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Friday, April 23, 2021

Mad Men’s John Slattery is back on TV, playing a show-biz psychopath

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I can’t deal with next. It’s a new show (premiering Monday) on Fox, a nine-episode psychological drama set in 1975. The protagonist is Mike Pfeiffer (John Slattery of Mad Men and Manhattan). Mike has some vaguely acute PTSD; at the beginning of the series, he confesses his fear of aging. “My birthday is the turning point,” he says. (By the episode’s end, he will be 57 years old.) He’s an anti-authoritarian; his job is to turn the FBI into an arms-control research organization, although he doesn’t use much profanity. Of a 14-year-old boy he has employed for nefarious purposes, he marvels: “This is what an American looks like.”

Whatever signals that he’s deploying toward us come across as intended laughs. He dresses, of course, like an architect, looking the part (this is not Picasso). And he talks long and softly (almost too softly) in his big, blue eyes. His closest female friend, as played by Joanna Gleason, says, “I know a lot of his friend’s names,” and then they weep.

These are all useful elements for comedy. There is some wit and improv in the story. But it isn’t balanced by a sense of the psychosexual: the compulsions, hang-ups, and other forces that shape a man’s existence. Mike seems to have no genuine human empathy — or sincerity — despite his self-destruction and fantasies.

This is a romantic “mad man gets madder” yarn. Mike and the ex-girlfriend he tries to lure away to make her his wife fantasize about him. Mike and the ex-girlfriend. Mike and the ex-girlfriend. Mike and the ex-girlfriend. Mike and the ex-girlfriend.

The ambiguous ending is the most disquieting part of this generic horror drama. But the show will do nothing to reshape Slattery’s resume, nor do it advance his career. It is a sequel to Mad Men. This is the kind of muted, tensely staged, unhurriedly paced misery that allowed Slattery to stand tall and strong on television for years. His time, just passing.

The kids, too, are ultimately cliched: the spoiled, sex-obsessed girl, the spoiled and emotionally woebegone boy, the shallow model. Slattery is black (he should just say Puerto Rican — at least) and black. They are both balding, and Mike looks like he has been in the sun a lot and drank a lot.

Whether Mike is actually as neurotic, stalkerish, and delusional as he seems is a question of matter-of-factness. In his latest project, Slattery recurs in the part of a mysterious madman: in all of the next episodes, he’s splashing through the surf, almost dissolving. We shouldn’t be surprised by the tendency of a man, in his death throes, to be more of a troublemaker than he was when he lived.

And yet, in The Age of Women, Slattery’s hilarious presence is subtle — as if, like having his own terms of engagement with the world, he did not have any specific needs and wants; and that without them he could just be all that he is: dull. Mike’s character is too so, and so have been his show characters, from Jon Hamm’s cheerful, sincere Don Draper to Slattery’s dim and unattractive Ray Fiske.

We are now accustomed to seeing blue-eyed hunk leads wear black rubber fanny packs and sit atop a desk in a Brooklyn office. Slattery gives us the face you’d expect, but he underplays the sleekness and the chrome. His Mike is fascinating. We can’t deal with next, though.

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