Tuesday, 25 March 2008

MAD MEN 1.4 - "New Amsterdam"

Tuesday, 25 March 2008
Writer: Lisa Albert
Director: Tim Hunter

Cast: Jon Hamm (Don Draper), Elisabeth Moss (Peggy), Vincent Kartheiser (Pete), January Jones (Betty), Christina Hendricks (Joan), Rosemarie DeWitt (Midge), John Slattery (Roger Sterling), Michael J. X. Gladis (Paul), Aaron Staton (Ken), Rich Sommer (Harry), Bryan Batt (Salvatore), Maggie Siff (Rachel Menken), Christopher Allport (Andrew Campbell), Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell), Barbara Kerr Condon (Mrs Lyman), Emelle (Secretary), Zachariah James-Jadon Evans (Robert Draper), Rene Hamilton (Elaine), Stephen Jordan (Dan Bishop), Kiersten Lyons (Charlotte), Haley Mancini (Wendy), Julie McNiven (Hildy), Joe O'Connor (Tom), Sarah Jannett Parish (Secretary), David Pearl (Ad Agency Exec), Sheila Shaw (Jeannie Vogel), Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper), Darby Stanchfield (Helen Bishop) & Andy Umberger (Dr Arnold Wayne)

Pete faces pressure while searching for a new apartment with his wife, leading to him alienating Don and endangering his position at Sterling Cooper...

Roger: I bet there were people in the Bible walking
around, complaining about "kids today."

: Kids today, they have no one to look
up to. Cuz they're looking up to us.

It's not the swiftest piece of drama on television, but it's a delight to get lost in Mad Men's sumptuous world of pristine suburbia, twinkling skyscrapers, bright fashions and razor-sharp suits every week. New Amsterdam focuses on go-getter Pete (Vince Karthesier), turning our sympathy for him into mild contempt...

It all begins after we're introduced to Pete's new bride Trudy (Alison Brie), who takes Pete to view a luxury apartment in Park Avenue. But Pete isn't sure he can afford the deposit on his $75-a-week salary, so will have to get help from his parents. Unfortunately, Pete's father Andrew (Christopher Allport) doesn't understand his son's line of work and it's clear Pete isn't the "favourite son", so he brushes off Pete's sensitive request for a short-term loan...

Don (Jon Hamm) is once again in the middle of an important contract, proposing an advertising campaign to Walter Bethlehem, the rich owner of Bethlehem Steel. Don's idea involves posters with America's greates cities, which were all built using steel, but Walter isn't so keen -- believing the ads are marketing the cities more than the product. As Don tries to salvage the meeting, Pete interjects and ushers Walter away, promising they'll come up with something better by tomorrow -- irritating Don.

At Don's home, his wife Betty (January Jones) takes their dog for a walk and notices a strange man banging on neighbour Helen Bishop's door. He asks to use Betty's phone, but Betty refuses. Later on, Helen stops by to thank Betty for not helping her ex-husband Dan (Stephen Jordan), revealing they broke up because of his many affairs in the city.

The next day, Helen (Darby Stanchfield) asks Betty for a favour: to babysit her son Glen as she helps out at the Kennedy election HQ. Betty agrees, arriving to find Helen's house a mess, with laundry piled on a chair and newspapers strewn about the place. Helen leaves, kissing her son Glen goodbye as he plays piano.

Pete and Trudy's search for finances have hit a dead-end, with Pete pretending he just didn't ask his father because of his ill health. While the newlyweds have dinner with Trudy's parents, her father Tom Vogel (Joe O'Connor) offers to help them pay for the apartment. Pete isn't happy about being indebted to his in-laws, but grudgingly accepts their kind offer.

Betty has a creepy night at Helen's, as she leaves Glen watching television to use the bathroom, only to find Glen peeping around the door at her as she sits on the toilet. After shouting at him to go away, she finishes her business and storm downstairs to demand an apology. Introverted Glen says sorry, hugging her tightly, before complimenting Betty's good-looks and asking for a lock of her golden hair. Confused, Betty obliges, then sends him to bed.

At night, Pete is busy schmoozing Water in a hotel bar, proposing the slogan "Bethelehem Steel Is The Backbone Of America" to replace Don's idea. The next morning, Don's presentation resumes and he shows Don the same basic poster design, but with the slogan "Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem". Walter is unhappy with it, but agrees to use the slogan Pete pitched him last night. After they all shake hands and Walter leaves, Don has no choice but to fire Pete for going behind his back and making him look stupid and ill-informed in front of a client.

As Pete stews in his office, aware that he world is collapsing and he won't be able to afford his new apartment, Don tells his boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery) about what happened. Roger agrees with his decision to sack Pete, but after discussing it with co-owner Mr Cooper it becomes clear that firing Pete wouldn't be in the company's best interest. Pete's mother is Dorothy Dykeman -- whose family used to own everything north of 125th Street. Therefore, Pete is their ticket to securing marquee interested in that area of the city. Roger gives a grateful Pete his job back, pretending that Don talked his decision around.

Pete and Judy go to view their new apartment, meeting their new neighbour Mrs Lyman (Barbara Kerr Condon), who seems starstruck to learn that Pete is related to the Dykeman's. As Trudy delights in regaling Mrs Lyman with some family stories, Pete finds himself staring out at the steel-built city, into nothingness...

Like most Mad Men episodes so far, the storyline gradually thickens and becomes more intriguing at its goes along, with Pete's financial woes particularly interesting. I'm still not sure if Pete's an opportunistic slimeball, or simply a younger version of Don Draper -- as his blank stare out the window (avoiding social reality with his wife), is very similar to Don's own behaviour at home these days.

It also seems clear to me that divorcee Helen Bishop is basically Betty in a "there but for the grace of God, go I" storyline. Their husbands even have vaguely similar names: Don and Dan! Mind you, with Helen involved in John F. Kennedy's election campaign, will JFK's eventual march to the White House see Helen's fortunes turn around -- putting the shoe on the other foot, as Betty's homelife with Don disintegrates? If so, I hope Betty's built enough goodwill with her neighbour to get some help.

There's just a pleasant vibe about watching Mad Men. It's something of a rose-tinted look at 60s America, but the performances are all top-notch and the simple storylines manage to justify every episode's run-time, despite chugging along at a very relaxed pace compared to most US dramas. I'm really enjoying the Pete/Don storylines at the moment, while Betty's "Desperate Housewives, 60s-style" subplot grows more intriguing by the week. And just how creepy was Helen's kid, spying on Betty using the loo and asking for some of her hair to keep?

Overall, Mad Men seems incapable of doing a "bad" episode -- there are just episodes with fewer compelling incidents than others. New Amsterdam was very watchable and entertaining, and I'm already invested in the plots and characters, and bracing myself for the fireworks when the veneer of normalcy finally explodes.

23 March 2008
BBC Four, 10.00 pm