Mad Men's Shark Week

Maybe an excess of cultishness will just always disgruntle me. It's not like I've read every last online analysis of last week's episode of Mad Men—of course not, because I'd still be at it at age 90. But I got irked anyway when I couldn't turn up any heretics willing to opine that the big shock of Christina Hendricks's Joan consenting to be pimped out by her bosses at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for the sake of landing the Jaguar account was kind of, how you say, jiveass. 

Even recappers who acknowledged that the point being made was on the sledgehammer side —wow, life in the advertising world is really all about prostitution? You don't say—did a quick 180 to praise Matthew Weiner for making it work. (That's the advantage of having a rep for subtlety; even turning crude looks clever.) And Mad Men fans are so invested in the damn thing, myself not totally excluded, that it's no fun to wonder if last Sunday's ep amounted to Fonzie donning his waterskis to jump the you-know-what. The whole hat trick of Mad Men is that it's a morality play that asks us to reserve judgment on the characters, but so much for ambiguity.

No doubt, I'm in the minority in thinking that this whole season—so eagerly anticipated, not only because of the long layoff but because 1966 was the cusp year between the Swinging '60s and the counterculture—has been at once too pleased with itself and too disjointed for its own good. Weiner may have gotten excessively enamored of tailoring every element of an episode to reflect that week's Big Topic at the expense of character continuity. Since there's seldom much carry-over once a given theme's been dealt with, my wife says it reminds her of one New Yorker special issue after another: "Look, it's Race Week! And now our gang is starring in Serial-Killer Week! Whoa, here comes Prostitution Week!" Can Shark Week be far behind? 

Despite plenty of potentially rich new zeitgeist fodder to play with, even the show's time-capsule side has grown scattershot and opportunistic. Well, at least since Don Draper's birthday party in the premiere; as pitch-perfect a showcase scene as Weiner has ever done, it rashly led me to predict that this season might be Mad Men's best. I've been nibbling those words a syllable at a time ever since (they go down easier with bean dip). Roger Sterling's LSD trip was fairly nice, but did Paul Kinsey have to resurface as a Hare Krishna and write a Star Trek spec script? The double dipping demoted him to a convenience, not a character.
Because I'm only human, I might be less cranky if Weiner's interviews—never exactly crackling with modesty—hadn't become among the most preening in TV history. And right, so I don't need to read 'em, but they do suggest that any capacity for self-criticism has gone out the window. You wonder if anybody on the writing staff has the nerve to tell him when his latest idea—e.g., Joan renting her moneymaker—is a bad one. True, we've still got two episodes to go, which means I may end up eating my words all over again if he's got a great season wrap-up in the pipeline. Right now, though, I'm having a lot less fun than I was expecting to. 

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