Even though Mad Men has just struggled through a second straight Emmy Awards show with no wins, the show that is co-owner of the record for most Emmy Best Drama wins has some recent changes that should make its final season something to remember. These include something of a format change and the introduction of a legendary screenwriter to the creative mix.
There be a few spoilers ahead, as always, and you can see my archive of articles on the show, The Mad Men File, via the link.
Not that the close-out of Mad Men wasn't going to be interesting, anyway. The last two seasons of Mad Men haven't exactly been chopped liver, tedious though they not infrequently have been with their over-dwelling on the moral failings of series protagonist Don Draper and lack of plot development. After all, the show had 12 Emmy nominations for this year's season, and 17 Emmy nominations for the previous season.
And the Season 6 finale, coming after an up and down group of episodes, was great, clearing the decks for a a memorable final season to come.
Er, about that memorable final season to come. It looks to me like two memorable final seasons to come, in shortened form. AMC announced earlier this month that it is cutting Season 7 in half, adding one episode to it, to provide us with seven episodes in 2014 and seven episodes in 2015. 2015? Sheesh, Peggy Olson contemporary Jerry Brown will be in his seventh term as California governor by then! (Fourth, actually, but you see the point that 2015 is quite a ways off.)
American entertainment writers are noting that AMC just did something similar with Breaking Bad's last season. But I think this is going to be more like the most recent "season" of Doctor Who. The BBC cut that in half, too, but ensured that it played like two separate seasons, with the two long-term traveling companions of the eternally youthful time traveler leaving at the end of the first "half" of the season, and the second "half" centering in part around the Doctor's mysterious new companion. From a story standpoint, they are two seasons in all but name. The BBC is simply loathe to acknowledge that it's cut back spending on what is actually a big cash cow.
AMC has already dubbed the Mad Men episodes to come in spring 2014 as "The Beginning" with those to come in spring 2015 as "The End of An Era."
This feels like a way to get Mad Men's brilliant creator Matthew Weiner to focus the show more as it begins to head for the exits. I love Mad Men, but I have to say there have been long stretches in which not much happens. There've been some single hours of "real time" on 24 with more plot. And the latter day solution of filling time with what amounts to soap opera, and of course the moral failings of Don Draper, does not especially entice, though of course some fans like it just fine.
The biggest new name in the Mad Men writing room is someone with no aversion to plotting, sometimes very involved plotting. He is Robert Towne, the Academy Award-winning author of Chinatown, Oscar-nominated for several other films including additional '70s classics Shampoo and The Last Detail, and one of the most noted script doctors of all time. (A script doctor does uncredited work on a screenplay, reworking troublesome scenes, polishing dialogue, providing tonal shadings, bringing in new plot elements, and so on.)
Towne is, quite simply a legend, the leading screenwriter of what was called the New Hollywood of the 1970s. It was a challenging era in film, with Hollywood reacting to major tumult in politics and society. But it came to an end with the rise of the blockbuster age in the form of Jaws and Star Wars and so on.
Towne, who worked repeatedly with superstars Warren Beatty (producer and co-writer on Shampoo) and Jack Nicholson, adjusted to the times by writing and directing a variety of projects, including a couple of very good though little seen films on the sport of track and field, and by working closely with superstar Tom Cruise on some of his big movies.
At 78, he hasn't been as active lately. And as consulting producer he's clearly not on board to take over the show. Weiner has amply demonstrated his brilliance with Mad Men, not to mention his work on The Sopranos. Towne, like another new addition, Patricia Resnick, who wrote the seminal feminism-in-the-workplace comedy smash in 1980's 9 to 5 -- which starred Jane Fonda, whose company produced the film, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton -- has a lot of value to add about the times Mad Men is getting ever closer to.
Since Chinatown, the serpentine period conspiracy thriller constructed not unlike a Russian matryoshka doll with a sequence of corruptions obscuring yet leading to to the deepest one of all, is my all-time favorite film, I'm pretty happy about Towne joining the Mad Men writers room. But even though it's been called, by Amazon.com and others, "the great American screenplay," Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston, did not prove to be immutable. It has to be reported that the unforgettably tragic ending was called for by Chinatown director Roman Polanski, no stranger to great tragedy and the dark side in his own life. Towne, for all his frequently sardonic '70s take on things, was far more the optimistic American than the Eastern European Polanski, a Holocaust survivor.
Of course, Towne's original ending wasn't all that optimistic or romantic, it just wasn't the utterly bleak shutdown of hope that Polanski provided.
Which I think is appropriate for Mad Men's closure. The more mixed result, that is.
Incidentally, there is a particular irony about Towne joining Mad Men, given his work with Beatty in writing Shampoo, the 1975 classic 1968-set tale of a womanizing Beverly Hills hairdresser. In an early Season 6 episode which aired last April, To Have and To Hold, the lack of sexual joy on Mad Men during that key sexual revolution year of 1968 led me to ask if Mad Men was being deliberately pitched as an anti-Shampoo, especially since references to Beatty's 1967 smash Bonnie and Clyde were significant in the episode. Not that the libertine life can't have its consequences, just that actual fun and pleasure can occur.
Now the co-writer of Shampoo's Oscar-nominated screenplay will be in on these sorts of calls.
I have a good feeling about the prospects for Mad Men breaking its current four-way tie at four each with The West Wing, Hill Street Blues, and LA Law for most Best Drama Emmy Awards. I also feel that Jon Hamm is more than overdue for that Best Dramatic Actor award as Don Draper.
As for this year's awards, I think Breaking Bad is a deserving winner as Best Drama. I was surprised to see the show's star Bryan Cranston lose to The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels for Best Actor, though I have to confess that I've seen very little of Newsroom, even though I was a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin's West Wing. But I was very happy that Claire Danes won again for her brilliant, cracked CIA officer on Homeland, which I thought was a very deserving winner last year as Best Drama before devolving into still extremely entertaining WTF melodrama in its second season.
Homeland's first season was as close to a perfect espionage show as I've seen. At least for the first batch of episodes, that continued in the latest season, including the brilliant Q & A episode, for which Henry Bromell just won his deeply deserved posthumous dramatic writing Emmy.
Ironically, that episode, in which the impasse around Nicholas Brody's Marine hero/Al Qaeda agent is broken and he turns into a CIA asset, may have set up the melodramatic elements to come in a season which so confidently burned through vast acreages of plot that little room for maneuver was left.
Isn't it interesting that what is a great decision for the moment can have bad effects down the line?
Which breaks us back to Don Draper.
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