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.

Little Orphan Emmy

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It’s wrong that Tatiana Maslany didn’t get a best actress Emmy nomination this week for playing EIGHT distinctly different female clones on BBC America’s Orphan Black. Quite simply, Ms. Maslany’s work was THE BEST of any actor this season and I dare any of you to prove what I say is FALSE.

Oh, show me all the clips you want of Julianna Marguiles in The Good Wife and keep banging the Kerry Washington drum of she deserves an Emmy for anchoring the craziness of Scandal.  It won’t matter.  Both shows bore the hell out of me.

NEXT!

NEXT!

Yeah, I love Claire Danes in Homeland, sort of want to hang out with Michelle Dockery’s character on Downton Abbey and will even admit to finding Lizzy Caplan a little hot on Masters of Sex, which scares me a lot, not a little. None of this counts because Tati is the very definition of brilliant  – my definition.  And since anyone who knows me is aware that the entertainment business is my religion, no other definition really matters.  Does it???

The US Supreme Court ruled recently in the Hobby Lobby case that a closely held company whose owners have strong religious beliefs can opt out of providing certain kinds of female contraceptive care it decides clashes with it’s deeply held views.  This includes two types of IUD’s and two variations of the morning after pill.

Since I am a gay male and certainly not a gynecologist I can’t pretend to be an expert on the anatomy of any woman or her reproductive apparatus.  In fact, not even Tatiana Maslany playing the Chair – which could undoubtedly be the role of her life – would convince you of that.  Instead, we should probably bow to our leading scientific experts in the medical field – the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – since they represent 90% of those types of doctors in the US.

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Emergency contraception will not disrupt an established pregnancy is their exact quote re the morning after pill in a brief the organization filed with the Court. You can read more if you like here.

They also agree with the overwhelming scientific evidence that IUDs are NOT in any way akin to abortion.  Read more of what the experts have to say on this and numerous other points of the Supreme Court case here.

Certainly any person, which includes all corporations since they are now people, has the legal right to accept or reject overwhelming expert opinion.  Hell, there are people who still believe the Earth is flat.  In fact, a non corporate but still otherwise united group of people – the Flat Earth Society – resurrected themselves five years ago and sport among its most prominent members the musician Thomas Dolby.  You don’t believe me on that one either?  Read on here.

What seems quite problematic – and granted it’s a feeling, though court rulings have been made on less – is when public policy is dictated by what people merely feel rather than what has been empirically proven to be true at the time through logic and science.  That is like allowing myself, my partner and two other close friends who watch Orphan Black to overrule the Emmy voters and present Tatiana Maslany that large pointy statuette even though she was not even in contention to receive it. Well, maybe that would be justice for SOME of us, but would that be justice for ALL? Yes I know, no one ever accused THE BiZ of being just – and God (or whoever I believe Her to be) knows I haven’t.  Nevertheless, the point does still ring true.

I mean really.. get it together Emmys.

I mean really.. get it together Emmys. You’re as bad as the government!

A closely held company in the U.S. is one that has more than 50 percent of the value of its outstanding stock owned (directly or indirectly) by five or fewer individuals at any time during the last half of the tax year, according to the IRS.  Well, that doesn’t sound like all that many, so who really cares about this ruling, right?  But as it turns out 90% of all of the companies in the US are closely held. In fact, they employ 52% of our total labor force and account for 51% of our private sector output.  Look it up here.

What this means is that all of the women employed at these types of companies who already pay for contraceptive coverage under their insurance policies will now be paying for double the coverage they seek in an area that goes against the beliefs of their employer.  It is also worth noting that adequate contraceptives could cost the average female minimum wage worker the equivalent of “a month’s salary,” according to another court expert.

Ain't that the truth.

Ain’t that the truth.

This might be off topic but I shudder to think what would have happened to me if my seventy something boss at Daily Variety in the late seventies had decided whether my psychotherapy bills gelled with his personal beliefs at the time. Suffice it to say I would probably not be well enough to be writing this now.  Though untreated I certainly would have had enough personalities for an actress the caliber of Tatiana Maslany to sink her teeth into.  So there is that.

