Late summer isn’t traditionally the time of year for quality TV. Right about now, the networks are dragging out their fourth round of reruns and as many singing/dancing competitions as schedules will allow. But this year, a number of channels (basic cable channels, anyway) have decided not to abandon their audiences to the vagaries of beach weather and cineplex blockbusters. Last week alone, FX cranked out its fancy new legal thriller “Damages” (with Glenn Close, no less) and AMC launched one of its rare forays into weekly drama, the innovative period piece “Mad Men.”
Innovative isn’t a word that gets used much this time of year, either. It’s not that “Mad Men” is an unprecedented piece of entertainment. But it is clever, well-made and unlike anything you’d see on network television right about now.
The show is set in 1960. The “Mad Men” of the title are a group of advertising executives working on Madison Avenue. (Get it?) Though the series is an ensemble, it concentrates mostly on Don Draper (Jon Hamm, “The Unit”), an increasingly middle-aged family man who’s starting to think maybe he’s lost his mojo. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser, “Angel”) is an up-and-coming young punk who seems to idolize Don. At the same time, Pete’s got that devious gleam in the corner of his eye that says, I think I could steal the old man’s job. The rest of the agency is made up of hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, well-dressed womanizers.
Interestingly, we also get to see things from the perspective of the women in the office—poor, much-groped secretaries who have learned to manipulate the male libido in this politically incorrect environment. Through them, we realize “Mad Men”’s cabal of bad boys are sharks on the verge of extinction. Women’s liberation, civil rights and corporate deregulation will no doubt come as a major shock to these prurient Peter Pans.
“Mad Men” has picked a colorful time period as background. With the close of the ’50s, tobacco companies were barred from selling cigarettes based on (wildly untrue) claims about the health benefits of smoking. For ad agencies, it actually opened up a whole new realm of possibility. No longer did advertising need to have any connection to reality. Why tout dubious medical statistics when you can simply lure consumers with meaningless slogans like “I’m headed for flavor country” and “I’d walk a mile for a Camel”? This show is about the art of selling things—everything from department stores to political candidates—and it does so with a critical eye and a sly wink. Occasionally, the writers mix in real products; a practice that lends veracity to the stories, but sometimes trips up the timeline. (Don’s job-saving new slogan for Lucky Strike cigarettes—“It’s Toasted”—had already been in use for 43 years.)
Witty, critical, loaded with mid-century modern ambience and layered with timelessly bad behavior, “Mad Men” is a bracing shot of whisky in a summer filled with Zima.