I Like to Watch

AMC's "Mad Men" captures the ambivalence of the American dream, while NBC's "Friday Night Lights" fumbles hard.

Published October 14, 2007 1:00PM (EDT)

The American dream, for all of its countless joys, has an inescapable mediocrity woven into its polyester-blend fabric. When you have bills to pay, babbling mouths to feed and a lawn that needs mowing, some essential part of your identity is subsumed by the hungry maw of family life.

Granted, for the most self-involved among us (i.e., me and you), there's a spiritual release that comes from being trapped and tagged. Somehow, through the endless drudgery of whipping up meals and wiping little butts, we're emancipated from the endless drudgery of questioning our worth and purpose on the face of the earth.

For those who didn't spend the first 30 years of their lives on a psychic battlefield of their own creation, though, it's a different story. For extroverted professionals who came to marriage all busy and important, with a clear sense of purpose, puffed up by years of big, satisfying ego gains in the workplace, the American dream is a cold and soupy bog indeed. When you're particularly hip or pretty or stylish or ambitious or well-adjusted, running a bustling human factory to the tireless strains of "Baby Beluga" and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" can feel hopelessly demeaning and unspecial. When asked to surrender such luxury items as dignity, pride and personal hygiene, fiercely independent hipsters and extroverted captains of industry alike are known to shiver in their Prada demi boots, then hop the next train to the city in search of high-end call girls and fine Colombian.

Lies become him
This tension, between secure but trapped and free but lost, inhabits the deeply ambivalent heart of the American experience. No matter which path you choose, you'll still feel like you're missing out on something.

This is where we find Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the waning moments of the first brilliant season of AMC's "Mad Men" (10 p.m. Thursdays). (If you haven't seen last week's episode yet, don't read this.) On top of living the double life of the '60's-era ad exec, drinking and carousing with beautiful women, then returning home to his (almost) happy family, Draper has also been running from a mysterious past, rejecting a long-lost brother who knows him by the name Dick Whitman. Draper represents an extreme case of alienation from those who should be closest to him. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a family that never felt like his own, he escaped his modest roots and created a whole new life and family, only to haunt it like a ghost who's barely there. But then, all of the male characters on "Mad Men" are disconnected from their families, from the most deceitful (Pete Campbell, who navigates interactions with his wife without any real feeling) to the most loyal (Harry, who primly supports his married status, then strays from his wife on a drunken impulse).

In last week's episode (the second-to-last of the season), Draper is sent into a tailspin when Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) reveals that he knows that Draper isn't who he says he is. Anxious for a promotion, Campbell threatens to blow the whistle on Draper, revealing his false identity, if Draper doesn't give him the job he wants.

Still reeling from Roger Sterling's (John Slattery) recent heart attack and brush with death, Draper escapes to the arms of Rachel (Maggie Siff), his lover and the only person he's honest with. Desperate to avoid the mess he's made, Draper asks Rachel to run away with him. But Rachel is very pragmatic, and is shocked that Draper could be immature enough to even consider ditching his family. The scene charts breathtakingly unfamiliar ground: Here we have our steely-jawed hero, proposing a romantic escape from the mundane realities of life, and instead of jumping on-board, his sweetheart is shocked, disgusted and heartbroken.

"What about your children?" Rachel asks.

"I'll provide for them," Draper tells her.

"And live in Los Angeles? My God, you haven't thought this through. I feel sick," Rachel says. "What kind of man are you? Go away, drop everything, leave your wife?"

"People do it every day," Draper responds, weakly.

But Rachel's shock has already hardened into anger, as she sees him clearly for the first time. "This was a dalliance, a cheap affair. You don't want to run away with me, you just want to run away. You're a coward!"

You really have to hand it to the writers of "Mad Men" for offering us scenes that are not only utterly original and imaginative, but that also reflect, with every word, the central premise of the show: Is it possible to foster close connections in a society that, for all of its potential, is built on the laws of supply and demand and is, therefore, cold and unforgiving by nature?