It personally offends me that the voters in part of my TEMPLE OF ENTERTAINMENT, the Television Academy, have for SEVEN LONG YEARS denied Jon Hamm his much-deserved Emmy Award for, among other things, making the character of Don Draper an international icon of hyper-maleness.  And if you don’t think this goes against every moral fiber of my being on the scale of what’s right and wrong then you don’t know me very well and, most certainly, haven’t read enough of Notes (Note:  Click here for references).  But much as I still adore all things ham Hamm and Mad Men, and still believe Matt Weiner runs the best overall scripted show on television, I can’t make you adhere to my deeply held religious beliefs on this one.  Even a lawsuit to the Television Academy wouldn’t work since everyone knows nothing about Show Biz is democratic.  Certainly it’s barely legal.

Don't worry Chair. Let's go to Burger Chef.

Don’t worry Chair. Let’s go to Burger Chef.

That being said, the last time I checked we theoretically do live in a DEMOCRACY – not a THEOCRACY.  We are primarily a country of immigrants who left the very many countries of our collective births in order to escape oppression, often due to religious wars.  That was the case for my Jewish ancestors from Russia, Poland and Hungary.  What about yours?

Therefore it seems to me the height of hypocrisy in a non-sectarian society that any group of people (bosses) could opt out of the law of this land and decide some parts of legal public policy don’t apply to them due to their personal views.  The profits of any public or private corporation in the U.S. benefits from the infrastructure the country provides and is obligated to live under the laws of the land.  Not to mention its employees are entitled to benefit from the rights and laws that land provides them.  Would that I could have siphoned my tax money out of the War in Iraq – or better yet away from anything to do with George W. Bush’s inauguration.  Certainly I wouldn’t have paid for Dick Cheney’s salary or for one stick of furniture in his office.  Everything about the man goes against my deeply held moral beliefs and personally offends me.

Yet that’s not the way it works.  Not in government and not even at the Emmys.  Not only will Tati not win in her category but my favorite Hamm (which is saying something for a Jewish boy) will once again go away empty-handed because nothing is going to stop Bryan Cranston from winning best dramatic actor in a series for the final season of Breaking Bad.

Surely, the US Supreme Court is not lagging behind the amoral guidelines we here in Hollywood adhere to.  Or are they?

New Mad Beginnings

 

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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.

Plus girl can wear the crap out of a pantsuit

Plus girl can wear the crap out of a pantsuit

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?

and why mess with an EGOT winner anyhow?

and why mess with an EGOT winner anyhow?

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.

Though I doubt you'd see Johnny playing sticky ball with Harry Potter...

Though I doubt you’d see Johnny playing sticky ball with Harry Potter…

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.

Perfectly acceptable clothes to wear while picking someone up at the airport.

Perfectly acceptable clothes to wear while picking someone up at the airport.

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.

So where's this all going to lead?

So where’s this all going to lead?

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.

 

Who are you?

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Within the last week my computer was stolen and within the last year my federal tax return refund was issued to someone else who illegally filed a claim in my name.  Now don’t panic.  I have another computer and about 65% of the stuff from the missing one is either backed up or in hard copy.  I also filed a new claim with the IRS stating that some jerk stole my social security number for tax purposes only – apparently a common occurrence these days – and have been assured by my accountant that within the next year or so I should get my full refund in the mail.

Of course, none of this takes away how absolutely creepy it feels to know that someone other than your dog has their paws on, inside and around private parts of you and your life.  It’s kind of like a blind date you didn’t ask for who stays over without permission and, aside from your wallet, steals some of your most personal items from your house, including, most importantly, your personal space.

Don't mind if I do!

Don’t mind if I do!

All of this got me thinking about the two-hour season premiere on Sunday night of the best written series on television – Mad Men – a show that at its core is about how the social and political revolution of the sixties forever changed (some say stole) the identities of American men and women but also allowed us to evolve into who we are today.  Not that I’m recommending it but theft and the turmoil it brings can be good too – waking us up to who and what we really are beyond who and what we possess.  (As if all that isn’t temporary anyway).

In approaching the herculean task of a season set in the often overwritten year of 1968, series creator Matt Weiner shows us a world of individuals who up until now were determined to be defined by what they have rather than who they are because the latter is just too scary and impossible to think about or really even know for sure.  This presents the ultimate problem for his characters because, truthfully, almost none of them have even so much as a passing clue as to their inner selves.  In fact, I’d venture to say that even if a magic Genie appeared to them offering to grant any three wishes of their greatest desire, they would be flummoxed to choose what the top three real wishes would be.  This perpetual conflict and uncertainty is why Mad Men continues to work year after year.  It is a show that series creator Weiner has acknowledged publicly has “no concept at all other than its characters.”

