MAD MEN, AMC's unique series about the men and women of Madison Avenue in the late 1950's, 1960's, and now the end of the '60's, has entered its 6th and pentultimate season with its dreariest opener ever. Just when Don should be basking in his success and feeling blessed with his gorgeous and loving model/actress wife, he falls into a deep existential funk about the uselessness of his life and work (he could be right on both counts) and his own immortality (but not, immorality). Similarly, Roger Stirling, who jokes around with his psychiatrist, faces his own useless life when both his mother and his shoe-shine boy die within the week. He breaks into tears over the latter.
We know we are in pretentious territory when we hear and see Don on a Hawaii beach reading Dante's INFERNO. He and Megan (the perfectly cast Jessica Pare) are living the perfect vacation; at least, she is. But Don is having strange vibes from his army days when he meets a young soldier on leave from Vietnam and agrees to be his best man the next day. Somehow they switch similar army lighters, an act that will haunt Don for the rest of the episode.
Somehow what seemed fresh and slightly weird in the earlier seasons of MAD MEN seems forced and somewhat distasteful this season. Don's former wife Betty is now getting porky and acting more oddly than ever. She is fascinated with a 16 year old violinist and follows her to a flophouse in New York where a bunch of much too articulate hippies let her cook them a stew while they lecture her on her empty life style. The scene, like many, doesn't work; it just sits there while the viewer waits for a hint of meaning. One of the most interesting characters, Peggy Olsen, has left Don's firm, but her scenes don't amount to much either.
AMC has become the place to go for downer drama, whether it's zombies in THE WALKING DEAD or meth zombies in BREAKING BAD or the ad agency zombies in MAD MEN, nobody smiles much. Just a little light and levity might lift our spirits. But don't bet on Don as the one to do it.
But DARK seems to be the current trend in TV these days. Two good examples are BATES MOTEL on A&E and MONDAY MORNINGS on TNT. Based on the most famous slasher film of all time PSYCHO, BATES MOTEL follows Norman Bates in his formative years as his quixotic and murderous mother buys a creaky motel with a gothic house in the deal. What could have been cheap and sleazy is saved by superb acting by Vera Varmiga (UP IN THE AIR) as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore (NEVERLAND) as 16 year old Norman. The atmosphere as well as the plotting is suspenseful and moody, and surprisingly there is little blood-letting...so far.
Lots of blood on MONDAY MORNINGS, a new medical drama that explores the world of specialist surgeons. Every Monday morning the hospital's major domo (Alfred Molina) holds court and either praises or savages his doctors on their performances. We usually see three cases in progress, sometimes in close detail. Keong Sim is the brilliant surgeon with limited language skills. When asked for a diagnosis, he says flatly, "He dead." The show occasionally slips into sentimentality, but it is worlds better than the always lame GREY'S ANATOMY and its ilk.