Sunday, August 25, 2013

Orange is the New Black (Season One)

Creator: Jenji Kohan
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Michael J. Harney, Michelle Hurst, Kate Mulgrew, Jason Biggs, Taryn Manning, Uzo Adubo, Natasha Lyonne, Laverne Cox, Dascha Polanco, Yael Stone, Danielle Brooks, Pablo Schreiber
Original Airdate: 2013

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Had you told me that of Netflix's House of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black, the latter was going to be their most successful foray into original programming, I never would have believed it. But it is. And in a big way and by a decent margin. But while it was easy to tell he other two at least had great potential on paper just by the nature of the creative pedigree involved, this project was a bigger question mark. With an untested lead, a so-so premise and "from the creator of Weeds" above the title, viewers would be forgiven for not being instilled with much confidence in the project and keeping expectations low. And that turns out to be an asset the series didn't even need because, by any standard, it's a fun ride.

Orange is the New Black Opening Title Card
It definitely wasn't a given that this would creatively come together as well as it does, that the performances and writing would be this spot-on, a new female star would be made and the careers of a couple of talented, but written off 90's holdovers would resurrected. All this in a women's prison dramedy with a cast so large and diverse it should be difficult enough to remember all the characters' names, much less care about them. And yet by about even the mid-way point, I not only cared about every one of them and knew their names, but could give you a full background history on each. It's the very definition of a true ensemble, where everyone stands out and lifts already strong material to an even higher plane.

Based on Piper Kerman's 2010 memoir of the same name about her experiences in prison, Orange is the New Black follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a Connecticut businesswoman living in New York who's suddenly sentenced to 15 months at Litchfield federal women's prison after being convicted of transporting money for her drug smuggling former lesbian lover, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) over a decade ago. Now engaged to struggling, neurotic writer Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), both strongly believe they can overcome the interruption and strain her sentence will have on their relationship, already making plans to pick up where they left off when she's released. It's a belief that slowly erodes as Piper is absorbed into the prison hierarchy and exposed to a diverse group of inmates, each of whom have an interesting story of their own. Torn between desperately wanting to fit in and also fly under the radar because she sticks out like a sore thumb, Piper's problems in and out of the slammer are further complicated by the discovery that Alex is also serving time at Lichfield and may have implicated her in the crime.

What sets the highly addictive series apart is its even-handed and highly entertaining depiction of the prison and its inmates. The show gives off such a distinct vibe of community behind the bars, it's easy to lose track of the fact that we're being taken inside a women's penitentiary and instead mistake it for high school, college or even a sleepaway camp with some really strict rules for behavior and the accompanying risk of being killed. But the most impressive thing about the show is how it takes what could be have easily been branded a criticism and turns it into the most insightful and revealing examination of prison life since The Shawshank Redemption or Oz. Of course, they'll be the predictable complaints that the jail is too clean and that this is prison seen through "White Hollywood's" eyes. While I can't argue with either point, it's easy to speak to its irrelevance. This is a dramedy and is under no obligation to present itself as a documentary on the horrors of life behind bars. If it was, someone like Piper Chapman would more than likely have an even tougher time than she does, and that's assuming she'd even survive at all.

Piper and Larry say their goodbyes in Ep. 1.1 ("I Wasn't Ready")
Writer and executive producer Jenji Kohan hits on different, more important truths, causing us to stop and think how easy it might be to get sent jail for a couple of horrible choices, or even worse, be a victim of unfortunate circumstances. This is true for some, but certainly not at all of the characters, and while it doesn't absolve any of them for what they've done, it but does give us an access point we've never had before in a show of this genre. Kohan accomplishes this by interspersing Lost-style flashbacks depicting the prisoners' lives before they arrived at Lichfield and what led them there. Some work better than others and it still doesn't flow quite as well with the current action as was probably intended, but it's mostly successful because the characters feel so richly developed by the writers and diversely talented cast of actresses. The supporting cast is so strong that at times it's hard not to view Piper as a vessel through which all the other inmate stories are being told. And it's easy to pick the ones that leave the strongest impression in terms of both writing and performance.

"Red" (Kate Mulgrew) is a former restauranteur with ties to the Russian mob who serves as sort of a mother figure to the girls and runs the prison's kitchen with no less diligence and dedication than she would her own establishment. Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) is a recovering drug addict who turned to Red to help get clean when she first arrived. Uzo Aduba plays Suzanne (AKA "Crazy Eyes"), a mentally unbalanced, obsessive inmate who's determined to make Piper her "prison wife." Laverne (Sophia Burset) is a transgender hairdresser sent to prison for credit-card fraud and is struggling to maintain a relationship with his wife and son while behind bars. Before being locked up, the feared Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst) ran a child-labor cleaning service and brings those same strict sensibilities to Lichfield. And that's just a small sampling of the outrageous characters.