True words, man.

True words, man.

But in real life, as opposed to television drama (which in the case of MM, is much funnier, subtler, more dramatic and better executed), we all do have an identity, which is why no one can truly steal it if deep down you know who you are. That is the reason why I don’t get personally freaked out by the thefts mentioned earlier and why I don’t give a hoot about my Facebook privacy settings or how many items I buy online using a credit card that someone can possibly take and use as their own. Oh sure, these robber barons can make my life temporarily miserable and cause some financial strain or personal heartache, but can they truly take who I am and make it them???  I don’t think so.  Not unless they want to walk xxx number of years (not sayin’ the number, sorry kids) in my shoes and have each identical experiences of joy, heartache and everything in between that I have learned, or sometimes not learned, from.  (Note on the latter: I am nothing if not a work in progress.  Or, if you like metaphor, a chair still under construction but not completely built).

Still, it is also why the entirety of my, or most anyone else’s, true life would not make a good television series or movie.  We don’t live in constant conflict and wit that serve a three or five (or more) act structure and don’t have the best writers, directors and actors to perform it.  We only have ourselves.  Which brings us back to MM, American society and the year 1968.

OK JON! WE GET IT! YOU'RE HOT!

OK JON! WE GET IT! YOU’RE HOT!

It is not surprising that in its next to last season Mad Men is finally tackling the issue of personal (and on a large scale, American?) identity because its iconic leading Man, Don Draper (Jon Hamm… did I mention Jon Hamm?), is someone whose own identity was literally stolen from a dead soldier and molded (by the real character, along with his writers and the actor playing him) into the alpha male of his time by stealing other traits from the best and brightest of what he saw around him in his travels from his rural American childhood, to the snazzy streets of Madison Avenue, to posh suburban New York, and then up to the polished penthouses of Manhattan.  Now in its final years, Mad Men has lost none of its own polish and luster because more and more the faux Madison-Avenue-American-dream-world from the late 50s it created is beginning to crumble before our eyes.  Rather like the way the economic bubble of the 2000s (aughts?) brought down the financial avarice of the 1980s’ “greed is good” culture and the failed American foreign power grabs of the 1980s, 90s and aughts has provoked a bit of an isolationist break from war on the part of the vast majority of the American public today.

As Mr. Weiner and company spend the next number of months against the backdrop of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the campus shootings at Kent State, the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the body bags of the Vietnam War, flower power, marijuana, bell bottoms, good and bad hairstyles (depending on your POV and the kind of hair you have) and rock ‘n roll, all topped off by the election of Richard M. Nixon to president (do I have to live through it a second time?!!), it is important to remember that every bit of these moments and many more are all part of what brought us all to where we are today.  It is why China, France, Germany or Japan will never actually be the United States, just as the United States can never aspire to be any one of those countries.  That’s not a quality judgment on us or them but merely a statement of fact.

You can steal an idea of something but, as Mad Men consistently shows us, ideas are intangible until they are embodied and fully fleshed and executed out by the actions of people and the reactions of others to what they do.  If you have any doubts that this show does it well – consider all of the many films and TV shows that attempt over and over to wallow in the backdrop of the late sixties for dramatic effect and how over and over again those television series and movies fail miserably, or at least in great part, in almost every way.   It is never about the backdrop or the surface or the literal of what we see.  It is always about what’s below the surface and how what is and isn’t there is played out by the people inhabiting that world.  To wit (very limited spoilers ahead):

Taking in the view (last Hamm  joke for this post I promise)

Taking in the view (last Hamm joke for this post I promise)

  • When Roger Sterling, the blue blood jokester partner at Don Draper’s ad agency, lies on his psychiatrist’s couch and ponders “What’s it all about, doc?” the effect is meant to be a comically indulgent comment on the sixties that will later surprise us with a lot more.
  •  When Don’s overfed, arch ex-wife Betty travels down to Greenwich Village to find a lost 15 year old girl and is told by a hippie gang leader that “You can’t grok (the word for understand in Robert Heinlen’s seminal 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land) that we (young people) are your garbage” it’s meant to sound misguided and dishonest until later on Betty shows us through her own actions it really isn’t.
  • When Don’s former protégé Peggy, now running her own creative department at a rival agency, tries to do what Don, her former boss, would do when she’s stumped on how to save an ad campaign of hers that unintentionally evokes an American military atrocity in Vietnam, it feels obviously poignant until Peggy’s wry self-satisfied smile later proves it to be anything but.
  •  And, while taking his official agency photo against the backdrop of Manhattan in his too immense office, Don himself can only stare blankly into the camera lens when a desperate photographer pleads with him to just “be yourself,” it feels too quaint for words until the last scene of the season premiere proves that for this ad man drawing a blank was the only truly honest response he has in him during the entire episode.

