What’s So Great About “Mad Men”

Here at The Flip Side we’ve grown keen on discussing the difference between books and movies. (See Game of Thrones vs. Song of Ice and Fire, and Jurassic Park.) There’s one great difference that ties nicely into “Mad Men,” which is neither book nor movie.

In books, a writer can tell us just enough about what a character looks like to form a picture in our heads. That picture is unique for each of us, though we’re given the same few distinctions. In “Jurassic Park,” the novel, for instance, Dr. Grant has a beard and dresses for working outside. You now have the picture in your head the author wants there. In the film, Dr. Grant looks exactly like the actor Sam Neill.

293.hamm.madmen.060308Is one of those options better or worse? Whatever. The written version of a character is much more interesting, as a concept, because of the mind’s-eye factor, that uniqueness we each bring to how we interpret the same descriptions with lots of holes for us to mentally fill.

Except on “Mad Men.” This does not apply to “Mad Men,” finally back on AMC for it’s sixth season. Jon Hamm plays dark-sided New York City adman Don Draper. It’s the 1950s and 60s, and Draper’s job makes him a shark. He dresses in great suits, his black hair’s slicked and parted. His eyes are angry but smart, deep. He has broad shoulders, and his deep voice… blah blah blah….

Producers of “There Will Be Blood” said that movie would not have been made if Daniel Day Lewis turned the lead part down. It wouldn’t work with anyone else.

Here’s how this ties back to books. That’s the only other example I can think of where an actor has been so perfect for a role that he makes that character more interesting than if the character had been written in a book by some great novelist. Michael Chiklis on “The Shield” and Bryan Cranston on “Breaking Bad” are amazing and those shows wouldn’t be as good without them, but those shows could still exist with different actors.

(And the crazier characters almost work against actors in this discussion, because it’s more about What They Do than Who They Are. Cranston and Chiklis are always getting into murderous, insane situations with cops and gangsters. Draper’s just living the suave life of a big-drinking adman.)

The season six premier on Sunday had Draper getting so drunk he pukes at a funeral, into the golden umbrella can. As colleagues are carrying him to his apartment, Draper grills the doorman about needing CPR in an earlier scene, asking repeatedly and loudly “What’d you see when you died!?”

Draper ditched his pathetic old life years ago to create a new one, where he rules the advertising game by using his understanding of humanity to sell stuff. Wanna have your mind blown by a made-up sales pitch?:

Except that was years ago, in the 1950s, when Draper was at the peak of his powers. Now he’s in the 60s, and while he’s still the same intimidating brooder, he’s lost his brilliance because everything’s changed around him. His pretty young wife is becoming a success, and his staff is smoking “reefer” at their desks. He sees what’s happening around him and he doesn’t quite get it, and he doesn’t quite fit, and this is making him think about death.

Matthew Weiner is the writer and creator of “Mad Men,” but I like to believe it exists because of Jon Hamm. If not for him, no one would care. And this show is so good it’s worth caring about.

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