It makes sense that the sheltered, people pleasing Piper would have major problems fitting in and try entirely too hard to do so in all the wrong ways. She's starved out after making disparaging comments about the food, assaulted in the shower, framed for weapon possession, locked in solitary confinement and even jokingly nicknamed "Taylor Swift." But what ends up being the backbone of the series is her love-hate relationship with Alex, which is far from old news. especially to Larry, who's trying to reconcile the fact that the woman he's engaged to is now not only a convicted criminal, but locked up with her ex.

Piper and Alex reconnect in Ep. 1.11 ("Tall Men With Feelings")
Having starred in a short-lived NBC medical drama, appeared in that awful big screen adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, co-starred in a sappy Zac Efron romance and briefly played Ben Affleck's wife in Argo, the little known, but recognizable Taylor Schilling just hasn't been able to catch on as a movie or TV star. Until now. There were few, if any, indications she was capable of a performance like this or able to go the places necessary to make this click, yet she does. What's most impressive is that the character isn't even all that likable and she does refreshingly little to hide that. Piper's definitely spoiled and self-centered enough for viewers to think that this whole prison experience could actually benefit her in some way since her current lifestyle seems to be a facade for masking everything else.

The most thrilling aspect of the character (and one Schilling pulls off extremely well) is seeing her realistically transform from terrified wallflower into full-fledged badass when she's pushed too far for too long. Her polar opposite is the free-spirited Alex, who's intelligently played by Laura Prepon in a turn made that much more impactful by the fact that she's an actress who looks and acts like she'd actually be able to handle herself in prison. The two have great chemistry together and while it's easy sympathize with both, it's Piper who we genuinely fear for because she's so far out of her element and ill equipped at navigating the territory. Or so it initially seems.

As Larry, Jason Biggs gets to play a slightly less likable but more complex variation on his Jim character from American Pie (complete with a passing reference), which is definitely the approach called for given the  comic nature of the role. But what's surprising is just how dramatic things things get between he and Piper down the final stretch and how up to the task Biggs is to deliver on it. There's a pivotal sequence that occurs toward the end of the season where Larry's world clashes with Piper's and the strain of their situation finally explodes, causing him to take an action that not only affects her life and safety behind bars, but the surprisingly fragile feelings of all the inmates at Lichfield. It's safe to say Piper's never quite the same after it, injecting the rest of the episodes leading in to the finale with a palpable sense of tension.

Michael J. Harney as Counselor Healy
 As intriguing as her relationships with Larry and Alex are, the odder one she forms with her counselor Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney), which starts as one thing before morphing into something else entirely at the drop of a dime, revealing he might just have as many personal issues as his inmates. It's really complicated and often amusing portrayal by Harney that culminates in one of the season's best scenes as he goes toe-to-toe with Piper and we're treated to a revealing explanation for his sudden passive-aggressive (bordering on bi-polar) behavior. And he's the "good" correctional officer. Reprehensibly played by Pablo Schreiber, the creepy Mendez (AKA "Pornstache") abuses his authority to smuggle drugs into the prison, make sexual advances toward the inmates, and blackmail and threaten them. Another guard, Bennett (Matt McGory) is actually engaged in a full fledged romantic relationship with inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco), who's serving time with her deadbeat mother Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez).

From the description of events, you wouldn't be mistaken in thinking it's a heavy show. But it's also very funny, with much of the comedy coming from supporting players we've never seen in anything before this. Aduba's performance as Crazy Eyes is more empathetic and hilarious than scary, offering up wide-eyed facial expressions that become the instant highlight of any episode in which she appears. Equally great is comedienne Lea DeLaria, who plays the tough but likable "Big Boo," a physically imposing, rough and tumble lesbian who definitely "wears the pants" in the many relationships she has with various inmates. The relentlessly upbeat and positive Lorna (Yael Stone) talks in a thick Boston accent of her upcoming wedding that may never happen while Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) is given one of the more intriguing flashbacks, as a shy high school track star falls into the wrong crowd in a desperate attempt to fit in. But it's the Presidentially named duo of Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey Washington (Samara Wiley) who may as well be considered the Laurel and Hardy of Lichfield with their practical jokes and goofing around. When one is released, we're given a glimpse of just how difficult it is to adjust to the world outside after serving time and why a life behind bars may be preferable to some who feel as if they have no family or support when they get out.

Taryn Manning as Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett
The two most memorable supporting performances are given by Mulgrew as Red and an unrecognizably uglified Taryn Manning as the prison's resident religious zealot and holy roller, Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett. A meth mouthed drug addict and self-proclaimed faith healer who flies into fits of uncontrollable rage and insanity, she's easily the series' most dangerous character, if not just for the crime she was convicted for, then definitely for her sheer unpredictability. The 8 Mile vet completely disappears into this role in a way that's just flat-out frightening and at least worthy of an Emmy nod. Piper faces a lot of threats during her stay but Pennsatucky was really the only one inmate I believed was capable of legitimately killing her and Manning's bone-chilling work is the reason why. She also somehow manages to make it comical in the darkest possible way, proving that a Netflix, HBO, Showtime, or AMC was going to be the only home this series could possibly have. No major network or even mainstream feature film would have the guts to depict a villain like this. Especially a female one.

