Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cutting Mad Men down to size

So, big news about Mad Men today: apparently, AMC wants the show to cut two characters in order to save costs. Now, some might say that's a horrible idea. Some might say that Mad Men's success has been due to AMC's willingness to let its creators pursue their vision, even when the vision seemed commercially questionable. Some might say that accountants should steer clear of making creative decisions. And some might say that AMC should be grateful that it somehow, improbably, has become the owner of television's most prestigious show, and that it should concentrate more on replicating that success and less on milking the world of Don Draper dry.

But not me. I'm going to take a more pragmatic approach.

So without further ado, here are the top five Mad Men characters for the cutting room:

5. Roger Sterling - I probably should have said top four Mad Men characters for the cutting room, because I really, really want to keep Roger. His drinking and his quipping and his general congenial scumminess is Mad Men, even more than Don. But if you'll think back to the very first season, you'll recall he's already two heart attacks deep. The show implied way back then that the man was living on borrowed time. Since that point, he's managed to remarry, get rich(er), and generally carry on as if nothing had happened. Sorry dude, but it's time to pay the piper. You're clearly living under a star, and as a result your world-weariness is starting to feel a bit... put-on. How to cut him: The heart attack thing is too obvious, and it doesn't leave him very many opportunities to croak out one final, wry quip. So it's up to Jane to do the dirty work. Look at her and tell me she's not capable of putting rat poison in his drink. Tell me she's not.

4. Joan Holloway Harris - Joan's a great character. She's an iconic member of the cast. But let's face it: her role in the Mad Men pantheon is fast becoming anachronistic. At one point, she was a foil for the upwardly-mobile Peggy Olson, representing a 1950s vision of women in the workplace. As the show inches towards the 70s, Joan's Queen Bee routine feels more out of place than ever. Also, the show seems to have flirted with letting her go for a while now, but much like the hapless partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, keeps realizing it needs her back to, like, hold everything together. How to cut her: Because it would be too depressing to see Joan go out any way but on top, we're going to have to split her up with husband Dr. Rape. Easy enough -- he's headed to Vietnam and we all know how that's going to turn out. Good riddance. After which she inherits Roger's entire fortune through some combination of child support and being-named-in-the-will (see above), and moves to Hawaii.

3. Harry Crane - Boring, boring Harry Crane. Harry "Nice Guys Finish Last" Crane. Harry "I Do the Actual Business of Selling Ads So Everyone Else Can Drink and Screw" Crane. Harry "We Married Him Off So You Don't Have To Watch Him Have Agonizingly Dull Affairs" Crane. Harry "Wait, Aren't You Just a Less-Funny Paul Kinsey?" Crane. How to cut him: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce changes offices, forgets to tell him. Six months later, construction workers recover his skeleton.

2. Don Draper - I'm not just trying to be controversial here. At one point, Don absolutely belonged at the center of the Mad Men universe. Don Draper was a man of his time, and also, a man who transcended it. He fit neatly into the regressive world of the Sterling Cooper office, but you always got the sense that he had a transgressive streak that was absent in his colleagues. Despite his many, many flaws, Don had secret reserves of brilliance, or insight, or competence, or something, that he could fall back on in times of crisis. It's what made him an effective ad man, and what made the scenes where he sold his pitches so compelling: you saw a man glimpsing truth through the murky veil of the present. Even after the secret of his identity was resolved, there was always an air of mystery to Don -- the sense that he was holding something in reserve. Don is a large part of what made Mad Men more than historical-reenactment-in-the-key-of-soap-opera. Without Don, every character reverts to form. Don's unpredictability and inscrutability was the chaotic element in the system, forcing the characters in unexpected directions.

But the end of Season 4 changed all that. Now, some might say Don's abandonment of Faye in favor of his approximately-fifteen-year-old secretary was exactly the sort of sudden left turn we'd expect from the guy. But not really. Instead, it was Don becoming Roger Sterling. The end of Season 4 seemingly quashed whatever je nais se quoi Don possessed that allowed him transcend the dictates of his station. He became just another alcoholic executive with an affinity for pretty faces. Maybe that's more realistic. Maybe that's even the point: nobody can escape the gravitational pull of social and class norms. But if that's the case, it also forms the logical end of Don's character arc. Who wants to watch a show where everyone behaves exactly as you'd expect? I'll just read a book about 50s gender politics instead. Besides, we already have one Roger Sterling, we don't need two, and if we have to choose, I'd rather stick with the original, thank you very much. How to cut him: Well, he drinks himself to death, obviously. Someone has to eventually.

1. Betty Draper Francis - Was there ever really any doubt? Oh, to travel back in time to those heady episodes of Season 1 and Season 2, when Betty was a complex picture of repressed suburban womanhood, frustrated by society's reluctance to treat her as an adult, and yet, herself reluctant to fully enter adulthood. Ah, those were the days... but now, Betty is, in a word, "obnoxious." Her sulking and brooding and tantrums are so unbearable, they've made Henry Francis, Superdweeb, a sympathetic character. She's pretty much a walking advertisement for child protective services. To get a grasp on how cartoonishly bad of a mom Betty is, you only need to realize that when precocious and adorable Sally Draper grows up to be a dope fiend, it will, miraculously, not be the fault of her absent, alcoholic, philandering father with a fake identity. The one thing I can say in Betty's favor at this point is that the show's writers, seemingly bewildered about how to redeem this fabulously wealthy, fabulously beautiful, fabulously miserable socialite, or at the very least, restore any complexity or identifiability to her character, have largely sidelined her already. How to cut her: Henry Francis squanders all his money on a failed political career. Penniless, Betty is forced to take up a night job, waitressing at a nearby diner. She falls in with a bad crowd and disappears. She resurfaces a decade later, after being sentenced to 20 years in a federal penitentiary for helping the Symbionese Liberation Army bomb a police station.

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