Following the first episode of Mad Men's new season, a post on Facebook caught my eye. It discussed the show's "death wish" and garnered 25 "likes" and a slew of critical comments.
The gist of it seemed to be that America's favorite advertising executive -- well, since Darren Stevens of Bewitched fame -- had turned so dark and gloomy in this episode that it was almost painful to watch him at times. Now that the beloved show has hurtled forward to 1968, it makes perfect sense for it to get more thoughtful, even melancholy.
One of Mad Men's great strengths was its uncanny ability to reflect those halcyon days of the early 1960s, when the Rooftop Singers and the Four Seasons ruled the pop music charts, West Side Story seemed oh-so- urban and edgy, President Kennedy's vision of Camelot was still intact and Mickey Mantle was still America's foremost sports symbol. Then, of course, all hell broke loose and the 1960s arrived, with assassination, Vietnam protest marches, college campuses in turmoil and the generation gap in full flower.
Last season, the ever-resourceful Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, again drew on the times to show that his show continued to have relevance and resonance with the mass audience. He used "Tomorrow Never Knows," the Beatles' 1966 foray into psychedelia to symbolize the change in the American popular culture. It was the perfect song. And it didn't hurt the show one bit, either, when some shrewd publicist spread the word to the blogs about how much money it had cost Mad Men to obtain the television rights to use the song. Ka-ching! Publicity! The song easily paid for itself by sparking such a buzz among the legions of Mad Men fans and critics.
Clearly, the doomy vocal of John Lennon was a major tip-off that this show was making a sharp turn toward the Dark Speed Lane. Even if this transformation is a correct merging of character and period -- hey, at least they didn't cheapen Draper (yet) by showing him hanging out with Broadway Joe Namath or giving the Black Power victory symbol at the Mexico Olympics -- it remains to be seen whether it is a wise one. Will the public truly embrace this incarnation of Don Draper or would it just prefer him to be garden-variety moody while he chases skirts all over New York City?
I've seen this backfire before. You have, too. My favorite TV show in recent years was HBO's Entourage. I virtually inhaled the show and memorized the lines uttered by the charismatic guys from Queens and their tough-talking agent Ari Gold.Doug Ellin, the big brain behind the show's success, had not only created a world of close friendships and fun that every guy wished he inhabited, but he also hit upon a new breed of ensemble real-life comedy (that is, if anything in Hollywood is actually reflecting anybody's real life at all.
During Entourage's ride to uber-popularity -- count President Obama as a big fan -- the formula was simple: surround Vince and the boys with lots of sexy women and clever, frat-boy-putdown humor. It worked for me. I hung on every word for the first five or so seasons. Then Ellin made a left turn to darkness on the edge of town and Vince suddenly became a substance-abusing street fighting man.
The fun went out of the show, and so did a lot of its appeal to many fans. Ellin took Entourage in a courageous turn, suddenly stressing the worst of human nature and Hollywood. Ellin made an artistic statement and the message boards be damned, if they didn't agree with his fresh ideas for Vincent Chase's style or like them.
Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm, who so clever portrays Don, now have that dilemma. Is it worth potentially alienating your audience to make an artistic statement -- by altering your star's persona and making him seem much less likable?
It's a risk. But it's the sort of evolution that tends to occur in every smart, long-running TV show. Cable gives visionaries like Weiner and Hamm the ability to go beyond the yuks and concentrate on character development. Don Draper doesn't remind me of anyone I've seen in a TV series, one of the show's biggest pluses. He is a complete original.
The question now is whether Weiner and Hamm can hold their audience while breaking their hearts.