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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - I’m standing in the Milton Berle Dining Room at the Beverly Hills Friars Club when up walks a woman in a beehive wig and tiny cocktail dress who hands me a drink. The room is packed with TV critics, press agents and employees of the cable channel AMC.


To promote their new show “Mad Men,” a drama set on Madison Avenue in 1960, the AMC folks have taken the Friars Club back to its roots. They’ve made the room so retro-square, it’s retro-hip.


cover art

Mad Men

Cast: Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, Maggie Siff
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET

(AMC; US: 19 Jul 2007)

Review [25.Jul.2007]

Martinis, tablecloths, a jazz combo led by Jeff Goldblum (yes, that Jeff Goldblum), and Ol’ Blue Eyes looking on from his life-sized oil on the east wall. It’s a park scene from the fedora years.


Sinatra is out on a spree, fighting vainly the old ennui. I, on the other hand, am fighting the urge to light up a Pall Mall and swing, baby!


What’s going on here? Simply put, a TV network is trying to catch the critics’ fancy by throwing a themed party at summer press tour.


But in the case of “Mad Men,” AMC had us at the first martini. Beautifully capturing not just the clothing and furniture of the late Eisenhower era but its social mores and cultural conservatism, “Mad Men” - according to my informal polling - is the best new show critics have seen this summer.


Which tells you what kind of fall season this is going to be, because we have screeners of all the network shows, too. Compared with three little cable programs - this one, the FX drama “Damages” starring Glenn Close and Sundance Channel’s “Sin City Law” - all those network pilots felt like works in progress.


It’s not that critics hated them. It’s that we’re more discriminating than we used to be.


When I started on the beat 11 years ago, network TV was still playing the old game of “least objectionable content” - the quest for huge audiences that produced so much mediocre entertainment. Now we expect something bold and nichey every year, like “Lost,” “Heroes” or “Arrested Development.” And if networks won’t give us what we crave, there’s always cable.


Jon Hamm, who plays the ad man Don Draper in “Mad Men” (already airing at 10 p.m. Thursdays on AMC), said that a friend watched the pilot episode and counted 76 shots of him taking a drag off a cigarette.


With their incessant smoking, drinking and skirt-chasing, the men of “Mad Men” aren’t trying to be least objectionable to anybody. Indeed, much of the show’s appeal comes from its insistence on capturing WASP existence in the late-late-‘50s, while dropping hints that that world is about to come undone like a coed’s girdle.


The good news is that the season is young, and many of the network pilots could go on to be shows of distinction. NBC’s “Chuck” is a fun hour of spy-fi from the folks who lightened up the teen soap genre with “The O.C.”


ABC’s “Women’s Murder Club” offers further evidence that ABC loves to make shows featuring roomfuls of women. CBS’ “Kid Nation” might be the most enthralling hour of reality TV since “Survivor,” if it can really make precocious children seem like they’re governing themselves without adult intervention.


The CW’s charming new sitcom “Aliens in America” won’t win any Emmy Awards, but its premise - family of nerdy Wisconsin teenager takes in even nerdier exchange student from Pakistan - is well executed.


At the other end of the spectrum are the budget-busters such as NBC’s “Bionic Woman” remake and Fox’s reimagining of the “Terminator 2” story in “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” either of which could blow up big.


None of these network pilots, however, delivered the passion I saw in three episodes of “Mad Men,” which was created for AMC by Matt Weiner, a longtime writer for “The Sopranos.” (The show seems to be airing continuously on AMC. Don’t worry about catching up on the storyline, which is less important than the characters and the mood.)


“Damages,” which began airing last week (10 p.m. Tuesdays on FX), is another show that thinks big on a small budget. As with FX’s “The Shield,” which Close starred in for a season, “Damages” toys with the viewer’s ingrained sense of right and wrong.


Close plays a crusading lawyer of the people; her adversary, a CEO played by Ted Danson, seems indifferent to anyone’s suffering but his own. By the end of the second hour, you don’t know whom to root for.


And then there’s “Sin City Law” (airing in September on Sundance), in which the French film crew that won an Oscar for “Murder on a Sunday Morning” and a Peabody for “The Staircase” hit pay dirt again, this time in Las Vegas, where they shadowed the footsteps of the public defenders there and turned their seemingly humdrum cases into spellbinders.


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