The show has also re-discovered what's increasingly become the lost art of an extended opening credit sequence, complete with an earworm inducing title theme. So ridiculously long and catchy you'd almost think it's a practical joke, Regina Spektor's "You've Got Time" is an original song written and recorded specifically for this show, and honestly, I wasn't a fan at first. Then I heard it a second time. And a third. And then over and over again in my head long after that before realizing how few showrunners realize how important the opening theme is and are willing to give it the allotted time it deserves. In this case you could even argue it's given more time than it deserves, but it's tough to complain when Spektor's emotional wailing interspersed with all the show's faces fits the series so well, becoming as much of a character as any of its actual ones.

The biggest question mark surrounds where the series goes from here considering its finale ("Can't Fix Crazy') is about twice as effective as the finishes of Netflix's two other series. The writers wisely save the most explosive moment for last, making it feel like a true cliffhanger in every sense. But a potentially big problem looms next season with the loss of Laura Prepon, who either decided to leave the series or was written out depending upon where you get your info. Considering the Piper-Alex relationship is basically the crux of the show, this isn't good news, despite the door still being open for a guest starring return down the road. If Prepon chose to leave, it's hard not to wonder what she's thinking as it's her best gig since Donna on That 70's Show, if not the most interesting she's landed in her career. She joins Biggs, Lyonne, and Manning as actors everyone's always liked, but wondered how much more they could do if ever given exceptional material. The answer is unsurprisingly "a lot."

Red (Kate Mulgrew) takes charge of her kitchen
It's also still somewhat of a worry that this series' creator ran her previous show into the ground long before it passed its expiration date. I'm not sure how a long a shelf life this can have considering the protagonist is only serving 15-month prison term, even if it's easy for that sentence to be creatively extended by the writers to buy some time. That Netflix isn't technically a "network" that releases ratings and are constantly working on churning out new programming should at least help keep that pressure off and alleviate concern of a potential burnout.

A binge-watching thrill that alternates between some really intense, heavy drama and often hilarious comedy, Orange is the New Black feels like the show that's nudged Netflix over the hump, cementing them as a major player in the TV distribution arena. And as strong as their other two shows are, I'm not sure they accomplish what this manages to do with seemingly far fewer tools at its disposal. Aside from a few minor issues that can be ironed out over time, this is about as close to a perfect start as a debuting series can have. Here's hoping it hasn't peaked and only gets better from here.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Identity Thief

Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, Genesis Rodriguez, T.I., Morris Chestnut, John Cho, Robert Patrick, Eric Stonestreet, Jonathan Banks
Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: R

★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

I'm not sure what's scarier: Identity Thief cleaning up at the box office, raking in at upwards of 130 million dollars, or the thought of moviegoers leaving the theater in hysterics as they talk about their favorite scenes. Melissa McCarthy punching unsuspecting victims in the throat to evade capture? Jason Bateman's character being repeatedly told he has a girl's name? Or maybe, given the time and expense it takes to go to a movie these days, the scariest thought is picturing anyone being excited to see it in the first place and actually making plans to do so. But don't blame them. They just want to get out of the house, shut their minds off for a couple of hours and have a reasonably good time. That's what these comedies are for. And I totally understand that. It's fine. But can't we pick something a little more worthwhile than this? I laughed exactly once during this, making a mental note of what happened during that rare scene so I could mention it. And now, days later, I have literally no idea what it was. That's emblematic of Horrible Bosses director Seth Gordon's entire film, which piles on as many forgettable road trip/buddy comedy cliches it can while lazily tacking on a stolen identity plotline. Worse yet, it wastes the comedic talents of two actors who deserve much better.

Barely making ends meet at home and feeling the pressure at work, Colorado accountant Sandy Patterson (Bateman), is about to have his identity stolen. The woman doing the stealing is Diana (McCarthy), who uses a phone scam to obtain his info and live it up in Florida, treating herself to salon trips and late nights at the bar at Sandy's expense. A feat made that much easier by his unisex-sounding name. But when her wild behavior gets her in trouble with the law and the local cops pull up a mugshot, they inform him that they can't do anything unless she's brought to Denver. So with his job on the line, Sandy heads to Florida determined to track her down and bring her back with the promise that he won't press charges. Unfortunately, the boisterous, foul-mouthed Diana won't be going quietly and has already amassed a laundry list of enemies who'd like to take her down first. Already facing skepticism from his wife (Amanda Peet) and new boss (John Cho), Sandy has to find a way to control this clearly out-of-control con-woman long enough to get them both back safely and clear his name.

