Mad Men

Consider the product: he’s young, handsome, a Navy hero. Honestly, it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince America that Dick Nixon is a winner.

— Roger Sterling (John Slattery)

It may not be a riotous new twist in the art of persuasion. But the eminently quotable Mad Men has the potential to become the best new drama series on TV. Last week’s premiere was certainly the most impressive I’ve seen since Veronica Mars or The Sopranos. In fact, AMC’s promos for the show have made much of creator Matthew Weiner’s background as an executive producer and writer of a certain show about… Made Men. Apparently, Weiner’s original script for a show set on the Madison Avenue of the ’60s got him his gig on The Sopranos in the first place. HBO passed on it, and now AMC benefits from yet another poor decision by the premiere cable channel’s once peerless original programming department.

Mad Men sets out its stall right from its opening credits. It’s stylish and clever, showing men who are simultaneously at the pinnacle of their corporate and personal worlds, and at risk of losing everything. Mad Men doesn’t look like TV. It looks like a movie, specifically, like a movie from the period it’s setting out to reclaim. Think” The Apartment. Think: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Best of Everything, Rock Hudson movies ranging from Lover Come Back to Written On The Wind. Set at the point when the ’50s met the ’60s, the show’s design and crisp, clean cinematography are flawless.

Not so our hero. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Creative Director for the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, has a corner office, a mysterious military past, some obvious psychological issues, and the sort of personal life that can only be described as “complicated”. A privileged stereotype of his time, he’s also invested with sufficient depth to ensure that viewers will care about him. If I wasn’t determined to resist AMC’s pitch, I’d be inclined to describe Don Draper as Mad Men‘s Tony Soprano.

All I have is a crush-proof box and four out of five dead people smoked your brand.

— Don Draper

Neither was Mad Men‘s first episode entirely error free. When Draper finally took a suburban train home to his wife and children, the current day signage at Ossining Station was painfully visible. And when Draper managed to save Sterling Cooper’s Lucky Strike account, he did so by “inventing,” on the fly, a slogan the company had actually been using since 1917.

Leaving such trifles to one side, Mad Men offers themes and ideas for every persuasion. It begins in March 1960. Casually misogynistic and homophobic, racist and anti-Semitic, the successful white American male that Draper represents is at the very peak of his post-War self-confidence. But if he’s comfortable with the cut-and-thrust of traditional office politics and balancing the needs of his blonde wife against those of his brunette mistress, he’s hardly prepared for the new decade. John Kennedy has just announced his intention to run for President of the United States. Richard Nixon is Vice-President. The first televised U.S. presidential debates in history are only six months away. The first restrictions on cigarette advertising are emerging. The FDA has just approved the first oral contraceptive — although access to the pill will depend as much on your marital status as the state you live in. And something is definitely going on over in Indochina.

Senior partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) likes to salute Draper at the end of their meetings and is clearly of an age to have fought during World War Two, while former Lieutenant Donald Francis Draper keeps his Purple Heart in his desk drawer and surely served in Korea. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), gunning for Draper’s corner office, is too young to have seen any military action and will presumably find that his education and wealth will protect him from the Vietnam war draft. Their relationships and especially their different generations appear key to the story of Mad Men.

What you call “love” was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.

— Don Draper

Mad Men isn’t all about the men. Joan (Christina Hendricks) is Sterling’s voluptuous office manager, all bullet bras, tight skirts, and sisterly kindness to newcomer Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Joan helps look after the agency’s accounts, including a major department store that “shares a wall with Tiffany” and is run by Rachel (Maggie Siff), whose Jewish family owns it. Rachel takes neither shit nor prisoners, and her first meeting with Sterling, Draper, and Campbell showcased their attitudes towards both women and Jews — attitudes that are bound to be challenged by Rachel and Peggy, if not Joan.

Joan (introducing the new typewriter): “Now, try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology. It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”

Peggy: “I sure hope so.”

There is plenty of humour in Mad Men, sometimes heavy-handed, always enjoyable. Often, the actors seem to be talking directly to and for the benefit of the viewer, gleefully removing the fourth wall to send up the conventions of the times. As in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day movies, the agency’s artistic director and closeted homosexual Salvatore (Bryan Batt) delivers the most biting lines. Although his artwork always features lovingly-drawn bare-chested male models, Salvatore aggressively promotes his Italian heterosexuality. And when a researcher tries to explain her theory that smoking represents a “Freudian” death wish, his response is delivered straight to the viewer, in close-up: “So we’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? That’s ridiculous.”

In this strange but familiar world, Don is our guide. As Rachel points out over cocktails, he appears both out of place and slightly disconnected from his environment. This makes him the ideal character to represent a time of enormous transition for America.

RATING 9 / 10