If you would have told me that Mad Men’s much anticipated 6th season premiere started off with Don and Megan in Hawaii, I would have cringed. I HATE VACATION EPISODES. I always have. Characters are removed from the settings we have come to know and love and are transported into larger-than-life places of paradise. I realize this is a perfectly grumpy stance to take. I think my feelings stem from two vacation episode disappointments from my favorite childhood shows.
Family Ties: The two hour episode was just plain odd. On vacation to London, the Keaton family find themselves in a mess of trouble when they accidently take a brush containing super secret spy film. The family is then unknowingly pursued by a gang of spies who are trying to get the film back. We know they are spies because they speak in terrible Russian accents and their scenes are underscored by cheesy foreboding music. The Keaton family is suddenly in a campy spy film and nothing about the premise works. The characters don’t even act like themselves. The family is all so deliriously happy to be on vacation that they walk around London with big goofy grins on their faces and we are supposed laugh at all the ways London is different from the States. They drive on opposite sides of the road, did you know? What makes Family Ties great is the connection that the characters have with one another and how their distinct personalities challenge and strengthen that connection. In London on vacation, suddenly they turn into a bunch of wide-eyed tourists. Lines spoken are interchangeable and all seem to have been written for Mallory on an especially air-headed day. The family’s only function is to move along the crazy spy plot. The episode wraps up after an elaborate chase sequence through the streets of London. The spies are in hot pursuit of the Keaton family and the hairbrush and everyone is dressed as members of the House of Lords. Alec saves the day and restores peace to London when he stops running and puts a headlock on a distracted spy. I wonder why he didn’t do that sooner? It could have saved everyone a lot of trouble and maybe saved time for some quality Keaton family interaction. The episode didn’t work on any level.
I have similar gripes with the Brady Bunch: Hawaii Bound. The episode is set in Hawaii as the Brady’s follow Mike to Honolulu when he has some architecture business to attend to. The plot is just as far-fetched as Family Ties and the humour rarely springs from the family dynamic we have come to know and love. We laugh at how hard it is for the Brady’s to pronounce things and at how Alice doesn’t know how to receive a lei. Why do vacation shows tend to turn protagonists into idiots? Also like Family Ties the “serious” scenes are underscored by over-the-top tense music. The music lets you know that trouble is in store after Bobby takes a tiki idol that is supposed to bring evil to anyone who touches it. Although the style of The Brady Bunch lent itself to the wackiness of Hawaii Bound better than Family Ties did to London, the overall setting and tone seemed out of place in comparison with the rest of the series.
That being said, Mad Men gets the vacation episode oh-so-right. To be fair, the entire episode is not set in Hawaii but the scenes that are, are pitch perfect. They are preceded briefly by a cryptically shot near-death experience which fades into Megan’s bikini clad torso as Don reads Dante’s Inferno in voice-over. Although the sun is shining and waves are lapping on the shore the tone is dark and uncertain. In my mind that is how all vacations start out. You are displaced into an entirely different world and it is difficult to find your bearings. Don does not speak much in Hawaii. Instead he observes and tries to negotiate through paradise as a character intact with all the experiences from the past five seasons. He has not shed his thoughts, doubts, and fears because he is on vacation. If anything they are magnified, as there is nothing to distract him from them. The bright and upbeat (and authentic) Hawaiian music serves to highlight Don’s anxiety. He is with a client and there is pressure to match his happy surroundings. Although he is smiling and polite his face is strained and he is silent. Don’s disposition is in contrast to Megan’s happy-go-lucky attitude which only increases the scene’s uneasiness. The entire episode (and I suspect the season) had an ominous tone with death being a major theme. The scenes in Hawaii catapult us headfirst into the darkness. The setting is used to darken the episode and highlight the characters, unlike the examples above where the characters are used to highlight the setting.
PS. I would also like to give a hate-out to the Disney episode of Full House where Michelle becomes princess for a day and becomes even more intolerable than usual.