Directed by Tim Hunter | Written by Lisa Albert | 45 min
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 without 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 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 somewhat a 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 pleased or pissed to find out that “New Amsterdam” does a good job humanizing Manhattan’s most insufferable denizen.
Much of the credit goes to actor Vincent Kartheiser. In a humbling and sympathetic performance, we’re able to see Pete Campbell in a new light. Come to find out he’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 understanding.
Even though he is newlywed to an elegant bride, 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 by his father as an embarrassment to the Campbell family legacy. Pete’s a lot more likable when paired 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 emptier. And Pete Campbell has never been lower.
Pete’s work life at Sterling Cooper isn’t going exactly as planned either. Frustrated by his ambitions to become more than 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, claiming that Pete’s last name outweighs his poor performance. Played by 76-year-old Robert Morse, Cooper is a captivating presence whenever he appears onscreen. He’s a relic from an era long past, one that remembers when the Dyckman’s owned everything north of 125th Street.
Cooper’s favoritism 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 like Don but on a less grandiose scale — a man who seemingly has it all but doesn’t know what he wants.
Providing a spotlight for Pete Campbell is a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, the rest of “New Amsterdam” isn’t quite so interesting. The worst (and weirdest) plotline 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 I don’t blame Betty for this; she just so happens to be paired with the worst character in Mad Men history. Not even Don could manage that.
Helen’s eldest son, nine-year-old Glen, is a sexually-stunted oddball played by the son of series creator Matthew Weiner. 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. Either way, I don’t care.
As a whole, “New Amsterdam” isn’t all that memorable in the Mad Men grand scheme of things. But it still gets the job done all things considered. Betty and Glen are a low-grade guarantee, and the absence of Peggy is a mistake that these early episodes can’t afford to make, but there are still several developments worth your while. For better or worse, the hour is completely carried by Pete Campbell, formerly the show’s most vile creation.
Mergers and Acquisitions
“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.”