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'Mad Men' remains set in its artful ways

Critic's Notebook: It may take place in the go-go '60s, but Season 6 keeps the drama's stylish brand in check, and Don Draper in moody control.

April 06, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as Don Draper star in "Mad Men."
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as Don Draper star in "Mad… (Michael Yarish, AMC )

Here's how I am afraid "Mad Men" will end next year: With Jon Hamm's Don Draper in a white suit, heading to Studio 54.

Here's how I hope it will end: The whole series is revealed to be a story told by Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in a Ventura County sweat lodge.

It may seem morbid to contemplate the demise of a show that has so inarguably changed the nature of television for the better. Just when we seemed doomed to death by reality programming, AMC's "Mad Men" proved that smart, stylish television could drive the cultural conversation as effectively as any Kardashian.

PHOTOS: On the set of 'Mad Men'

Its success demanded a recalculation of viewership (creator Matt Weiner was among the first to point out that first-night numbers don't tell the full tale) and threw down an "original series" template that networks as varied as History and Sundance Channel are now dutifully following.

But the terminal nature of all things is clearly on Weiner's mind as Season 6 opens, in paradise in fact, which is to say Hawaii, a place that for Americans of Don's generation represented a culmination in itself. Back before the deregulation of the airlines and the rise of Internet-facilitated tourism, the Hawaiian trip was a Very Big Deal, a goal one worked toward, or gift one gave one's parents, say, to mark their 50th anniversary.

Don, of course, appears to be simply enduring it as Don appears to be simply enduring most things, a perpetually unsatisfied fixed point around which a particularly busy era eddies. Now in his 40s, at a time when that is still considered mid-life, Don at least appears to be slightly aware of his own unchangefulness, which is a change in itself.

That does not mean he will do anything about it. Although season by season Weiner ambitiously rockets his characters along a pop cultural timeline — we're in the late '60s, so watch for references to "last night on Carson" and the Haight — the internal metabolic rate of "Mad Men" remains doggedly slow, the emotional edge of its drama kept narratively well-leashed by oppressive social mores and their mood-altering crutches: nicotine, alcohol and adultery. Oh, and now marijuana. (Reefer, however, does not have the glorious aesthetics of a highball and so it is mentioned more than it is smoked).

CHAT: 'Mad Men's' John Slattery, Matthew Weiner talk Roger Sterling

"Mad Men's" artful choice of mood over action is never more true than in the premiere episodes, which act as a now-two-hour establishing shot. Despite its necessary but regrettable bright 'n' shiny look — the late '60s styles had a jarring self-consciousness that is more distracting than evocative — this year's opener appears sponsored by mortality, along with the omnipresent self-doubt, darkly fading in on changes that have taken place between seasons.

Changes that Weiner regularly asks critics not to reveal, his requests growing more tyrannical (don't mention new characters or new relationships) and just plain weird (don't mention if Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has expanded to another floor) over the years. Frankly, I didn't notice the floor plan of the agency because I was too busy hating all the sleek 'n' steely modern decor and Pete Campbell's (Vincent Kartheiser) sideburns. So that secret is safe with me.

As for the rest, well, there are some new faces, and at least one surprising casting choice, though I'm not sure what Weiner is so concerned about. His point, which he has at least two characters make, is that people don't change, and that doesn't exactly call for a spoiler alert.

Certainly "Mad Men" hasn't changed much, at least not really. Weiner's eye for setting and ear for gorgeously orchestrated exchange made "Mad Men" as much a study in portraiture as a television show, instantly and deliciously deconstructable. Edward Hopper may now be giving way to Andy Warhol but the show's carefully curated beauty can be just as distracting as all that Danish teak. "Mad Men" has become its own brand and a brand must be controlled.

PHOTOS: On the set of 'Mad Men'

Don, of course, has always been about maintaining control and look at where it's got him: So obsessed with his image he's forgotten to tend what lies behind it. A well-paid spinner of the American dream, he seems baffled each and every time the confection he helped mass-produce shrivels in his hands.

Increasingly he seems a self-pitying step behind the rest of the show's characters, all of whom, including poor, much-abused Betty (January Jones) are moving forward in one way or another. Slattery's Roger remains the show's heart if not its hero, the World War II vet who struggles with the same issues of displacement and narcissism and utter male confusion yet maintains his sense of adventure and more important, his sense of humor.

It's satisfying to see Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) become a modern woman, but it's more fun to watch Roger, stretched out in the shrink's office, become a modern man.

Can't wait till he tries the sweat lodge.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Mad Men'

Where: AMC

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)

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