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Mad Men's Feat

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JOHN HAMM
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Out of sight, out of mind?

(There be some spoilers ahead, just so you know.)

It's been little more than a week since Mad Men won a record-tying fourth straight Emmy Award for best drama, and it's all looking and feeling rather anti-climactic. Ironic, since Mad Men joins only The West Wing (2000-2003) and Hill Street Blues (1981-84) in accomplishing the feat. LA Law also won four best drama awards in the late '80s and early '90s, though not consecutively.

It's a great feat for a great show, a show which, as is obvious from all the writing I've done on it, is my favorite, though hardly perfect. This is a landmark series about important things, not the least of them being America at the apex, on the cusp of change in the 1960s, imperial New York at its peak, the rise of consumerism and the persuasion industry, men, women, and some very cool fashion and design. To name a few.

And it's a show that's being recognized for its importance -- albeit an importance that is not always understood -- and for its brilliant execution, in its own time. That's unusual.


Meet Mad Men.

Naturally I think of Mad Men in any number of ways that are not about history and politics. I enjoy it because it's a damn good show filled with intriguing characters.

But I also think of Mad Men as not unlike a show about upper-middle and lower-upper Romans, and how they relate to those below them. We seldom see the very top, the Hiltons, the Rockefellers, though we see their courtiers and others who serve them and, more significantly, their interests.

Driven by post-World War II dynamism and dynamics, the city of Mad Men, New York, is still the most powerful city in what is still the only superpower on the planet. But the peak, which coincides with the time of Mad Men, has passed, and the era of dominance is clearly passing.

We saw it last week. With the United Nations gathered in New York -- in current international commentary much more the place that has nearly crashed the world than the epicenter of rising power -- Barack Obama hoped for a victory lap on Libya. But that was overshadowed by metastasizing AfPak and Israeli/Palestinian crises which again suggest that Osama bin Laden's strike on 9/11 against the "belly of the American beast," New York, is turning out to be a masterstroke after all.

History, deep and multi-faceted, swirls around us, but our culture increasingly focuses on the momentary.

That's at least part of the reason why Mad Men's feat has gone so little remarked upon.

If Mad Men were on the air now, as it usually is, its record Emmy win would be getting more attention. And it probably would have done better in the overall awards. But a business fight led to it skipping the entire year, and we won't have it back till next March.

Despite garnering the most Emmy nominations in its history, a whopping 19, Mad Men won only one other Emmy this year. For best hairstyling. (Which, by the way, is great, and the winners are Sean Flanigan, Gloria Casny, Jules Holdren, Theraesa Rivers, and Lucia Mace.)

West Wing also won only two Emmys in its record-tying season. But its "other" award was for best direction.

In contrast, Hill Street Blues won five Emmys in its fourth straight season of winning the best drama prize.

It's hard to believe that Mad Men didn't win at least a few more awards, especially for writing and acting.

I think the show locked up its fourth Emmy for best drama with the season's pivotal episode, "The Suitcase." Written by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, it's Don Draper and Peggy Olsen's long day's journey into night and the following day. Yet the episode didn't win for writing -- the first season for which Mad Men hasn't won an Emmy for writing -- or propel either Jon Hamm or Elisabeth Moss to wins as best actor and best actress.

Strange.

I've recently watched most of Season 4 again. I actually found that I enjoyed it more this time around. It seemed lighter, though no less pointed, than it did last year, when there was so much commentary about the the impending collapse of Don Draper and so on.

I also found that I had a different take on one or two characters. Dr. Faye, for example, who I seriously distrusted at first and came late to appreciate while viewing the first time round, I liked immensely from the beginning. Don made a big mistake dumping her for his lissome, empathetic secretary, no matter how much better Megan is with kids. The good doctor, very well played by Cara Buono, has good intentions and can certainly learn. And she certainly had more conversation. I hope we see her again. And little Sally, who was clearly nowhere near as disturbed as some imagined, just needs good, steady attention.

Of course, by the end of the show -- which is really a massive novel for television -- I may change my opinion about some of that, too.

Elisabeth Moss's Peggy is funnier than I recalled her being the first time through, when there was so much commentary focus on her as some sort of anomalous feminist power amidst the dominant sexism of 1965. Her performance is terrific, with lots of good shading and timing, and well deserving of an Emmy.

I wasn't surprised, though, that she didn't win out over Julianna Margulies for her performance in The Good Wife. I don't watch Margulies' show regularly, but I've seen it a dozen times or so. It's very solid and she is terrific in it. And the show, obviously, is about her. She's all over it, unlike Moss in Mad Men.

The way Mad Men is structured, I think Moss would have a very strong shot at winning best supporting actress. But that would take away Christina Hendricks' opportunity to win for her great portrayal of the essential Joan Holloway. (I won't call her Joan Harris.)

Hendricks had a good shot this year, but didn't win. Had the show been airing at the time, she might well have.

John Slattery, nominated all four years as best supporting actor for his great turn as Roger Sterling, I always have high hopes for. Again, had the show been on ... But at least he's Tony Stark's dad.

The real omission, of course, is Jon Hamm. There is no Mad Men without Don Draper, and Hamm is brilliant in the role. It's as evident as can be watching "The Suitcase," in which he is many facets of the character by turn, and at times simultaneously.

It's hard to see how Mad Men can win the award for best series four years running without Hamm picking up at least one best actor prize. Yet there we are.

This happened to Martin Sheen during The West Wing's great run, by the way. But he was up against James Gandolfini's classic take on the archetypal Tony Soprano. And, even though President Jed Bartlett was clearly the principal character of The West Wing, that show -- in which Sheen's character was originally only to be recurring -- was even more of an ensemble turn than Mad Men. Which we know from the pilot, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," centers on Don Draper.

Again, though, I suspect that, had Mad Men been airing at this time, Hamm would have won.

The good news (not that he's been getting bad news, mind you) for him, and for us, is we have three more seasons of this fascinating series.


Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, from 2009, 2010, and 2011 here in The Mad Men File.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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