Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mad Men Season Premier: Glo-Coat

"Glow" is either a noun or a verb. "Coat" is also either a noun or a verb. But when you name a product Glo-Coat you have created an modifier for the the second word.

In the case of this season's premier episode of "Mad Men," Don Draper has become a star in creative advertising because of an ad for the Johnson Wax product Glo-Coat, as if the supposed benefits of the product have made him shine. This is an apt product for underlying Don's success - "coat" which refers to a layer of anything that covers a surface that "glows" which means it is emitting bright light and heat without flame.

Even more apt is the reality that before Don's era the product had been advertised that it "Makes floors shine with practically no work," advertised as a "self-polishing transparent film", and that "more women use" it. But what we know is that it will lose its shine as from exposure to daily activity, rapidly and easily, and has to be reapplied regularly.

This episode, like every episode of this show, is built upon layers. Apparently a year has gone by. At the personal level, Don has moved to a new apartment and a regular call girl. Betty has moved on to a new marriage and we see her new mother-in-law tell her husband he's settled for nothing more than a shallow woman, a live-in call girl. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After a brief introduction via camera shots of a shiny new new office, which simultaneously feels large enough and claustrophobic, with some new and some old staff all busy, we have bickering about the small size of the new quarters and no conference table.

The newly "Glo-Coated" Don is interviewed by a writer from Advertising Age who lost the lower part of his right leg in the Korean War, the War that allowed Don to not only skate without serious injury but to reinvent himself. Don doesn't feel comfortable blowing his own horn or discussing his invented personal history with this guy, or offer any feelings. Unfortunately for Don, this guy senses there's some missing parts in Don and writes based on his feelings, destroying a significant chance for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to gain within the advertising and general business community some solid "Public Relations" - the title of this episode.

Because of the article, Don takes a lot of criticism from his fellow principals of the firm and expressions of disappointment from the key subordinates. We can see that Don feels a sense of failure as he objects, noting that the success of the ad should speak for itself rather than any touting of personal success - an ironic protest that the ad - the product - shouldn't need to be sold using extraneous and false promotional advertising. But at the end of the episode, we have a repentant, energetic Don intensely reinventing his image in another interview, this time with a writer for The Wall Street Journal.

By the way, during the episode we see the ad, with its light and dark contrasts, with a "spaghetti western" feel, a film genre that began in the early '60's but came to this country in 1964 with Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood using the dramatic music of Ennio Morricone. Only Don's adaptation involves a young boy pretending he's in jail because his mother doesn't want him to walk on the floor she's mopping which the announcer clarifies for us that "Foot prints on a wet floor are no longer a hanging offense."

At this point one has to mention that when the kids are at Don's for the night, we see them in a dark, foreboding room with bunk beds plus swinging doors that remind us of every old western bar entrance. You almost have the impression that his kids are trapped in Don's invented "spaghetti western" reality.

And we have the kids trapped in a scary parody of a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving with a relatively rich new family that has status. Betty and Henry did get married - they were headed for Nevada at the end of last season. But Betty is already in a tension situation with Henry's mother, who clearly disapproves of her. So Betty in a peculiar fit stuffs marshmallow from the sweet potatoes into Sally's resentful mouth, the result requiring them both to leave the table. Meanwhile we have Bobby finding an opportunity to say that he likes the sweet potatoes (I think we'll see more of him coming into his own).

During this episode near the beginning we see Don meeting with his accountant who urges him to deal with "the house." What we learn is that Betty and Henry are living in the house but were supposed to have moved. We also learn in an exchange between Betty and Don that Betty is her usual petulant self, holding the house as both a sense of security for herself and a means of revenge against Don. We also learn that Henry is not happy in the house and Betty doesn't care. Henry, the flunky fix it guy for the Governor who can't directly tell his boss to do something, is also in the same position with Betty.

Which brings us to the women of "Mad Men." With the episode story arc about the Janzen swimming suit people offering a thematic reference to the 1960's battle over women openly embracing their sexuality, we are introduced to Bethany - a fix up blind date arranged by Roger and Jane (I'm otherwise ignoring Roger in this episode except to note we learn he's writing a book???).

What is she? Part of the new generation that Don doesn't understand exists? She can play as an extra the courtesan on the opera stage enjoying the costumes, but is way beyond actually being a courtesan. She's likely to be a contrast to what Don needs and uses - the call girl, a woman who represents sex to him but slaps him around? Perhaps like his relationship was with Betty, only more literal.

In the year that has transpired, Peggy has come a long way. She's the one woman that can confront Don on his weaknesses. She has no problem knowingly taking action he would not approve to better the situation with a client. She has a new art assistant - a guy. They make fun of soap operas using Stan Freberg's "John and Marsha" routine - making it clear here that "Mad Men" is not a shallow soap opera.

There's way too much to write about in this episode. This episode had the feel of being a "second pilot," introducing characters all over again, yet familiar characters. And it contained an edgy "something needs or is going to happen," but we already know that instead of it being the celebration of our all-encompassing nation in the Civil Rights Act, the something of the '60's was to be Vietnam. That hint was in Pete Campbell's "Thank you for your service" which may have been as sincere as the character can get but rang so hollow when you know what was coming.

One detail is worth noting - bringing us back to the beginning. The firm has apparently rented two green-glass windowed, column-free floors in the Time-Life Building, the first building erected in Rockefeller Center, what will become the new center of media in New York City. It is shiny-new-modern using newly-invented-structure and the talk of the town. And that is Don.