VIDEO: A preview of Mad Men
The seductive new drama series Mad Men (AMC, Thursday at 10 pm and anytime On Demand) re-creates the beginning of the advertising industry’s shiny modern era of bullshit, examining the lives of Madison Avenue ad execs, circa 1960, as they sell security, love, and virility to the masses in the form of Lucky Strikes and Right Guard. As the show’s cucumber-cool ad wiz Don Draper (Jon Hamm) lyrically explains, “Advertising is based on one thing — happiness. . . . Happiness is . . . a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.”
Deep down inside, however, things are not so okay with Don Draper. He has professional success, a wife and two kids, a home in the suburbs. He exhibits the firm but gentlemanly authority of a born leader of men. Yet, Draper is tortured by a new-fangled existential malaise. “Your kind, with your gloomy thoughts and your worries. You’re all busy licking some imaginary wound,” says his silver-haired boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), dismissing Draper’s introspection as a defect of a younger generation. Draper may be a first-rate ad man, but he can’t quite sell himself on the idea that this is all there is, that this is happiness.
Mad Men is the best-written and most confidently realized new series of the summer. Creator/writer/executive producer Matthew Weiner was part of the creative team of The Sopranos, and it shows. Like The Sopranos, Mad Men is a fascinating character study of a flawed but sympathetic hero; we can relate to his inner conflicts, even though the particulars of his world are as entertainingly removed from ours as science fiction is. Indeed, the show’s 1960 might as well be an alien planet. Sometimes horrifying, sometimes amusing, Mad Men portrays a faded Technicolor America the way it was, before we became a (supposedly) more enlightened society. Everybody smokes cigarettes — men, women, pregnant women, doctors. Kids play with plastic laundry bags on their heads and tumble around in the back seats of cars without seatbelts. Women are sexually harassed in the workplace. Racism and anti-Semitism abound. It’s a white man’s world.
And manliness is the subtext of Mad Men: what does it mean to be a man in a culture on the cusp of transformation, torn between the dull responsibilities of your father’s world and the restless stirrings of the new one? On the surface, Draper is a walking advertisement for masculinity, as it was defined in the days before metrosexuality and Peter Pan syndrome — with his brilliantined hair, crisp suits, and squared breast-pocket handkerchiefs, he looks confident, grown-up, duty-bound. There is, however, a disconnect between the product and the pitch. At Sterling Cooper, Draper is having trouble acclimating to popular tastes; he’s perplexed and annoyed by rival agency Doyle Dane Bernbach’s self-depreciating Volkswagen Beetle ads (the “Lemon” campaign, credited today with launching a creative revolution in advertising). But sneaky boy wonder Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who is gunning for Draper’s job, understands the new ads’ appeal. His youth gives him the edge over Draper in these changing times.