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From Mad to Bad: Season Three of Mad Men

May 9, 2010

(Contains Spoilers)

The reviews for season three of Mad Men have been almost unanimously glowing. I can only assume that I was watching a different programme, as I found all thirteen episodes to be highly disappointing and tedious. Mad Men has garnered many awards, critical praise and ever- increasing ratings since it began in 2007. Like many viewers, I quickly became hooked on the show. Its depiction of 1960s America through the prism of the personal and professional lives of a cast of characters working for a fictional advertising agency based in Madison Avenue, New York City, is both fascinating and bewitching. You become entranced and appalled at the life of Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), the creative director of Sterling Cooper who oversees million-dollar advertising campaigns in a cut-throat industry, drinks and smokes to excess and regularly cheats on his beautiful wife. Draper’s behaviour is the norm for the characters of this world. This was not only a time of financial boom and increased access to contraception, it was also a time of casual racism, sexism and homophobia. In one of the many subtle ironies of the show, some of the characters appear horrified at the racially motivated violence occuring in the Deep South, whilst being unaware of their own inherent prejudices. But then there so many good things to say about the first two seasons, stylish direction, compelling performances, complex and engrossing storylines and a meticulously researched attention to period detail. The series creator, producer and head writer Matthew Weiner previously worked on The Sopranos, and there are many parallels between the two shows. There is the theme of characters struggling to balance their personal and professional lives. Also, the rules of the advertising world are as fascinating as the rules which govern how the Mafia operates in The Sopranos. Both shows depict a sub-culture which operates very differently to other aspects of American society. Mad Men also has parallels with crime fiction; most strikingly through its elaborate backstory centred around around a criminal act. Don Draper was born Dick Whitman to a desperately poor family, but he faked his death whilst serving in the US Army during the Korean War and assumed the identity of an officer killed in action. Thus, the symbolism of character names– ‘Draper’ shields Dick Whitman’s real identity from the world.

So what went wrong with Season Three? Well, firstly it became apparent from the opening episode that Matthew Weiner and his co-writers had tinkered too much with the format of the show. Season three begins with all of the employees at Sterling Cooper in a rather gloomy mood because of the unpopular policies of the British firm which has bought out the company. The problem with putting new British characters in charge is that it  makes many of the existing characters irrelevant. Plus, the Brits seem like pale imitations of the Americans in the firm, albeit they are portrayed as stereotypical upper-class twits. Perhaps an American audience might like this form of portrayal; personally, I found it excruciating to watch. But subtlety was definitely not a factor in how these episodes were written. In episode one, an accounts man is sacked and proceeds to roam around the office yelling obscenities and throwing furniture. This felt like an unpleasant way of grabbing the audiences attention. And there was a lot more of this blunt, shocking tone. The much talked about lawnmower accident felt like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie. The storyline concerning Sal’s closeted homosexuality has lost all its nuance and inner drama. It was not convincing that after years of repressing his sexuality, Sal would suddenly jump into bed with a bellhop at a hotel. It was also rather lazy writing to have their tryst interrupted by a fire in the hotel, conveniently sidetracking any dramatic repercussions of events. I could go on, but I suspect I’ve ranted enough. There were other storylines that were stronger and more convincing, yet I finished watching the episodes with a sense that the greatness of the show had been lost, and I doubt it can be regained in the upcoming season four.

Sal and the bellhop

Unconvincing- Sal and the bellhop after the hotel fire

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