Amidst its many problems, the central one in Identity Thief is how overbearing and shameless the movie is in begging you to root for a couple of characters who are really kind of jerks. While that in itself shouldn't be an issue because we cheer on unlikable characters all the time, there's something about the way this whole scenario is set up and plays out that makes it especially insulting. Bateman's character starts off as kind of a hapless fool naively sucked into a scam, which is the path they should have followed since the actor specializes in playing hapless, likable underdogs. But instead, Craig Mazin's script makes Sandy more entitled and arrogant as the story wears on, to the point that I almost felt like rooting for Diana escape. That is if she wasn't also such a one-dimensional stereotype. Having two comic actors as likable and engaging as McCarthy and Bateman play two such unlikable people could be viewed as a mistake from the onset, but it didn't have to be since both are talented enough to pull it off had the material given them interesting characters to play. Instead it forces the co-stars (who in fairness do work well together) to wring laughs out of nothing besides the fact he's a married, straight-laced businessman forced to take a road trip with a brash, loud-mouthed female crook who sort of resembles Mimi from The Drew Carey Show.

Why the movie is even 'R' rated is somewhat of a mystery considering how safe and predictable it is, making all the vulgar, sexual stuff seem like it's jammed in for show. The script fares even worse when dealing with anything related to the legal or criminal end of things. Besides the premise stretching credibility to the max even for an absurd comedy, there's one too many supporting criminal players and obtrusive sub-plots, all of which are poorly handled. Besides the cops in Denver, there's a maniacal skiptracer (Robert Patrick) after Diana for a bounty and a couple of well-dressed baddies (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I.) after her for giving a drugrunner some bad credit cards. That he's played, however briefly, by Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks was one of the few moments that made me grin. But a romantic interlude of sorts between Diana and a macho cowboy-type character named Big Chuck (Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet) is as painfully unfunny as it is overlong.

It's practically impossible to talk about the movie without discussing the controversy sorrounding Rex Reed's "review" of it, which seemed to gain more media attention than the film itself for obvious reasons. If Reed was legitimately concerned about McCarthy's health (unlikely) or trying to start a conversation about how overweight actors and actresses are portrayed on screen, then he should have done so, as few would argue the latter is a discussion worth having. Resorting to childish name-calling and personal attacks did nothing but perpetuate the unfair stereotyping he's falsely claiming to call attention to. What's worse is that the character's weight (while never mentioned explicitly) could actually be considered an issue in terms of how she's been perceived, leading to a potentially intelligent debate about how performers of size are always cast in clownish, embarrassing roles. But Reed clearly wasn't interested in any of that. His comments had no relevance to the film whatsoever and only bolstered the public's already negative opinion of critics.

As unenjoyable as Identity Thief is, it does deserve credit for at least attempting to treat the character as more than a cartoon in the last act. Ultimately, that also fails, coming too late and completely clashing with the the rest of the picture's mean-spirited tone. This of course makes it no different than most other mainstream comedies that feel the need to tack on a safe, happy ending when it's completely uncalled for. Does anyone doubt these two will be best friends by the end of the picture? Still, that whole Reed fiasco did made me wonder what kind of comedy we'd have if McCarthy and Amanda Peet's roles were reversed. The material's still uninspired, but at least it would have gained points for casting originality and given both actresses something radically different to do. Or we could just lock Rex Reed in the car for a torturous road trip with the female Sandy Patterson.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mad Men (Seasons 1-5)

Creator: Matthew Weiner
Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Robert Morse, Jessica Paré, Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Kiernan Shipka, Christopher Stanley, Ben Feldman, Jay R. Ferguson
Original Airdate: 2007-2012

★★★★ (out of ★★★★) 
I was watching this interview with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner about a moment in the series' pilot episode in which 60's ad man Don Draper is lying on the couch in his office looking up at a bug in the light fixture. He said everyone kept asking him what it symbolized. Is he trapped in his own existence? Is it some kind of metaphor for how society is imprisoning us? But Weiner's explanation for the scene was spectacularly simple and equally thought provoking. He just wanted to show what a light fixture looked like in 1960. And that's the show in a nutshell.

Mad Men opening title sequence
When contemplating how to catch up on, let alone review a series that's been showered with over a dozen Emmys in six years, ranked amongst the greatest achievements in modern television, and has justifiably been credited for helping to usher in a new golden television age, I kept coming back to that light fixture. He's stated on many occasions that he feels as if he's making a time travel show and now after watching five seasons, it's much easier to understand exactly he meant.  Those living through history are never aware that their actions and behavior become a part of it. What they say, what they wear, where they work, how they talk literally gets logged for eternity. That's why at points it's difficult not to scream "What are you doing?!" at the screen while witnessing the frustrating actions of characters whose behavior hits so uncomfortably close to home.