I tell my students all the time to not worry about anyone stealing their ideas. Original ideas can never really be stolen because it is always about how they’re executed – how they play out from scene to scene and in total. 

The only thing you have to fear... is wasting post-its

The only thing you have to fear… is wasting post-its

This is much the same as our lives and how we really live them rather than how it might seem to the world.   That is also the way it is with our favorite television series, particularly ones like Mad Men, which was never about the window dressing of the often portrayed 1960s but the ways in which the people who identified as Americans got through it… and came out the other side.

The Star Treatment

roll out the ole’ carpet

Here’s what Girls creator-star Lena Dunham said when asked if she worried that the lead character she plays on her semi-autobiographical HBO series would be sympathetic enough to grab an audience.

“I don’t always like myself, or all the people on TV,” admitted Dunham. “Also, why can’t 25-year-old women make miserable mistakes like Larry David?”

What was most memorable about Ms. Dunham’s response was not only that it was unrehearsed and honest (you spend enough years in show business and you can tell when celebs are blowing smoke up your keester) but the reaction she got from the her fellow Sublime Primetime panelists of 2012 Emmy nominated writers (almost all male) on stage at the WGA Theatre with her. They LOVED her for it.  So much so that they broke out into spontaneous applause, along with the rest of the audience, in one of the few exchanges of the entire evening of speakers that anyone will probably ever remember.

One of these is not like the others…

That was a far cry from the previous awkwardness of these middle-aged guys when the nervous moderator among them finally had to ask her a question. At almost half their ages and, well, a lot more stylish, it felt like they didn’t know…uh… what the heck to make of her (personally I loved the black and white polka dot dress, pixie haircut and arm tattoo that read “STAUNCH” in honor of Little Edie from “Grey Gardens” fame but hey, I am a gay man).  Plus, they looked afraid, very afraid – as if she were the future and, clearly, they would have no part in it, at least not in a starring role.

Perhaps this is nonsense and I’m reading into it.  But…I don’t think so.    Yet Ms. Dunham was not the only one in the group that made everybody a little uneasy that night.  There was also Matthew Weiner, creator-writer of Mad Men, the series that put AMC on the map and won him six of his nine Emmy Awards, including the Television Academy’s statuettes for best drama series four years running, that is until this past week.

Okay, maybe nervous is not quite the word for what they felt towards Mr. Weiner.  It could have been equal amounts of respect, awe, fear and, well, maybe even a little jealousy.  Yet whatever it was quickly began to dissipate when he made some of his own confessions about the cultural phenomenon he created.  When pressed to analyze the success ofashow that doesn’t seem to have a particular genre and, therefore, no strong marketing demographic, Mr. Weiner didn’t appear to have an answer until the panel and audience’s uncomfortable silences gave him a long moment to think of one.

“I think its commercial uniqueness,” he said of Mad Men,  “is that it doesn’t have a formula.  More than any other show I’ve ever worked on, people’s (the writer’s) life experiences wind up on the show unaltered.”

Shameless excuse for another picture of Jon Hamm

And that proved to be another seemingly unrehearsed answer that actually felt real, especially if one considers Mad Men was indeed turned down by every commercial and cable network several times for just that kind of uncategorical reason before it finally found a home at the then fledgling AMC network five years after Mr. Weiner had written it as a spec pilot (and admittedly right before he was convinced it would forever wind up in his drawer as the lovely writing sample it had functioned as up until then).  Also, like Ms Dunham’s response, Mr. Weiner’s answer was particularly memorable for that evening because the idea of writing a successful TV series NOT in a specific genre or WITHOUT a certain demographic seemed almost counterintuitive to what everyone on the panel and in that room of would-be writers had been hearing about TV for years from studio executives, market research studies and more than a few professors (though, hopefully, not this one).

Still, rather than the spontaneous applause given Ms. Dunham, Mr. Weiner’s answer was met with a long, immeasurable dose of awkward silence where, much like an episode of Mad Men, everyone had to stop and think.  This was probably the second most memorable response of the evening and might have even given Mr. Weiner a bit more of the already ample cultural gravitas he enjoyed prior to the time the evening began.

