Working the Street

Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) with two ladies of the evening. Photo: Courtesy of Adam Taylor/AMC

Mad Men—now hitting its stride in its fourth season—has always had whores on the brain. The show’s shark-jawed anti-hero, Don Draper, is the bastard son of a bad trick. By last year’s finale, he was screaming, “You’re a whore, you know that?” at his soon-to-be-ex-wife. And post-divorce, he’s been hiring pros to slap him and to entertain his colleague—that is, when he’s not paying off his crestfallen secretary with a Christmas bonus.

But in Don’s work life, he’s the whore. Two seasons ago, Don screwed Bobbie Barrett to save the Utz account. Last season, he fired Sal for not doing the same for Lucky Strike. So while he may throw semi-regular tantrums about artistic purity, he doesn’t mouth off to Lee Garner Jr., a chuckling sadist who has only to wag his massive checkbook for Roger Sterling to pose in a Santa suit. (“Did you enjoy the Führer’s birthday?” Don jokes to Roger in the aftermath of their john’s visit. “May he live for a thousand years!” cracks Roger.)

Prostitution is to Mad Men what vampirism is to True Blood, a metaphor that sloshes in everywhere, juicing the most innocent interactions. It blurs the boundaries between every power dynamic: between men and women, secretaries and bosses, clients and “creatives.” And if Matthew Weiner’s obsession may be an extension of his prickly relationship with television itself—that dirty art form made to sell soap—it works for the show, because he’s no puritan. Exploitation may be gross on Mad Men, and sometimes violent, but in a certain light, the kindest act Don Draper has performed this season was to hire a prostitute for Lane (and it led to one of the best lines: “I think Norman Mailer shot a deer over there”).

I’ve heard rumblings of a backlash, a common-enough phenomenon in a show’s fourth season, but I’m still a sucker for the show’s narcotic rhythms—the way it slaps the audience in the face whenever we get comfortable, let alone turned on. In a TV era grounded in formula, Mad Men is defiantly unpredictable, with a startling proportion of scenes that pop out of nowhere: last year’s blackface performance, Lane Pryce heckling a Godzilla movie, a home invasion featuring preteens and cracked eggs.

Best of all, we seem to be done with the weakest element of the series, those abusive-hillbilly flashbacks. Instead, we’ve been left with a Madonna-whore set of blondes: all-embracing Anna and her icy counterpart, Betty of the Little White Nose in the Air. I’ve often bridled at Weiner’s Hitchcockian sadism toward Betty (or possibly January Jones), a character so petulant and vain she makes Lee Garner Jr. look like Peggy’s priest. And yet it’s interesting to see Betty in contrast to this Californian fantasy—another ex-wife kept afloat by his paycheck, but this one stoned and endlessly accepting. If you squint, Anna’s love feels like another form of prostitution: the Good Mom Experience? And yet the news that she’s dying is devastating, both because Jon Hamm’s performance is so strong and also because in Mad Men, the strangest bargains are inevitably the most genuine.

And of course, there’s the third blonde: poor old Sally, pinwheels of tween rage in her eyes. Hard as it is to watch Don’s descent, it’s harder to watch Sally fondling the lanyard of the bad boy down the block.

Mad Men has company among ambitious cable dramas, among them Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, the flawed but fascinating Treme, and Dexter. The slate is not so strong among sitcoms. Entourage is having a very strange season, with a cabal of castrating female executives and Sasha Grey placing her product everywhere like a pack of Lucky Strikes. Hung and Nurse Jackie and Weeds and Californication and Bored to Death and even How to Make It in America (a.k.a. Jeantourage) have their followings—and their strong points—but to my mind, the one truly ambitious cable sitcom is

I wish I could report that Showtime’s cancer sitcom The Big C is a solid successor. Like Tara, The Big C features a familiar breed of Showtime anti-heroine: the basket case with a secret life, half-irritant, half-rebel. The series is glossy and pretty to look at, with flashes of nudity, grown-up humor, and the sleek production values of many cable sitcoms, so at first you feel pretty good about watching it and its high-class cast, including John Benjamin Hickey and Gabourey Sidibe.

Laura Linney plays Cathy Jamison, a high-strung killjoy with stage-four melanoma. A teacher, a mother, and a cranky suburban wife, Cathy flips out post-diagnosis—commissioning a swimming pool, turning cartwheels, flirting with her doctor. Mainly, though, she keeps her cancer a secret, and call me judgmental, but it’s hard to laugh at this (even in a mordant, cable-TV, post–Larry David way) when it comes to Cathy’s angry teenage son. She’s kicked the kid’s dad out of the house, she’s keeping him in the dark during what might be his last few months with her—and then there’s the scene when she fakes suicide, a moment so out-of-whack cruel (he finds her) all sympathy flew out the window.

Linney can be a lemony/acerbic presence in the right role (she was great as the phony wife in The Truman Show and fantastic in You Can Count on Me). As Cathy Jamison, she does get one or two well-delivered zingers, like her punch line to a speech about how all parents hope they’ll die before their children: “Hey, I’m living the dream!” But mostly, she’s less a charming mess than a self-involved nightmare, and, worse, not that funny.

Oliver Platt is terrific as Cathy’s husband, a big baby with huge appetites. Their marital problems make more sense than anything else on the show—she’s the neatnik cursed by slobs, the martyr mom curdled by years of resentment. “Your dad isn’t living here because I only wanted to raise one kid, and I chose you,” she tells her son, and the show’s best scenes play off the flawed intimacy between these weirdos.

Of course, it’s possible The Big C will get better, even if (maybe especially if) Cathy never does. And if it takes two seasons to become a great sitcom about dying? That might be worth the wait.

Mad Men
Sundays. 10 p.m.

The Big C
Mondays. 10:30 P.M.

Working the Street