Advertising executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm) balances many clients — and at least a few women.
Advertising executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm) balances many clients — and at least a few women. AMC
Office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks) uses her sex appeal to get what she wants at Sterling Cooper.
Office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks) uses her sex appeal to get what she wants at Sterling Cooper. AMC
Mad Men, starring Jon Hamm as a talented ad exec named Don Draper, is another of those cable drama series that's found a home — and an audience — because of the trail blazed by HBO's The Sopranos.
But the lineage of Mad Men is more direct than most. Its creator is Matthew Weiner, who wrote for The Sopranos, and who here displays the same talent for capturing small details and unpredictable characters.
Mad Men is quite a departure for American Movie Classics, which also turned heads lately with the recent Robert Duvall Western miniseries Broken Trail. AMC has dabbled in series production before, but not for about a decade, and those shows — Remember WENN, about the golden age of radio, and The Lot, about the golden age of Hollywood — were low-rent comedy-dramas.
Mad Men is a class act all the way. It's the best TV series to probe and dramatize the New Frontier of the early 1960s since Call to Glory, a wonderful ABC drama from the mid-'80s.
And Mad Men has more on its mind than just reveling in the differences between now and then. It's also serving up a complicated mystery or two, and some first-rate plot twists and shockers, and so many intriguing characters and situations that the show quickly becomes addictive. Watching episodes on DVD, at your own pace, is a great way to burn through them.
On the ad front, Don Draper and his colleagues deal with everything from cigarette advertising — and those pesky new studies linking smoking to lung cancer — to the 1960 presidential campaign, with the ad men at Sterling Cooper approached by advisers to Richard Nixon.
On the home front, Don and most of the other executives have unhappy wives. And at work, the relationships between men and women are, to say the least, markedly different.
There are many things to savor about Mad Men — not least the tense dynamic that evolves between Don's new secretary, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and Don's office nemesis, Pete. (He's played by Vincent Kartheiser, and his abrasive outspokenness makes him seem almost like a white-collar Archie Bunker.)
The performances are wonderful; I especially love Christina Hendricks as Joan, the sexy office mother hen, and John Slattery (from Desperate Housewives) as Don's boss, Roger Sterling.
The production design is fabulous. If you're old enough, you'll smile with recognition at the clunky IBM Selectric typewriters, the pointy can openers, the incessant smoking.
If you're young enough that Mad Men doesn't qualify as nostalgia, you'll just smile, period.
Was America ever this chauvinist and shallow — and, for some people at least, this enjoyable? Yes. But Mad Men doesn't forget, or ignore, the hidden costs and the often-ugly underbelly.
And that makes the whole series even better. In a summer when TV is offering so little, the DVD release of Mad Men offers SO much — and goes down as smoothly as that third martini at lunch.
Ah, those were the days.
David Bianculli is TV critic for Broadcasting & Cable magazine and TVWorthWatching.com.