(Note: no spoilers until the last paragraph)
Bye bye, Birdie. A feeling of loss is inevitable when any beloved TV show comes to an end, let alone one as singularly engrossing as Mad Men. Matthew Weiner’s ‘60s-set drama waded into a form of anomie that was at once specific to its era and timeless, melancholic and deeply enjoyable. Nearly everyone was miserable, but we loved them for it. Eight years, seven seasons and 92 episodes later, the time has come to say goodbye to the Sterling-Cooper set.
How to properly carry out such a task? Why, with a live read of an earlier episode and a screening of the series finale at a renovated hotel downtown, of course. A co-presentation of AMC and Film Independent, last night’s festivities took place amid the gorgeous architecture of the Theatre at the Ace Hotel. Libations were served, tears were shed.
First on the docket was a live read of season-one finale “The Wheel,” one of the show’s best episodes and perhaps the defining example of Don Draper’s advertising prowess. (Until last night’s episode, at least.) These aural gatherings, all of them directed by Jason Reitman, have been a staple of Film Independent's programming for a few years now, with movies accounting for the lion's share of them. Nine actors loaned their talents to the proceedings: Colin Hanks as Don, Mickey Summer as Betty, Kaitlyn Dever as Peggy, Ashley Greene as Joan, Fred Savage as Pete, David Wain as Harry, Rob Huebel as Ken, Brian Klugman as Paul and Kevin Pollak as Bert Cooper.
These thesps were not paid for their time, though the $13 price tag attached to an Old-Fashioned (Don’s cocktail of choice) suggests they easily could have been. These table reads are also entirely unrehearsed, and many of the performers had never met prior to the soundcheck; due to the informal nature of the event, photos, videos and audio recordings were strictly verboten.
Having never been to one of these — and, to be totally honest, never quite seeing the appeal — I had no idea of what to expect. What does it mean for someone to “direct” a live read? Is there any way it could be worse than Men, Women & Children, the last thing Reitman directed? The mere possibility gave me pause. Yet as a fervent Mad Men fan who doesn’t have cable (buying individual episodes on Amazon the day after they air is a total drag, let me tell you), the prospect was too much to pass up.
Around 1,600 people packed the sold-out theater, many of them in era-appropriate garb. (Cosplay is acceptable among serious adults if it’s for prestige television rather than Star Wars.) Introducing the whole affair was Elvis Mitchell, Film Independent's year-round film curator. “Take a close look at me,” he instructed us, “because I may be the last black person you see on this stage tonight.”
During the reading, a few performers stood out. It was no surprise that Kevin Pollak, master impersonator that he is, made everyone (including his fellow readers) laugh with his pitch-perfect take on Bert Cooper — he even showed up with his shoes in his hand. Also a fan favorite was Fred Savage, whose interpretation of Pete Campbell was hilarious and more than a little reminiscent of Vincent Kartheiser’s, which only added to the humor every time he spoke. (Savage also got points for his unfettered enthusiasm; the dude simply looked happy to be there.)
Pollack and Savage’s performances also underscore a paradox of these exercises: They're implicitly a means of exploring how scripted characters can be interpreted differently, but the interpretations that get the best response are those that hew closest to those of the original actors.
Ashley Greene was the unsung MVP of the evening, exceptional in her portrayal of not only Joan but a host of minor characters as well. Since she and most others weren’t as outwardly flashy, however, they received a more muted response.
For all the worthwhile questions the live read raised, it couldn’t help feeling like the prelude it was. The real draw was seeing the finale on a very large screen; it also helped that Weiner, Kartheiser, Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Kiernan Shipka, Jessica Paré and several other cast members were on hand. (Notably absent were Christina Hendricks and January Jones. Life imitates art?) Weiner took the microphone briefly, reminding us of the night's finality and asking anyone who might dislike the finale to not seek him out afterward in order to share that opinion with him.
Like Mitchell and Reitman, he also emphasized the bittersweet quality of the event. Mad Men was very much about things coming to an end, not that the knowledge that this was inevitable made it any easier to accept. Weiner and co. ramped up the enigmatic ennui these last seven episodes, first with Don’s diner dream babe and then with his meandering trek across the Midwest and into California. Both the finale and the 91 episodes preceding it managed to embrace the darker shades of life while still feeling like escapist fare. That's a rare feat in any medium, and one that will be sorely missed.
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