Monday, July 20, 2009

Mad About Mad Men

It occurred to me the other day that in focusing almost entirely on my favorite DVDs these past few months, I've neglected the other “pics and pans” promised in the launching of this blog. In an effort to rectify the situation, I would like to introduce you to one of the best cable shows on television, as well as a couple of exceptionally delicious food finds.

One look at the title of this latest effort, and a good portion of you are apt to say, “You’re going to introduce me to Mad Men?" Okay, okay. I know. Many of you are already unabashed fans. The AMC series is, after all, about to go into its third season. But if you have not as yet indulged, or if, per chance, have yet to watch it with the accompanying commentaries, “this Bud’s for you.”

Truth be told, I love nearly everything about Mad Men, which is why I have been gearing up for the new season―slated to arrive on August 16th―by revisiting past episodes enhanced by those afore-mentioned commentaries.

While you can watch most of these episodes on AMC from time-to-time, you can only watch the commentary versions and other extras by either purchasing or renting the DVDs. For me, these special features - particularly the commentaries, take the viewing experience to a whole new level, offering reflections and information you can only garner by listening to the writers, actors and behind-the-scenes teams who created them. They are also a great way to clear up any questions you may have about a particular scene or situation.

The show revolves around Sterling Cooper, a mid-sized, second-tier 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency. At Sterling Cooper, nearly everyone drinks, smokes and sleeps around. Those who don’t, gossip about those who do. It’s typical office fare, but with New York City as its backdrop, Mad Men is filled with intoxicating glimpses of the way it was: the New York restaurants and smoke-filled haunts, forever captured in films like Brigadoon, Designing Women and Lover Come Back, but without the Hollywood glow. For this is a darker look at this multi-layered decade. Doris Day, with her twinkling eyes and closely-guarded virginity, could never work for Sterling Cooper.

And yet, this totally fictionalized version of the way it was, is, in itself, intriguing, and filled with nostalgic nods to some of our favorite products, past times and moments. Those of you who are old enough to remember the decade, will likewise recall many of the brands, campaigns and life-changing events the show uses to take us from here to there. Watching one particular episode the other night, I was reminded of an ad campaign that took over the air waves and newspapers at the time. It featured three little words: We Try Harder.

While the show recently alluded to another ground-breaking 1960's campaign―the famous Volkswagen "Lemon/Small Wonder" ads, Avis Rent-A-Car’s We Try Harder promotion was right up there. I remember collecting a drawer-full of We Try Harder buttons, each printed in a different language. It was a brilliant campaign, and it, along with those Volkswagen ads, made me want to be a part of the madness.

The award-winning series projects you into that world, and a time when men wore suits, hats and skinny ties to work, and neatly-coiffed women were, for the most part, stuck behind their manual typewriters. Smoking, drinking and carousing were, if not encouraged, then tolerated by some, and accepted by others as part of the game.

A commuter train-ride away, shirt-waisted wives held dinner for their self-dubbed “mad men,” as their children fiddled with the new stereo set, or sat patiently with their mom in the family’s station wagon, waiting for dad to arrive on the evening train.

What is, perhaps, most surprising about this series is that it is as fresh as it is retro – a nod to the late Peter Allen’s observation that “Everything old is new again.” The themes, dreams, disappointments and traumas of this often glorified decade are the themes, dreams, disappointments and traumas of today. Then, as now, men and women worried about being replaced by their younger counterparts, both at home and at the office. Technology bulldozed its way into our lives, and world events frightened, shaped and intrigued us. Like the man said, “Everything old is new again.”

Where Mad Men could have been written and played in a camp-like fashion, creator Matt Weiner thankfully chose to take the higher road. From sets to fashions, attitudes to platitudes, child rearing to commandeering, everything―if you’ll forgive the pun— is spot-on.

And then there’s the cast. It is a credit to the make-up and wardrobe team that Jon Hamm, (Sterling Cooper’s Creative Director, Don Draper) and January Jones, as Draper's Grace Kelly-like wife, are barely recognizable away from the set. Hamm—as the mysterious Don Draper, is so good-looking, so chiseled, so cool and distant, you have to wonder if the actor is really the ham fellow cast-members remark about.