Unlike it's AMC stablemate Breaking Bad, discussing the plot details of Mad Men serve little to no function. I could list what happens to every character and when and it still wouldn't do anything to harm one's enjoyment of the series. This is a giant, sprawling visual novel and a snapshot of an era in American culture we've mistakenly envisioned as something similar to a Norman Rockwell painting. The writers take that image and shatter it within its first few episodes and then spend the next couple of seasons trampling all over it.

As much as nostalgia can plays tricks, things weren't necessarily "better"  back in the day. In many ways it was worse and in showing those battle scars in all their ugliness we get an appreciation for the time and its people that couldn't come with a more reverential, nostalgiac depiction. Historically authentic to a fault, the most revelatory moments come not in all the period details the series so frighteningly nails or even in how much we thought we knew but didn't. It's in those scary moments where we completely forget we're watching a show set in the 1960's because of its pertinence to how we live now. The clothes and technology may be different, but the problems in some ways remain almost exactly the same.

Betty takes aim in Season 1
The series opens in March, 1960 at the prestigious Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York City, run by the founder's son Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and wise, but grumpy elder statesman Bert Booper (Robert Morse). Its golden boy and eventual partner is creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who's a genius at his job even as his marriage to cold, repressed housewife Betty (January Jones) is slowly unraveling due to his infidelity and her immaturity. But while still going through the motions of what appears from the outside to be a perfect life with a beautiful wife and two kids in Ossining, he's actually living a lie.

Don's real name isn't "Don Draper," but actually Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute who died during childbirth and grew up in a poor, abusive household with his father. Through flashbacks we learn that Draper was really the name of his lieutenant in the Korean War whose identity he assumed after an accidental explosion injured him and killed Draper. It's a secret that defines Don but wisely not the series as eventually a handful of people discover the truth. But it does seem to inform or influence every decision he makes either at work or home, as there's a constant inner struggle between his desire to to leave that old life behind, and his reluctance to truly embrace that of "Don Draper's" because he knows himself to be a fraud unworthy of it.

Don's guilt and identity crisis lead him to drowning his sorrows in booze, tobacco and women. But he's hardly alone in that. The workplace is full of it and initially the most jarring aspect of the show is all the smoking, womanizing and rampant sexism that takes place. But merely calling the behavior "sexual harassment" doesn't even begin to do justice to the verbal (and in one key instance even physical) rape that takes place, most of which is deemed completely acceptable during this period. The real miracle might be how many characters drink and smoke their way through five seasons with only two heart attacks to show for it. So far. Don's frequent partner in womanizing and late night debauchery is the charismatic Roger, who (kind of) hired him and with whom he shares a friendship. At the series' start, his marriage is also on the rocks as he carries on an illicit on-again, off-again affair and friendship with vuluptuous, red-headed office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), who struggles to be taken seriously as a professional power player when every week there's a new secretary for the men to sleep with or marry. Her bond with Roger is a permanent fixture on the show, popping in and out at the most necessary times and without missing a beat from where they previously left off.

Pete, Don and Roger try to land a new account
The other key relationship is much more complicated. Starting as Don's secretary, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) aspires to become a copy writer and blaze a trail for women despite the odds being stacked against her in every way. Her overeaching ambition and perfectionism eventually lead to success, but when she demands recognition and gratitude, it all too frequently clashes with Don's obsessive need for control. And then there's the weasely Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who wants nothing more than to command the respect that Don does despite never coming close. More accurately, he wants to be Don Draper and is willing to try every slimy scheme in his playbook to achieve it. Some succeed. Most fail. And after a while, just when we think he's finally found success and happiness and is acting like a normal human being, until his  pettiest instincts begin to rear their ugly head again.

A slow-burn, novelistic show with this much depth and complexity isn't easy to instantly fall in love with, but it's easy for me to name the two-episode arc where I eventually did and couldn't wait to see where things would go next. It comes toward the end of season 2 ("The Jet Set," The Mountain King") when Don takes a business trip to California with Peter only to abandon him in favor of running off with a beautifully mysterious hippie girl (guest star Laura Ramsey) and her wealthy, eccentric friends, before eventually leaving them to tie up loose ends as Dick Whitman, dropping in on someone important from his past. A past that turns out to be considerably more complicated than we thought. It's the first time the series truly leaves its comfort zone for another setting and the stakes feel higher than they ever have for Don, as we fully realize just how much he wants to run from his current life, yet feels almost obsessively drawn to it in order to prove his worth. It's really in these two episodes that the two dueling personae start to present themselves and inform the narrative and thematic drive for the rest of the series, proving that Mad Men is as much about Don Draper as Breaking Bad is about Walter White.

