History, Television

TV: Mad Men (Season 6)

January 15, 2014

When a series extends beyond five seasons, its chances of jumping the shark increase immeasurably. Fortunately this doesn’t happen to Mad Men, which sustains a high level of quality throughout season six with nary a slip. It’s set during 1968, a far cry from the stuffy years of its earlier seasons, and the events of this turbulent time add considerable power to the series’ depiction of inexorable sociopolitical change in the United States.

The relentless descent of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) continues as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, buoyed by its first car account, continues to rise in prestige.  Business is good, but Don — despite his devoted new wife Megan (Jessica Paré) — continues to backslide into adultery and alcoholism. Meanwhile, Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) faces new challenges as creative director of another agency — and struggles to balance relationships with her hippie reporter boyfriend Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) and her boss Ted (Kevin Rahm).  Don and Peggy are the central characters of the show, and they both continue their balancing acts: between the status quo and change, how things are and how they should be.  Their trajectories, separate as the season begins, are destined to once again intersect.

Mad Men continues to be utterly addictive. This has been, and always will be, a show full of unsympathetic men — Draper rises to new levels of villainy this year, and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) in particular remains preternaturally unlikeable. And yet the performances and writing are so intelligent and crafty that you still care to follow their stories — despise them, perhaps, but also root against them, or maybe even feel sorry for them.  (Just a little.) Meanwhile, the women (especially Peggy) continue to struggle in the gears of established, unjust systems.

On a broader scale, the series remains, on a world-building level, one of the most impressive slow-boils in television history, marching its characters convincingly through the past. It provides insightful commentary on its own era, even as it reflects on ours.  The setting is vividly recreated, and it’s fascinating to watch how the shifting national landscape — Vietnam, the counterculture movement, MLK and RFK — transforms the familiar New York advertising milieu into something subtly, oddly different. It’s a remarkable tonal and visual achievement, and another stellar season for one of the medium’s best-ever series.

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