Jones is, to my mind, the weakest link in the chain, though a very pretty and adequate addition to the cast. More impressive is Elisabeth Moss, who, along with Hamm, is deservedly up for an Emmy. As the complicated secretary-turned-copywriter, Peggy Olson, Moss is totally believable as a twenty-something secretarial school graduate who appears to be one thing, and is, in fact, quite another.

Other stand-outs include Vincent Kartheiser as Peggy’s off-and-on again paramour, and John Slattery as the agency’s number two man and chief womanizer, Roger Sterling. You may remember him as Eva Longoria Parker’s late and politically-corrupt husband on Desperate Housewives.

But this is an ensemble cast, and everyone on the show is perfectly cast, from office manager Joan Hollaway (Christina Hendricks) to the ever-quirky Bertram Cooper, magnificently played by Robert Morris, who, as a decidedly younger version of himself and his character, lit up the Broadway stage (and movie) in How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying during the very era Mad Men seeks to recreate.

In short, if you have a passion for all things "sixty" and the way that advertising (spurred on by world events and new technologies) impacted everything from race relations to office protocol, you’ll love this unique and highly-watchable series.
And there’s a lot to love, particularly on the Season One DVDs, with their accompanying commentaries, special features and featurettes. Together, they provide an inside track on the way the series was conceived, dialogue crafted, sets designed, wardrobe assembled, music chosen and cast―cast. Season Two offers similar fare, but there is an unbridled enthusiasm in Season One's commentaries (due, in part, to what was―at that point― newly found fame and recognition), that is particularly appealing.

But don't take my word for it. If you haven’t seen this beautifully-crafted piece of television, take the “A” train to Madison Avenue and travel back in time–to a time when network television ruled, and the morning paper was not yet in mourning. Invite a friend along―someone who is old enough to remember those bygone days, and open to sharing their personal memories and insights with you. Go all out; whip up a meatloaf and some mashed potatoes, grab a six-pack of bottled Coke, and enjoy the view. No time and/or interest in cooking? Not to worry. Pick up a couple of the following food finds, and get ready to rock―or should I say, twist?


I ran across this first product quite by accident, at—of all places―Kroger, a store not generally known for its wide array of international brands. But it was at Kroger that I came upon Capilano Natural Australian Honey – the best I’ve ever tasted. I suggest you purchase a package of Wonder English Muffins and some lightly salted butter to go with it. I was a Thomas muffin fan prior to all of this, but Wonder’s version is much cheaper, and crisps up perfectly when halved and toasted, staying remarkably warm and crunchy when lightly slathered with softened butter and drizzled with Capilano. OMG.

Prefer jam to honey? Reach for some homemade peach or blueberry preserves from Pontotoc Ridge Blueberry Farm. The blueberry jam is thin – almost runny, and laced with dozens of small blueberries that spill across a buttered muffin like marbles.

The peach preserves are just as heavenly, with large pieces of fruit throughout. I found the strawberry/fig jam to be too sweet for my taste, looking and tasting more like something you would spoon on top of short cake than your English muffins or freshly-baked biscuits. But, then again, strawberry short cake may be just what you're looking for.

In any case, Pontotoc Ridge offers a wide variety of jams and butters, including honeysuckle and kudzu. I bought a small taster-size jar of the stuff just to see what it tasted like, and found it to be surprisingly bland. My advice would be to stick with the standards,which, in this case, are anything but standard fare. You’ll find them at the Downtown Farmer’s Market here in Memphis, as well as the Midtown Farmer’s Market in Oxford.

More of a dessert person? Look no further than the freezer section of the Fresh Market, and a New England-based product called GaGa. Named after the founder's grandmother, the pint-sized container claims that their product is as “Smooth as ice cream..." [and]"...Fresh like sherbet.” And it is.

So far I’ve tried GaGa's lemon, orange and raspberry flavors, all of which remind me of my childhood Creamsickle days. Of the three, I liked the orange least, and can't wait to try their chocolate and 'rainbow' varieties. Live outside of Memphis? According to GaGa's web site, these tasty treats and their Popsicle off-springs are also available at selected Whole Foods and Wegmans markets.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering―no one sends me free samples or pays me to push their products on this blog site. What you see, is what I get: foods, flicks and TV shows that are just too good to miss. May you enjoy them all.

Till the next time…

No comments:

Post a Comment