“Old Money, New Problems”
By Colin Hart
8.4 / 10
The Sopranos. The Wire. Breaking Bad. Mad Men. Of the four prestige dramas on the unofficial TV Mount Rushmore, Mad Men stands out as the only series that doesn’t rely on heightened external stakes. Instead of mob bosses, drug dealers or crystal meth kingpins, Mad Men is about … the daily lives of 1960s businessmen?
Mad Men is the rare television show in which all stakes are internal, meaning that the series rarely relies on plot. The only growth that series creator Matthew Weiner wants to see is of the emotional variety. For action, look to the interaction. For excitement, turn up the volume. It’s all part of why Mad Men is the greatest character study in TV history.
But still, all this praise of elegant nothingness can’t make up for the fact that “New Amsterdam” is another contemplative bore.
Who’s your least favorite Mad Men character so far? The correct answer is Peter Campbell. Depending on how much you hate him, you’ll either be pissed or pleased to find out that “New Amsterdam” does a good job humanizing Manhattan’s most insufferable denizen. In a humbling and sympathetic performance from actor Vincent Kartheiser, we find out that Pete’s a human being after all.
The character we’ve seen in the first three episodes has been an obnoxious little brat that embodied the worst aspects of white privilege. In “New Amsterdam,” we get to see Pete’s life outside the office. For better or worse, he gains a new sense of commiseration.
Even though he’s got a good wife and a good job, Pete is beginning to realize that he isn’t as well-to-do as he seems. Lacking the finances to rent an expensive Manhattan apartment, he reluctantly turns to his father for help, only to be berated as an embarrassment to the Campbell family legacy.
How to make Pete Campbell more likable: pair him with characters who are far more despicable than he.
With nowhere else to turn, Pete shamefully accepts the gratuitous donation of his father-in-law. He and Trudy finally get their dream apartment, yet the New York City skyline has never looked so empty. And Pete Campbell has never felt so low.
Pete’s work life at Sterling Cooper isn’t exactly going so smooth, either. Frustrated by his ambitions to become more than just a junior executive, Pete tries to pitch ideas to a potential client behind Don’s back. It’s enough to get him fired.
Bertram Cooper, the founding father of the firm, overrules the termination, explaining that Pete’s last name outweighs his poor performance. Played by the 76-year-old Robert Morse, Bert Cooper is a captivating relic from an era long past, one that remembers when the old money Dyckman’s owned everything north of 125th Street.
Cooper’s nepotism is the only stroke of good fortune to come Mr. Campbell’s way all episode. Ironically, the family name is the one thing he’s spent the entire episode trying to avoid. In a way, Pete is just like Don but on a smaller scale — a man who seemingly has it all yet doesn’t know what he wants.
All things considered, the spotlight on Pete Campbell comes as a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, the rest of “New Amsterdam” isn’t quite so interesting. The worst (and weirdest) plot line of the hour comes when divorcée-next-door Helen Bishop abruptly asks Betty to babysit her kids.
Betty can’t carry an episode quite like Pete, but she’s not to blame here. It just so happens that she’s paired with the worst character in Mad Men history. Not even Don could manage this one.
Helen’s eldest son, nine-year-old Glen, is a sexually-stunted oddball played by Martin Holden Weiner (the son of series creator Matthew). His sporadic appearances will always be a low point for the series. Luckily, they will be few and far between.
In our first meeting with Glen, he walks in on Betty peeing, and then later asks for a lock of her hair. I’m not sure if I should be concerned over the fact that Glen asked, or the fact that Betty complied. Or the fact that Mad Men spends so much time with it. Either way, I don’t care.
As a whole, “New Amsterdam” isn’t all that memorable in the Mad Men grand scheme of things. Glen and Betty are a match made in hell, and the absence of Peggy is a mistake that these early episodes can’t afford to make, but there are still several developments that make the series worth your while moving forward. For better or worse, the hour is completely carried by Pete Campbell, formerly the show’s most vile creation.
Sadly, it doesn’t do the greatest job of much else. Except for, of course, the closing scene. “New Amsterdam” fading into Ella Fitzgerald’s “Manhattan” is a stroke of genius, plain and simple.
Mergers and Acquisitions
- Pete’s wife, Trudy, is played by actress Alison Brie, who is also famous for her role as Annie on Community. Seeing her married to a crumbum like Campbell absolutely broke my heart, I must admit.
- Peggy only appears in one scene this episode, as Pete introduces his wife to the rest of the office. She’s clearly been the second main character after Don, and her conspicuous absence suggests that Mad Men will be expanding into more of an ensemble as the season goes on.
- Don also has a relatively small role in this episode. He works on a campaign for Bethlehem Steel, but is unable to come up with a suitable ad for the client (“O little town of Bethlehem” is not as genius as he thinks it is). Later on, Pete Campbell pitches the winning idea behind Don’s back, which prompts Don to fire him on the spot. After Bert Cooper overrules Don, Roger Sterling gives Pete his job back under the ruse that Don was the one who vouched for him. Roger later reminds Don that he shouldn’t be competing with Pete.
- Pete and several of the junior executives enjoy the comedy stylings of The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart. Paul Kinsey notes that “he’s no Lenny Bruce.”
- “New Amsterdam” was written by Tim Hunter and directed by Lisa Albert
- “Sterling Cooper has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich.”
- “New York City is a marvelous machine filled with a mesh of levers and gears and springs like a fine watch, wound tight, always ticking.”
- “Maybe every generation thinks the next one is the end of it all.”