For all its ups and downs and long delays between seasons, it wasn’t easy to let go of “The Sopranos.” When the landmark HBO series finally called it quits June 10, fans of quality cable TV had to wonder if we would ever meet another set of memorable characters who would so completely ensnare us in their unique and mesmerizing world.
On July 19, we had our answer. “Mad Men,” a stylish series about the men and women of Manhattan’s advertising world in the 1960s, arrived like a brightly wrapped present. Unwrapping this beguiling treasure, which has its Season 1 finale at 10 p.m. EDT Thursday on AMC, has been one of 2007’s most unexpected and rewarding delights.
Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, Maggie Siff
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET
(AMC; US: 19 Jul 2007)
The remarkably assured “Mad Men”—by far my favorite new show of the year—has created a world with all the moral complexity of “The Sopranos” and fascinating characters whose depths were only obliquely glimpsed at first. As Don Draper, the charismatic yet reserved ad man at the heart of the series, Jon Hamm has given a performance of breathtaking vulnerability. Like “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, Hamm has brought an indescribable charisma to an ambiguous, complicated role.
We learn that this inscrutable ad executive had purposefully left behind everyone he’d ever known in his youth and had even given up his real name—and it is that heartbreaking personal history that has made him an advertising genius. Draper understands the longing for a past that never was, and he is deeply familiar with unquenchable desire (which fuels his frequent infidelity). As he well knows, advertising is the business of catering to—and creating—desire, and he has few equals in that department.
In the beautifully crafted season finale, Draper is told to come up with a campaign for Kodak’s unglamorous new slide projector. The company wants an approach that plays up the machine’s unusual “circle” slide-holder.
“They want you to put the words `research and development’ into the ads,” Draper is told by another executive at the Sterling Cooper advertising firm.
But instead of dreaming up an ad touting the product’s nuts and bolts, Draper comes up with a poignant pitch about what pictures—and the past—mean to us. It has at least one man in the room in tears, and the rest are stunned into silence.
“If you’ve ever had somebody try to sell you something—people who can sell, they really are not manipulating you. They are selling themselves,” says creator Matthew Weiner, a former writer for “The Sopranos.” “When it comes from a personal place like that, it’s not some vapid manipulation, which doesn’t work. ... I definitely think that we believe Don is good at what he does because we know it means something to him.”
Though the stories of Draper and the other characters have their moments, Weiner says his goal is not just to “make people pay attention” but to entertain them. And he’s done it with emotionally resonant storytelling recalling “The Sopranos” at its best.
How many times did those characters surprise us, yet were in keeping with what we’d learned about them? It was a sickening shock when Tony Soprano killed Christopher Moltisanti in the final season. But given what we’d seen of Tony’s calculating, brutal side, it wasn’t really a surprise.
Though there’s no murder on “Mad Men,” that element of surprise, married to a deeply nuanced view of human nature, is part of what makes the series so richly rewarding. While the immersion in the politically incorrect past brings its own electrical charge to the proceedings, once you get past the bullet bras and the skinny ties, it’s really a show about conflicted, contradictory, real people.
“What David (Chase, creator of `The Sopranos’) was always really into was: `What is the most interesting thing going on here?’ ” Weiner said in a recent phone interview. “Like with a sex scene—we could show sex on `The Sopranos.’ But still, David knew immediately ... you have to make people pay attention” by sometimes diverging from the expected path.
As Weiner learned from Chase and demonstrates so beautifully on “Mad Men,” what makes us sit up and take notice are those moments when preconceptions are subverted with compelling plot twists or digressions that delve into unexpected emotional territory.
Even the comic plots are based on a realistic view of the workplace—of any era. Draper finds out in one episode that his arrogant boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), has made a pass at his wife. He lures Sterling out for a long, liquid lunch, arranging for the office elevators to be out of service. After several dozen plates of oysters, a drunk Sterling has to climb more than 20 floors to get back to the office, and soon embarrasses himself by vomiting in front of a client.
“You have this plot that’s a revenge plot, which is based on the reality that you cannot punch your boss,” Weiner says. “You can’t. You can on TV, but you can’t on this TV show, because we’re following those rules” of real life.
Sometimes the characters’ choices are not what you would expect, because human nature is not as predictable as more conventional dramas would have you believe.
At first glance, Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), a closeted gay art director at Sterling Cooper, appears to be the ultimate Manhattan sophisticate. Nothing would faze this dapper, worldly man—or so you might think. But Romano freezes up when a client makes a subtle but unmistakable pass at him, and quickly flees the scene.
“I knew I wanted Sal to be tempted,” Weiner says. “But then I started thinking, `Well, what does Sal know so far? Who is Sal? Is Sal ready for this? And what does the audience expect?’”
(The first season of “Mad Men” is available on iTunes.)