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'Mad Men,' 'The Office' hit slump

By Bradley Hartsell
On April 23, 2012

I feel unfortunately compelled to link two antithetical shows together.

"Mad Men" is unequivocally one of the two best shows on TV, while "The Office" has been floundering the past couple of years to the point of near unwatchability this season.

I feel guilty, but each of them came off with recent episodes that rivaled the lowest point of their considerable runs.

First, "The Office." This was a tour de force of bad television. Forget about the tired, flaccid jokes, because comedy is a hard racket. The storytelling, at this point, is a total mess.

You have an unfunny lead character (Andy) in an excruciatingly uninteresting will-they-won't-they relationship with the bubbly but preternaturally dumb Erin.

But let's say Andy and Erin are somehow interesting; Andy breaks up with his fiancé (a character we've seen for about 15 seconds in the history of the show and all indications are that she's a nice girl) at her bachelorette party, for Erin (with Erin right there in the room).

Is that good television? All Jessica is is a contrived prop to make the final get-together feel triumphant.

This a ploy to make the audience feel elated (he finally got her!), when if you think about, Andy just pulled off a majorly bad move, for reasons that aren't totally clear, other than the convenient fact that Andy and Erin are main characters.

Then you have the nonsense that is Nellie. She's the new boss, but not really, and Robert (her boss and an alpha male) inexplicably bends over backwards for her.

But throw in a sobby break-up story and now Jim is compassionate and we should feel the same. We don't.

Being inscrutably sweet to a lame, stilted character is just cheap sentimental fodder for bad TV.

Matt Weiner has earned our trust, so although I was down on the episode from a couple week's ago, too, I know "Mad Men" will rebound, so this is more of an exercise of critical analysis than a blow to the quality of the show.

Whereas three episodes ago focused too much on the show's least compelling character (Betty), this episode was a stylistic mess - a total departure from the aesthetic of "Mad Men."

The show has employed flashbacks and dream sequences before, but it was done tastefully.

This time, Weiner chose to be coy with the dream sequence, trying to fool the audience - a cheap tactic at this high a level of television.

"Is this a dream?" ran through my mind the first time Bobbi got sexually aggressive with Don, because it felt a little ... much. And by the time he chokes Bobbi to death, you're certainly asking what in the world is going on. So it wasn't blindsiding, but it wasn't fair play, either.

Maybe you knew it was a dream the whole time, but if you didn't, you definitely couldn't be blamed because no clear delineation was given like in the past.

And when Don comes to, seeing the sublime white light of Megan in the early morning aura was a bit heavy on the symbolism.

That shot is the first concrete (too late) indication Don was fever dreaming, and also a bit of hamminess with the "awake, for it is I, Megan, your loving wife" bull.

Elsewhere, Peggy's fear in the office is framed like any cliché horror film, built to track Peggy closely as she follows the noise to its terrible source. Which is really ineffective when you remember that this is "Mad Men" and that whoever is behind the ominous turn of the door will be somebody/something harmless. Did we really think Richard Speck was lurking? No.

It's hard to believe Weiner, high-minded to a fault, would lay on the fear theme so heavily that he would rely on tepid bait-and-switches, in a show that's consistently been far richer and deeper than that. It betrays "Man Men's" subtlety.

We know there's an undercurrent of turmoil simmering in Don. We fully expect him to relapse in his marriage. We know Don is scared (in a cool way, of course) and that he isn't at peace with his life. Why paint it in blood all over the walls?


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