It's almost a full-time job for viewers to keep track of Don's numerous extra-martial affairs and mistresses. They range from a beatnik artist (Rosemarie Dewitt) to personality challenged Jewish department store owner (Maggie Siff) to a "cougar" wife (Melinda McGraw) of an annoying comedian, and even his daughter's elementary school teacher (Abigail Spencer). And when the latter seems to be the least impeachable moral offense he's committed, it's probably as good a sign as any that his marriage is in crisis mode. And then the series undergoes a seismic shift that completely changes the game, as Don reaches a crossroads. His marriage to Betty implodes. A buyout forces him and a select few at Sterling Cooper to abandon ship and go into business for themselves. Sterling Cooper is now the new and modern looking, but comparatively smaller and fledgling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce located in the Time Life building as we head further into the 60's. Everything changes, as it seems almost to have become an entirely different (albeit funnier and more entertaining) show with the core characters being forced to rebuild their personal and professional lives, as well as their relationships with each other. It's a fascinating transition, but also one that somehow makes the show even better producing many of the series' strongest episodes.

Don and Peggy crash at the office in Season 4's "The Suitcase"
The much heralded "The Suitcase" from Season 4, provides even more insight into Don's complicated feelings toward the opposite sex while also serving as another acting showcase, this time for Elisabeth Moss. The episode, focusing exclusively Don's relationship with Peggy, takes place over a single night as he detains her from a birthday dinner to work on a Samsonite campaign. Her desire for recognition and thanks collides head-on with what he perceives is her arrogant opportunism and ungratefulness. While both have a point, it's still hard not to see the mutual, begrudged respect that grows between them or view Don as a father figure she so desperately wants to please. But for an hour at least, they're complete equals.

If Don he must adjust to his new role as mentor and ad legend at the firm, Roger must deal with his own diminishing power, as a man who once commanded such respect is now relegated to paying off employees to just do their jobs and suffering through a mid-life crisis with his trophy wife. Slattery's so good here, going from playing a powerful character who seems to be on top of the world to suffering an almost comical loss of status. And once considered the Marilyn Monroe of the office, Joan too is getting older and adjusting to the responsibilities and pitfalls that come with being the eyes and ears of the workplace when all eyes used to be on her. Joan's probably the smartest character on the show and the one most underestimated by men because of her looks. They'll learn.

Pete Campbell hits rock bottom in Season 5's "Signal 30"
One of the series' finest hours comes in Season 5 with the Pete Campbell- focused episode "Signal 30," directed by Slattery, written by Academy Award winning screenwriter Frank Pierson and  featuring a powerhouse performance from the oft underrated Kartheiser. Having previously spilled Don's big secret, cheated on his obsessively loyal wife Trudy (Alison Brie), unwittingly impregnated a co-worker, shrugged off his father's death, and even engaged in office fistacuffs, this is the episode where we finally come close to understanding what makes Pete tick and why he's so deeply miserable. It's not until he reaches his apex of creepiness and sadness that the viewer finally realizes what he can't and ultimately sympathizes with him. He's just not cut out for this kind of life and no matter how many promotions he gets, women he beds, babies he fathers, homes he buys, sinks he tries to fix, or careers he sabatoges, he'll still never be Don Draper. And even worse, he can't seem to grasp that being Don may not necessarily be an admirable goal to shoot for.

If there's a common thread amongst the great TV's dramas, it's a cast comprised of actors who each fill their  niche so perfectly that you cringe imagining anyone else in the roles. Leading the charge is Jon Hamm, whose staggering work as the enigmatic Draper has still shockingly gone Emmy-less. The easy answer as to why is that he's been up against Bryan Cranston, but the better explanation is that he's just so subtle and convincing as a regular guy internally wrestling with all these emotional demons that it isn't the kind of performance that necessarily jumps out in your face. He makes it impossible to categorize Don with easily identifiable labels and refuses to make him either "likable" or "unlikable." He isn't a woman hater or a racist, which for this era should qualify him for sainthood. He's generous, but incredibly disloyal and selfish. He's an egomaniac, but incredibly insecure and secretive. Yet he also operates within this strict moral code that's mostly fair, never hesitating calling out those abuse their position despite having done so numerous times himself. Don's full of complicated, sometimes inexplicable contradictions and in Hamm's hands it all makes perfect sense. And even when it doesn't, we don't care, and are fascinated to see where he'll take the character.

It's been the general consensus that Hamm carries a weaker January Jones through the first few seasons, which isn't completely fair. While Jones is clearly the beneficiary of having the perfect look for a frustrated 60's housewife to the point that her image could have literally been ripped from Life magazine, it's hard to look at the totality of her work throughout the series, as well as the times she's had to go toe-to-toe with Hamm, and argue that it hasn't been impressive. Is she a gifted actress? Possibly not overall, but within this very specific zone and character she's asked to play, she sure is. Weiner takes traits (like her stilted line delivery and apathetic demeanor) that on any other show would be exposed as weaknesses, and converts them to strengths, all while convincing us there may be better actresses, but capable of playing Betty exactly how Jones does.

