A new one-hour drama on AMC, Mad Men is a cleanly lit, smartly tailored show about cigarette-smoking, hard-drinking, philandering New York advertising executives at the turn of the 1960s — the title is a real-life, self-coined moniker for the glamorized kings of Madison Avenue. Though it’s serious, richly detailed and intelligent, it also, frankly, gave me the creeps. Perched as it is at the point when the country was headed toward a shattered innocence about our economic triumphalism and sexual roles, there’s a queasy tension to its portrait of outwardly go-getting but inwardly vulnerable male careerists and the marginalized females in their orbit that feels like a psychic bubble about to burst. The office paranoia is not quite in full flower but lingering like a hidden assailant. Questions of identity are as shadowy as a spy thriller, and attitudes toward women and ethnicity have a velvety undercurrent of pre-violence, whether they’re off-handed observations, wisecracks in a crowded elevator or drunken leers in a swanky nightclub. It’s a show in which everyone looks incredibly put together — crisp shirts, updos, clean diction, good posture — and yet you fear for each one’s soul.
The series was created by an ex-Sopranos writer/producer, Matthew Weiner, who actually got the gig at HBO’s mob series on the basis of his years-old Mad Men pilot script. It’s not hard to see why, either, since Weiner has an affinity for both the everyday coarseness and psychological shadings in a clubby male society. (And of course, working on a juggernaut like Sopranos ensures you’re as good as a made guy in television, which probably explains why Mad Men — add “e” to that first word, perhaps? — was snapped up by AMC so quickly afterward.) But Weiner also aims to channel the sadness of the time. Imagine a television series created by American literature’s preeminent gray-flannel-nightmare chronicler, Revolutionary Road author Richard Yates, and you get the idea.
As Mad Men begins, things aren’t obviously desperate yet — just . . . tense. The big work crisis in the first episode for handsome Sterling Cooper agency creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is how to placate top-drawer client Lucky Strike, what with the FCC’s new mandate banning the crazy health claims for cigarettes that had dominated tobacco advertising till then. After spending the night with his independent-minded paramour, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), pouring out his work problems — what to do about the account, how to fend off the Young Turks angling for his job — Don is changing dress shirts in his office when his self-possessed boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), stops by. Roger wants to let his ace idea guy know he’s not worried: He trusts Don will come up with something for the day’s big meeting. Not that he doesn’t have his eye on Don. “You missed a button,” he says as he leaves.
Concurrently, we meet Don’s new secretarial hire, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), a wide-eyed Brooklynite and corporate-culture newbie who has already caught the roving eye of up-and-coming (and soon-to-be-married) exec Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), and who is told by poised, curvy steno pool field marshal Joan (Christina Hendricks) to go home, get undressed, put a paper bag with eyeholes over her head and “really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are.” This leads to an eerily Cronenberg-ian scene where Peggy goes to a smarmy (and, like everyone else, chain-puffing) gynecologist recommended by Joan, who warns her — as he’s examining her — not to abuse the contraceptives he’s willing to prescribe. “Even in our modern times,” he intones, “easy women don’t find husbands.”
As for the women who do find them: ick. While his oily co-workers hang around his office practically drooling over a planned bachelor party that night, Pete keeps them silent while he plays doting fiancé on the phone. “Of course I love you,” he coos to his bride-to-be. “I’m giving up my life to be with you, aren’t I?” It’s a testament to the non-jokey effectiveness of Weiner’s brittle dialogue, and to the completeness of the show’s depiction of an age fueled by empty ambition and carefully cultivated illusion, that he makes a line that cold sound real, like something a chauvinist cad could successfully use to sweet-talk an unliberated, security-seeking young woman.
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In scenes like these, Weiner and director Alan Taylor (also a Sopranos alum) aren’t taking the parodist’s route of treating the era’s political incorrectness and easily marketed capitalist happiness as a wink-wink joke, or even as the bitterly funny coating on a tale with a sweet center, as was Billy Wilder’s wont. Weiner is cagey enough to grasp that we’ve hardly “solved” these issues anyway. So instead he’s after a tricky combo of fantastic and naturalistic with the air of casual sexism, racism and unquestioned inequality, as if the workplace harassment and blithely tossed ethnic cracks were as essential to the décor as the rotary phones, pomaded hair, frosted glass partitions and, of course, curls of exhaled smoke. On Mad Men, as in a Douglas Sirk melodrama you might find elsewhere on AMC, the gleaming surfaces are the story as much as the ageless emotional concerns roiling underneath. That’s what makes it both entrancing and chilling, a kind of treacherous nostalgia you’ll follow right off a cliff. (It’s there in the credit sequence too, a riff on Saul and Elaine Bass’s design for Martin Scorsese’s Casino that depicts a silhouetted businessman in freefall alongside an ad-spattered high rise.)
It goes without saying, then, that this isn’t a show that generates its mojo from getting you to fall in love with its characters — which was ironically what led to the Sopranos disconnect between David Chase’s icy existentialism and gangster-genre aficionados who wanted “closure” — but rather from the clinical charge of observing them moved around like lab creatures in a booby-trapped maze. (Although I can predict fan worship developing for the behind-the-scenes visual team, which includes production designer Dan Bishop, set decorator Amy Wells, prop guy Scott Buckwald and costumer Katherine Jane Bryant, who should all start clearing their awards mantels now.) There’s a surprise reveal at the end of the pilot episode intended to deepen our grasp of semi-conscionable Don Draper’s complicated world, and while it probably won’t shock anyone, it shows that Weiner has a strategy for the way he develops his characters. Mad Men may thrive on a certain heartless suspense, but it’s definitely got a brain, one that’s interested in how our lives are a battle between the narrative we imagine for ourselves and the path we happen to be on.
Mad Men | AMC | Premieres Thurs., July 19, 10 p.m.
[Editor's note: The original version of this article referred to Don Draper as Dan Draper. It's since been corrected. We regret the error.]