In each scene, the writers revisit the impossibility of living an honest life in an essentially corrupt world. When Draper returns to the office looking desperate and ill in the wake of his encounter with Rachel, he finds his secretary, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), crying over the fact that by complaining about her office mates' throwing a messy election party, she inadvertently got the elevator man fired. After Draper reluctantly hands Peggy a drink (liquor and cigarettes are the cure for every ill in this world), she tells him, "I don't understand. I try to do my job, I follow the rules, and people hate me! Innocent people get hurt and other people, people who are not good, get to walk around doing whatever they want. It's not fair!"

Ah, another innocent flower, crushed in the heartless machinery of high capitalism! Draper looks stricken. He knows he's one of the bad people. Even so, this realization fuels his determination to confront Campbell, using Rachel's words against him: "You haven't thought this through!"

The two storm into their boss Mr. Cooper's (Robert Morse) office, and Campbell blurts out what he's discovered: Dick Whitman supposedly died years ago, and Don Draper isn't really Don Draper. Cooper's response takes both of the men (and the viewers at home, no doubt) completely off-guard:

Cooper: Mr. Campbell, who cares?

Campbell: Mr. Cooper, he's a fraud and a liar, a criminal even!

Cooper: Even if this were true, who cares? This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you've imagined here.

Campbell: I'm not imagining anything!

Cooper: The Japanese have a saying, "A man is whatever room he is in," and right now Donald Draper is in this room. I assure you. There's no profit in forgetting this. I'd put your energy into bringing in accounts.

Then, after Campbell leaves, Cooper says, "Don, fire him if you want. But I'd keep an eye on him. One never knows how loyalty is born."

The pragmatic capitalist speaks! Nothing is personal, not criminal acts or lies or even a person's true identity. All that matters is your ability to keep the wheels of industry rolling steadily along. If there's no profit in something, Cooper doesn't want to hear about it.

Of course, the sweet irony of the title "Mad Men," is that, despite the fact that the women on the show are repeatedly pronounced unhinged, from the "crazy broads" at the office to Draper's wife, who confides in a psychiatrist who, in turn, calls her husband to update him on her unstable nature, the female characters are the only sane ones in the picture. Draper's wife, however lonely, behaves honorably, or at least tries to, and she's honest about her missteps. Rachel, even though she's Draper's lover, has strong principles and immediately dismisses Draper when she realizes that he's a self-deluded coward who's capable of abandoning his children. And Draper's secretary Peggy, despite her past indiscretions with Campbell, has quickly grown to disdain the shallow antics of the secretaries and working guys at the office.

The sad message of the show is that, in a world built on lies, ethics are a barrier to both success and happiness. Draper is trapped in a marriage that he doesn't feel connected to, partially because it grew from false pretenses (his wife doesn't know who he really is), but escape from it would be reckless and destructive for him and his family -- just see the single mom down the street from the Drapers, considered hopeless and sad by her neighbors.

The characters of "Mad Men" are thus resigned to live double lives, and the more comfortable they are with their deceit, the happier they'll be. But it makes sense that ad executives would be best served by experiencing the world as pure, delightful artifice: You are whoever and whatever you say you are, nothing more and nothing less. It's a testament to the intelligence of the writing that we, as the audience, find ourselves torn over these characters and their choices. In an oppressive, corrupt culture, their lies sometimes feel like acts of cowardice, and at other times feel like acts of liberation.

This is what a good dramatic work should do: ask important questions that have no easy answers. But that's not all we get from "Mad Men." We get weighty, nuanced scenes that we've never seen before, and that we can't predict as they're unfolding. We get fantastic acting, incredible art direction, and dynamic, fun storytelling with a wicked sense of humor. "Mad Men" is easily the best new show of the year, a true work of art grounded by sharp social commentary and poetic insights into the American experience.

