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Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Stanton), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy Campbell (Alison Brie) in a scene from episode one of the fifth season of "Mad Men" (Michael Yarish/AMC)
Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Stanton), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy Campbell (Alison Brie) in a scene from episode one of the fifth season of "Mad Men" (Michael Yarish/AMC)

John Doyle: Television

Mad Men: They're so stylish, they're so desperate Add to ...

Recent Mondays have had a distinctive feel if you follow online coverage of the TV racket. The Internet practically goes into meltdown with discussion of the clothes and decor on Sunday’s Mad Men.

Those people who aren’t spewing their hatred of Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) are busy gushing that she’s the fashion-forward woman on the show. OMG. Megan is taking risks with those patterned dresses, all swirling solid colours. Risky, for sure. I mean, compare her busy, busy dress for Trudy Campbell’s dinner party with the basic yellow sheath dress worn by Cynthia Cosgrove to the same event. And, well, didn’t Trudy look suburban in that hostess dress with the huge skirt?

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People who pontificate about such things also tend to approve of the hideous check sports jackets worn by Don Draper, Peter Campbell and Ken Cosgrove to that party. This is madness. They all looked like Pee-wee Herman.

While the look of Mad Men is stunning and there’s much to dwell on, the fuss over the fashion has distracted from the show’s substance. Fact is, the series continues to dwell on the primary themes of American literature. There are archetypically American qualities to the storylines and to the manner in which the characters develop. So far, this season is all about the American literary tradition of characters reinventing themselves over and over.

Don Draper is, of course, pure reinvention in that he’s really Dick Whitman. Now it seems he trying to reinvent Don Draper as solid, loyal one-woman man. The sight of him sipping a drink in a brothel, in last week’s episode, as the other men dallied with good-time girls, was a revelation. And, as we know from his fevered dreams, he wants to erase his past dalliances with violence

Pete Campbell is in the midst of another kind of tortured, attempted reinvention. He’s trying to grow up, but can’t. He’s tired of the suburbs and his clumsy attempts to adapt have all the hallmarks of a John Cheever story about a middle-class suburban male hiding inner turmoil as he travels daily between the bland suburb and the exciting jungle of the workplace in the city centre. Right now, so much of Mad Men resembles a collection of Cheever stories about such people and all their longing for escape or reinvention.

A grand theme that has preoccupied American writers is the Puritan myth of America as a new Eden, a place of new beginnings, re-found innocence and, of course, simultaneously the danger of the fall from innocence all over again. At this point, perhaps, the Englishman Lane Pryce is the key character as he tries to become an American in thought, word and deed. He aches to leave England behind and struggles to readjust in New York City. His frustrations boiled over when he hammered Pete Campbell with his fists.

In the larger picture, we are seeing the character sense that the U.S. is itself a tortured place, on the brink of significant change and, maybe dreadfulness. We’ve had the signals about terrible murders. These disturbing events are unfolding while none of the characters, male or female, actually seem comfortable in their own skin.

Not a single character on Mad Men is happy. Except, in a way, Ken Cosgrove, who has turned to writing science fiction as an escape. He’s lost in another world. He’s the only one who seems to be successfully reinventing himself.

Watching Mad Men is watching the American characters evolve in a characteristically American way. After last week’s episode I was reminded of a famous declaration by a character in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden - “...we are all descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous. If our ancestors had not been that, they would have stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.”

On Mad Men the restless are struggling to be new, independent and generous. It doesn’t matter what they wear while they’re doing it.

AIRING TONIGHT

Great Minds of Design (CBC Documentary Channel, 8 p.m.) Has a bland title for what is an interesting and thoughtful new series about many aspects of design. The series declares: “Everything from a cereal box to a skyscraper starts with a design.” The opening program tonight, Urban Redesign looks at street artists in Toronto who do guerrilla work to make small shifts in the redesign of “the cityscape.” If you’ve ever wondered why flowers or strange, unfamiliar objects turn up on a street, those “art stunts” are explained.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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