any delivers the genius and heartbreak of this ad man and does so in the form of a faux advertising campaign pitch of a real product of the era in a way so personal to this character that we would have never imagined he’d go for it. Try doing that or acting it or writing it or even imagining it on your own some time and let me know if it’s a tenth as good. (Note: It won’t be). This is why Mad Men will endure and why its finale episodes – no matter which direction they go – will inevitably be worth watching.