It's a fumble!
The sometimes oppressive nature of family life has also come to the forefront of last year's best new show, "Friday Night Lights" (9 p.m. Fridays on NBC). In keeping with last year's pilot episode, the show began its second season on a dark note, with coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) absent from his family just as they need him the most. His daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) is struggling with fears that staying with her sweet and loyal boyfriend, Matt (Zach Gilford), means that she'll end up exactly like her parents. Meanwhile, wife Tami (Connie Britton) is handling a brand-new baby by herself and basically falling apart, but trying to hide it from her husband, for fear of squelching his dreams of coaching at the college level. Mother and daughter represent the essentially impossible and conflicting visions of happiness put forth by our culture: You're emotionally stunted if you embrace fun and excitement over true love, but you're invisible the second you put your ego on the back burner in favor of drool cloths and sippy cups.

Unfortunately, these very resonant struggles are being undermined by what should have been a minor story line, gone horribly wrong: In the show's second season premiere, bad girl Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) and her longtime admirer Landry (Jesse Plemons) encounter Tyra's attacker, and Landry bashes the guy in the head with a massive pipe. Uh-oh. Tyra checks his pulse, and he's dead. So what do they do? They're in public, at a gas station. Someone probably already saw this ruckus going down. Call an ambulance or the police? No. Load the guy into the car, and dump his body off a tall bridge, into a muddy river. "Gee, I hope we don't get caught for this. Wanna hook up?"

How this great show could misjudge its own essential tone and rhythm this badly by throwing murder into the mix is totally and completely beyond me. Without the death of Tyra's attacker, this scene would've fit seamlessly into the larger picture of the show, with Tyra and Landry sallying forth into uncharted waters, forging a relationship that's all about love and romance for him and all about safety and feeling protected for her. If Landry only injured the guy, or killed him and then quickly called the authorities, that would force them to suffer through a trial and Landry's possible incarceration while Tyra stood by his side without knowing how to break it to him that she's not really in love. But making two kids kill a guy, then try to cover it up, then start sleeping together? This is a plot twist plucked straight from "The O.C.," with its violent criminals and suicidal teens and fiery car crashes lurking around every corner. There's no way for characters like these to work with the full weight and impact of a murder. It reminds me of Seth and Summer from "The O.C.," trying to keep a straight face while discussing Trey's near-murder or Marissa's death. It always felt like they were about to crack a smile or dissolve into giggles. Whether Tyra and Landry fall in love or fall apart, their interactions aren't going to feel authentic because these two aren't actually capable of doing something this stupid, nor are they capable of discussing something as heavy as having committed a crime against humanity in tandem.

The best we can hope for is that this very bad story is swept under the rug until the end of the season, when the writers will be forced to drag it out and dust it off and create a big, dumb finale with it. Or better yet, have the police discover the dead body soon, and send Landry to jail. Once everyone is shocked and disgusted and Landry is in a personal hell of his own making, then we can get past this artificial and arbitrary curve ball. Until then, unfortunately, we're just going to cringe every time we see either of their faces. I feel pretty sorry for the actors, being saddled with this unimaginably bad plot.

It's a shame someone didn't stop this train wreck from happening, because the rest of the show's stories match the quality of the first season, and the buzz over this show has been growing steadily, to the extent that it could've broken out and attracted a herd of new viewers this year. That said, personally, I'm not giving up on "Friday Night Lights," and I hope that those who haven't seen it yet will give it a shot despite its latest soapy missteps.

Falling short
Once again, we learn the same hard lesson: Nothing cool can stay. Just as every seemingly perfect televised creation is sure to disappoint us eventually, every bedheaded and unwedded rebel might someday fall prey to the lobotomizing melodies of Raffi. So rage against the two-car garage as long as you like, but you'll lose your precious edge sooner or later. You can walk around with tissues and sippy cups sticking out of your clothes, shouting instructions like some kind of enraged bag lady, or you can party like a rock star, leaving your offspring to rummage around for a breakfast of stale Saltines and Red Bull every morning. Either way, you're doing something wrong. But then, that's what being an American is all about!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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