Megan Draper performs "Zou Bisou, Bisou"
One of Mad Men's most impressive attributes is how its writers can seem to effortlessly shuffle characters on and off the show at the drop of a hat and manage to do it in a way that's organic to how it would actually occur in life. A huge character might just completely disappear for a few seasons only to return sometime down the line at an unexpected, but completely logical capacity. Meanwhile, barely noticeable periphery characters suddenly move to the foreground to become major players under unexpected but entirely realistic circumstances. The best case of the latter comes in the arrival of the future Mrs. Draper, French-Canadian aspiring actress Megan (Jessica Paré). She starts with just a cameo, then graduates to getting some lines until she becomes Don's secretary, then eventually his wife. All of this happens in only a matter of episodes, and yet it all completely works. When Don announces his engagement to her, Roger seems to take the words out of viewers mouths when he legitimately asks who the hell she is. And then we find out.

Megan's true introduction comes in one of the series' most famous moments, when she serenades an embarrassed and visibly uncomfortable Don at his surprise 40th birthday party with a seductive version of Gillian Hills' French pop hit “Zou Bisou, Bisou.” The show's most valuable asset in its best season, Pare gives a star-making turn, imbuing Megan with a coolness and kindness that Betty never possessed and Don seems incapable of appreciating. Her marriage to him far different (if not necessarily better) than his with Betty, who seethes with jealousy at the idea that she's been traded in for a younger model who won't have to work hard at all to be a better mother than her. While she also appears to have moved on with politician Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), there's no hiding that Betty is still as deeply miserable as ever. There's a good case to be made that Don and Betty's new spouses are their better halves and their daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) would be lucky to count either as a parent over the neglectful ones she's been saddled with.

It's Betty's chronic misery that leads to the infamous and controversial "Fat Betty" storyline,which was creatively concocted by Weiner as a solution to Jones' real-life pregnancy. The character begins eating herself into oblivion, with the actress even donning full body padding and facial prosthetics that recall an Eddie Murphy movie. Previously a young, beautiful trophy wife for Don, she's now a depressed, overweight politician's wife living in a big, dark, empty home in Rye. She goes from Grace Kelly to Eleanor Roosevelt. Was Jones being punished for her pregnancy? Does Weiner hate her? Neither I'm sure. More likely, he seized the golden opportunity to take away the one thing that's defined Betty (and by extension January) since the series' inception.

January Jones is Betty Francis in the controversial "Fat Betty" storyline
The weight gain can also be viewed as a kind of karmic justice for Betty telling her own daughter she was getting fat, as well as a reminder of her own childhood struggle with food and body image she revealed on the therapist's couch in Season 1. Despite being remarkably strong-willed and tough, she's always been a grown child wrestling with an inferiority complex, and this arc only furthers that idea. In other words, it's a writing masterstroke that finally makes her, if not any more likable, at least more relatable and deserving of some sympathy. And by putting Jones in a fatsuit it forces her to bring the goods in a way she hasn't before. But the show truly hit the jackpot with their casting of Shipka as Sally Draper, as we've gotten to literally  watch her grow up before our eyes on screen, having been emotionally present for some of the show's most disturbing, uncomfortable moments from a very young age, only to emerge from the other side as an incredible young actress whose role grows exponentially with each season. In a show where it's right to hesitate calling anyone a "victim," Sally is the only character who actually qualifies.

It seems the easiest characters to relate on this show are the fringe ones who are on the outside looking in, mostly because they at least outwardly appear to be the most well-adjusted, despite being far from it. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), who, under somewhat unusual circumstances, becomes a named partner and financial officer at the new firm is one of them. His arc might be the most heartbreaking in the series since no matter how hard he works or tries to fit in, he must deal with demanding wife and abusive father who go out of their way to make him feel worthless at every turn. As a result, he does. And the holes he digs for himself professionally only get deeper until there's no escape. It's hard not to look at him as a good, honest man undone by a sad series of events that spin out of his control. Under pressure, he also makes some really bad decisions that were within his control. Harris was deservedly nominated for an Emmy for his performance, which still finds a way to stand out amidst a brilliant ensemble.

The same amount depth is attributed to even supposedly minor players like Aaron Stanton's Ken Cosgrove, who's everyguy normalness and interesting side career as a published author stand in stark contrast to most of his delusional, career driven colleagues. Or nerdy head of TV, Harry Crane (Rich Sommers), pipe smoking Orson Welles lookalike Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), closeted homosexual Sal Romano (Bryan Batt), alcoholic ad rival "Duck" Phillips (Mark Moses), brash art director Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) and extroverted, off-the-wall copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman). Some stay, go and even come back again at various points but they all feel as important as any of the lead characters, even with significantly less screen time. The great thing about the show is that you can't forget about any of them at the risk that they'll pop up and play a pivotal role when it's least expected. But one of the most intriguing recurring characters is actually a kid. Sally's eccentric friend Glen Bishop (played by Marten Weiner, son of creator Matthew Weiner) first shows up in Season 1 with a crush on Betty and it's almost too bizarre for words how that arc plays out, giving us our first real indication of just how irresponsible and borderline abusive a mother she can be. Glen's occasional reappearances only get stranger from that point on, saving his absolute weirdest for last.

