June 14, 2011
The fourth season of Mad Men was the series’ finest thus far. The narrative strands that took the show into areas of tonal inconsistency – Peggy’s surprise pregnancy; Don’s Carnivale-worthy childhood flashbacks – have been erased or smoothed over. Mad Men now has a roster of rich, fully-developed characters upon which the writers and actors can riff with confidence and take in a thousand different directions. Of the television series I’ve seen, only a tiny handful have lasted long enough and stayed good enough to enter this zone: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Peyton Place, maybe St. Elsewhere, middle-period ER, The Sopranos, maybe The Shield, the American The Office, The Wire. Perhaps I’m just rationalizing personal taste, but Mad Men further commits me to the theory that for television the serial drama is the apotheosis of the art form.
I could go on like that. But in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m just going to focus on some (but by no means all) of Mad Men’s connections to actual sixties television. As we saw in Season 2, Harry Crane’s (Rich Sommer) promotion to head of the (one-man) television department meant that the fictional admen of Sterling Cooper would interact with the real-life TV biz of the mid-sixties. Though it offered nothing as elaborate as a whole episode wrapped around The Defenders, Season 4 was peppered with vintage TV references.
- In the season opener, “Public Relations,” Harry sells a jai alai special to ABC, which he says is now interested in telecasting unusual sporting events. He doesn’t mention the name, but it’s clearly a reference to the network’s Wide World of Sports, which had become popular by doing exactly that during the early sixties. Incidentally, that jai alai fad that Mad Men has chortled over several times was no joke. I’d never heard of the sport until I came across a 1963 Route 66 episode (“Peace, Pity, Pardon”) about a Cuban jai alai team.
- In “The Good News,” Harry hears that Don will have a twenty-four hour layover in Los Angeles and asks him to have lunch with “Bill Asher at the Brown Derby.” Asher created Bewitched and therefore a lot of Mad Men bloggers caught this one, because that show’s Darrin Stephens was a Madison Avenue ad man (something I’d forgotten, I confess). But when Harry grumbled that Asher would probably cast Don in something, I thought maybe it was a jab at Don’s looks and that he might have been thinking of the beach party movies that Asher was directing for AIP in 1964-1965. I would have said that Bewitched in-jokes were too cheap for Mad Men, until I got to the episode (“Hands and Knees”) in which Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was thumbing desperately through his rolodex and calling former clients. He reaches someone named Louise, who tells him that her husband Larry has passed away. I surrender: Larry Tate was Darrin’s boss on Bewitched, and his wife was named Louise.
- In “The Summer Man,” Harry (sitting next to his autographed photo of Buddy Ebsen in full Beverly Hillbillies attire; hyuk!) tries to talk freelancer Joey Baird (Matt Long) into auditioning for Peyton Place. He says that one of “Ryan’s” (Ryan O’Neal) “rivals” has been giving an embarrassing performance, and that there could be an opening. “Can’t tell you who,” insufferable star-fucker Harry says, so we can only speculate on which actor Joey might have replaced. I doubt very much that Matthew Weiner et. al. went to the trouble of quizzing surviving cast and crew but, in fact, there were several disappointing second leads on Peyton Place around that time who might have been written out of the show sooner than planned. Richard Evans, who played Paul Hanley (Allison’s unintentionally creepy college-age suitor), and Don Quine, who played Gus Chernak (a hoodlum who died after Rodney, O’Neal’s character, beat him up), come to mind. That’s only the most prominent of several Peyton Place references in Season 4, which takes place right at the height of Peyton’s huge popularity.
- Incidentally, Harry reveals that he sent Joey’s Polaroid from the office Christmas party (depicted in “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”) to Bernie Kowalski in Hollywood. Bernard L. Kowalski was a real person – he collaborated with Sam Peckinpah at Four Star and directed the Mission: Impossible pilot around the time of this season’s events – but as far as I know he had nothing to do with Peyton Place. Just me, but I don’t think Joey would’ve been so hot as Mr. Briggs.
- In “The Beautiful Girls,” Joan (Christina Hendricks) watches The Patty Duke Show; and in “Chinese Wall,” Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) watches Hazel. I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted that either character would be a fan of those particular series. But, hey, in 1965, there weren’t a whole lot of choices when you turned on the TV.