So — Why spend this long on Ms. Dunham and Mr. Weiner?

Well–

Simply as an illustration of how easy it is for two clear WINNERS of one evening to become two clear LOSERS of another (And in the same week!).  Yes, I’m talking about the Emmy Awards.  Because when both Mad Men and Girls failed to win a single trophy on 2012 Emmy that night, and that’s exactly how both Lena Dunham and Matt Weiner were categorized by the media and, perhaps, by more than one or two of us. THE big losers of the night.  The people who went home empty-handed.  The race-horses who were bested.  Who were no longer thoroughbreds.  At least by the latest (American?) standards.  Yes, that’s how quickly the tide, or perhaps in this case, worm, or perhaps even more apt – stomach – can turn these days.

Do these look like losers to you?

I had the great mis fortune…uh…honor (?) of being in the audience at this year’s Emmy Awards and witnessing the Dunham-Weiner downfall.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s certainly fun if you’ve never been or if, like me, you spent your entire childhood preparing for the next award show and reserved the prime spot in front of your family’s television months in advance.  Plus, who doesn’t like something nice and shiny (assume you too are winning or will win one, because this is part of the fantasy, let’s face it) that you can use to prove to yourself and anyone else who asks in perpetuity that you’re truly wonderful?

Except after the time I spent with both Ms. Dunham and Mr. Weiner several evenings before I couldn’t help but feel, well, — sort of sick to my stomach through parts of the Emmy evening and for days after.  This feeling began to painfully increase when I went to the Governor’s Ball and found myself seated beside not one but two tables of the cast and creators of the BBC’s much-lauded Downton Abbey.  Both of those tables also had zero.zero Emmys between them – though the show did chalk up one supporting actress win for the unstoppable Maggie Smith  (who was not in attendance and whose award was, somehow, nowhere to be seen). Still, because it’s DAME Maggie Smith, THE Maggie Smith, a venerable acting institution, that didn’t seem to really count as a true Abbey win.   And it certainly didn’t stop a group of many of us naysayers from saying and even believing that technically, on Emmy night, those stuffy period Brits, for all intents and purposes, really had been shut out (that’s double goose egg again if you were keeping count) and that we Americans had emerged as victorious over the dominant British crown as we had almost two and a half centuries before.

We’ll let Shirley speak for us in Season 3. USA! USA!

But back to Ms. Dunham and Mr. Weiner.  As if the lack of awards for them weren’t already enough to make them the cultural losers of the night, there was even more indignation yet to endure.  Spotted in a Prada dress on the red carpet, Ms. Dunham was lauded in many tabloids in the next day days for also being the fashion LOSER of the evening (they didn’t see the cute black and white polka dot dress on the panel I saw!) while Mr. Weiner was reported on as being THE morose and drinking loser of the fall 2012 awards season, along with the rest of the cast and crew of Mad Men.  This happened when more than one media outlet reported Weiner and company were spotted licking their woundsat an undisclosed restaurant or hotel location far away from the confines of the festive (AND VERY RED!) Governor’s Ball.

Red with envy?

Note:  Truth to be told, I actually saw Mr. Weiner and his wife hurrying out and walking against the crowd from the Governor’s Ball just as the rest of us poor schnook audience members were being ushered in.  He didn’t look happy but neither did he look suicidal.  He simply seemed like a guy who had enough and wanted to leave before he got trapped among another crowd full of people who would demand a suitable reaction, or perhaps even a pithy response, to one of their inane questions when clearly there was none.

Considering all of the above, I offer this observation both for you and for myself.  It is very worth noting, especially if you’re any kind of creative person – whether active, aspiring, studying or retired – that today’s designer outfit IS tomorrow’s thrift store reject –which will inevitably come back into style the day after that as retro chic — until it’s worn out its welcome and lands in the trash bin once more, only to be recycled again if yet someone else decides its hip and cool and groovy.

On the other hand, there ARE classics that never go out of style.  Ms. Dunham and Mr. Weiner are two of those.  And there are a lot more if you go looking for them (look in the mirror and you might even find one).  They’re not always the latest thing, but that doesn’t take away from their style, workmanship or lasting appeal to the right audience.  Nothing and no one tempts anyone on every day of the week.  Except sex , pizza, a nice glass of wine and maybe Angelina Jolie. Though I’ll bet at least two, or perhaps even three of those, have their naysayers.