Don's unforgettable Kodak presentation
It would almost be too easy for a series set in this era to use cultural touchstones as a crutch or jam certain social issues down our throats with heavy-handed symbolism. But the writers never take that bait or place any doubt in viewers' minds that  anything less than completely authentic. And they do it by organically incorporating everything into the creative fabric of the story they're telling. Feminism, sexism, racism and historical events like the Kennedy assassination are all there but instead of merely rounding the bases like most other depictions of the 1960's in media, they put us in the shoes of those who were there to witness them and recreate the feeling of what it must have been like to be there. The ad campaigns should feel like product placement but don't because their depiction relates to how we viewed consumerism both then and now, illuminating just how much has changed, while eerily other things stayed the same. Whether it's the sudden revelation that Lucky Strike cigarettes could actually cause cancer or Don's gripping Kodak Carousel pitch in the Season 1 finale, the show speaks to more than how these products were marketed, but how the memory of them makes us feel. And in way, that encapsulates the series.

This approach also extends to the music, which doesn't the feature big, obvious, soundtrack-ready choices we're used to getting whenever the 60's are presented on film. When songs shows up you know it means something, their placement is carefully considered and, it has something important to say within the show's context. The two most notable are the uses of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" when Don comes home to an empty house on Thanksgiving and the unforgettably shocking inclusion of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" in the Season 5 episode "Lady Lazarus." The latter is definitely a big deal, representing only the second time an original Beatles recording has been licensed for use on a scripted television series. And it was worth every penny they paid for it, replicating the experience of what it would have been like to hear to the group's most progressive song when it was released. When Don drops the needle on Revolver at Megan's urging, it's of little surprise he can't make it through. Of course he wouldn't get it. It's one of those moments where the future meets the past, and if anyone's in danger of being left behind, it's Don Draper. Previously a forward-thinking creative genius, he closes the fifth season as a shell of himself, increasingly unable to relate to a rapidly changing culture he used to have his finger on the pulse of.

Beyond the use of music, the costume and production design of the series is astounding in not only its authenticity, but how it constantly keeps up with the changing aesthetics of the decade. That's never more obvious than when we get a glimpse of the new SCDP offices or Don and Megan's Upper East Side apartment, which is so uniquely laid out and designed you'd swear it hails from another planet rather than a different era. Touches like that and even the Saul Bass-inspired, retro opening title sequence (rightly considered one of TV's all-time greatest intros) only begin to scratch the surface of all the rich details Weiner fills the series with.

Don goes for a swim in Season 4's "The Summer Man"
It's well known that the show's biggest influence in terms of theme and style is the work of author John Cheever, whose stories of hypocrisy and moral corruption in the Westchester suburbs and Manhattan made waves in the 50's and 60's. The shadow of his most famous short story, and its brilliant 1968 adapted film, The Swimmer, looms over the series in not just its depiction of the period and its values, but Don's career, alcoholism and womanizing. It all forecasts an eventual downfall that's starting to resemble that story's doomed protagonist. The similarities are even explicitly referenced in the Season 4 episode, "The Summer Man, " in which a contemplative Don journals his thoughts and takes up swimming, only to find that he isn't physically what he used to be. It's not a stretch to suggest that Don's series-long journey is so evocative and representative of Cheever's themes that Mad Men can be viewed as speculating on many of the details and unanswered questions that were left to the imagination in that short story and film. 

If the ultimate goal of the series is to tie the past to the future, and if that's the truth, you could argue it's already been reached. But it'll be interesting to see where things go as the series heads into what should be extremely fertile ground for dramatic potential in the late sixties. Despite being set in that decade for its entire run, there's always been this nagging feeling that the characters are holdovers from the fifties who still haven't found a way to adjust to the era they're actually in. The fifth season signaled that sea change, and if they can't catch up, they'll be left in the dust. The perpetually youthful Roger's experimentation with LSD was probably just a taste of what we'll see moving forward, as Don continues coming to terms with his identities and his marriage with Megan starts to show cracks. In the minds of many, the late sixties ARE the sixties, so the upcoming potential is great for a show where each season has consistently built on its previous one.

The tagline for AMC is "Story Matters Here," but looking at their two most creatively successful dramas, it's easier to argue that character matters much more. It's one thing to be popular with viewers, win some awards or get strong critical notices, but it's another entirely to create a work of art that's both historically and culturally significant. One that tells us where we were, how we got here, and where we're going. With movies there's always disagreement as to what will hold up over time or how something will age. Not this. It's a lock that we'll still be talking about and analyzing Mad Men years from now. Whether or not Don Draper would be able to appreciate that is another question entirely.