Sitting poolside in sunny California, best friends and professional partners Mason Eric McCormack) and Conner (Tom Cavanagh) consider how they got here. Mason’s feeling a little nauseous, worried that maybe their excesses of the night before were, well, excessive. Conner sets him straight, explaining “why we got into advertising in the first place.” Other kids wanted to be firemen or doctors, but he says, “We always wanted to be hung over from expensive booze that someone else paid for while everyone back in Chicago thinks we’re working. That was our dream. We dared to dream, Mason, and now we are living our dream.”
And with that, Conner slides into the pool in pursuit of a swim-suited lovely and Mason answers the phone.
Herein lies the essential tension of Trust Me. Both partners are creative, quick, and sardonic, ambitious and insecure. Conner’s a copywriter and Mason’s an art director, and together, Conner’s recklessly single and Mason’s happily married (to Erin [Sarah Clarke]). Together, they’ve earned scads of money for the Rothman Greene & Mohr Advertising Agency, and still, they worry each day whether they’ll be able to come up with yet another winning idea. While they’re dependent on approval — by bosses, clients, and consumers — they see themselves as manipulating the system, or, as Conner puts it, “living our dream.”
Such self-delusion is typical of ad men in texts as varied as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Bewitched, and Mad Men. In Trust Me, the delusion is complex and multifarious. Their boss, Tony (Griffin Dunne), sees their business as a maddening competition with other companies. Creative director Stu (Jason O’Mara) sees the teams differently, setting the ad men against the clients. “They need to think that we’re smarter than them,” he tells Mason, “That we dress better than them, that we’re cooler than them… They must be afraid of us, so we can give them what they need, not what they want.”
“What they need,” according to this logic, are ways to pitch products, with copy and taglines and imagery that are regularly more crass than ingenious. Stu’s vehemence on this matter, his disdain for the clients (whom he terms “idiots”) and the “account people” who are not “creatives,” but only numbers-crunchers, inspires Mason to stand up for something approximating decency. That is, “I just feel that it’s possible to do this job without being an asshole.” Yes, he believes in trust, even as he lies for a living.
As Trust Me illustrates repeatedly, most everyone in Ad World behaves badly, including Mason, in efforts to save their jobs, their friendships, and/or their egos. For the buddies, this means competing even as they’re devoted to their longtime partnership, a friction exacerbated when Mason is promoted and Conner isn’t. Mason is suddenly responsible for representing the firm to clients, as well as making internal creative and personnel decisions (the fact that he makes some of these decisions very much on the fly is par for the ad-man fiction that campaigns are as likely to be flukes as careful decisions). The predictable conflict has Conner calling Mason a “hack,” while Mason comes back with “I’ve been carrying you so long, I’ve got scoliosis.”
With such exchanges passing for wit, much of the series’ appeal rests on the charisma of its principals. Cavanagh and McCormack bring what you know they will — an effective mix of fast talk and easy delivery to pitch the partners’ situations, which range from silly to predictable. Will they pass muster on the big account? Will they make up after a fight? And will they outwit their rivals while reaffirming their own basic integrity?
If the answers to these questions aren’t surprising, they aren’t as troubling as the office’s designated girl, Sarah (Monica Potter). She arrives at work as a neurotic. Overachieving newbie, with her Cleo in her box and complaining immediately that she’s assigned to a cubicle and not the window office she’s been promised. Alternately boastful and desperate, pushy and teary, she’s also saddled with the usual uptight-girl-gets-drunk scenario, as she ends up making out with one of the show’s most prominent assholes, then feeling both bad and defensive about it.
As the veterans resent Sarah’s awards and her reputation, she’s up against an entrenched boys’ club, simultaneously disdained and ogled. Though Mason plainly respects his wife (and Erin gets to make fun of his lapses of perspective), Sarah has to struggle for notice even when she’s right. Just whom she’ll be able to trust is so far unclear.