A gynecologist performs a vaginal examination with a cigarette dangling from his lips while warning his patient not to become a “strumpet” now that he has prescribed her birth control pills. An advertising agency head asks his right-hand man if any of the firm’s employees are Jewish because he needs to make a Jewish client “more comfortable.” (He later reports that he “found one” in the mail room and makes the guy pretend to be in the art department.) The right-hand man later storms out of a meeting with the female client, saying, “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me that way.” A little girl runs into a room with a dry cleaning bag over her head, but her mother’s biggest concern is the state of the clothes that were inside the plastic, not that the child might asphyxiate herself. Two young kids climb around a moving car, free of car seats or even seat belts. A young wife suffers from attacks of paralysis in her hands, but she is sent to a psychiatrist for being “nervous” when the doctors can’t find a physical cause. The psychiatrist then recounts the key events of the session to his patient’s husband. Secretaries are sexually harassed as a matter of course, with a new hire’s supervisor advising her to identify her best body asset and play it up (even sending her to the gynecologist for birth control). Men drink all day, and everyone smokes (all the time, enough to cause the brains of the folks at thetruth.com to explode from the anger).
Are you shocked? The folks bringing you AMC’s new original series “Mad Men” sure hope so, because the show is chock full of moments like these that are meant to show you how different things were in 1960 (or at least the version of 1960 portrayed in the show). Set in the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, “Mad Men” (the nickname New York advertising executives gave themselves) explores this moment in time as an alien planet ripe for dissection and analysis. You half expect to see Captain Kirk or Captain Picard beam in at any moment. (I guess the prime directive keeps them circling overhead, out of sight.)
“Mad Men” turns on the life of Don Draper (Jon Hamm, “Providence”), the enigmatic creative director of Sterling Cooper. Don drinks, smokes, keeps a pile of laundered shirts in his desk drawer, comes to work with a hangover, naps on his office couch, and picks the brain of everyone he meets to figure out why people act the way they do so he can use the results in his advertising campaigns. He is a kind of savant of ad writing, and “Mad Men” is like a dark “Seinfeld,” in that the show lets us watch how Don draws on his life experiences to come up with his slogans and ideas that are viewed as miracles by his boss and underlings. His boss won’t stop pursuing him to run the campaign for a young, good-looking candidate for president (alas, they are talking about Nixon, not Kennedy). Don’s reticence isn’t political, though. He proudly tells his colleagues that he doesn’t vote.
Don is the type of man that will throw a psychiatrist’s scientific report on why people smoke despite the risks (the danger factor) into the trash (in front of her, no less), and then will save the day in the pitch meeting when he is hit with a lightning bolt of an idea just when things look bleakest. In other words, Don is a super cool, 1960’s man’s man.
But, Don is a difficult hero to root for. He shills for the tobacco companies, cheats on his wife (Betty, played by January Jones, who we don’t see until the final moments of the premiere episode), smokes, drinks, and seemingly has no moral problem with passive-aggressively sending Betty to a psychiatrist and then getting a briefing from the doctor that night. Just when you think he’s the good guy for defending his doe-eyed new “girl” (the 1960’s term for his secretary), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss, “The West Wing”), from the wolfish advances of an about-to-be-married account executive, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser, “Angel”), later that day he coldly rejects her awkward advances and threatens to fire her for allowing Pete to pull the smoking research report from his wastebasket. Pete is gunning for Don’s job, which makes you wonder if Don’s disdain for Pete is because the guy is a bastard even by the standards of the time, or because he’s protecting his turf (probably both).
The show’s creator and writer, Matthew Weiner, knows a little something about getting an audience to empathize with an unlikable protagonist, having served as a writer and producer on “The Sopranos.” And he does a good job of creating a conflicted central character that you still find yourself rooting for, at least until he does the next objectionable thing.
Peggy, too, is a contradiction, seemingly an innocent girl from Brooklyn that needs to be schooled on the goings on in the office world by her world-savvy, sexed-up supervisor, Joan (Christina Hendricks, “Kevin Hill”). And yet, when Pete shows up at Peggy’s door, drunk after his bachelor party, professing his lust for her, she takes him inside and sleeps with him, despite the way he embarrassed her in the office. Not to mention that she continues to pine for the married jerk despite the interest of the presumably nicer, novel-writing Harry (Rich Sommer, “The Devil Wears Prada”), who has the misfortune of “only” being a copywriter.
Don is an unknown quantity to those around him, dodging his boss’s personal questions and even refusing to answer his wife’s simple queries about his upbringing. The big whopper of a clue to his reticence comes when, alone in his office, he fondles his army medal and later has nightmares with battle noises (we don’t see what he is dreaming) while taking a nap. The only time Don seems able to reveal even a bit of himself is when he is with his mistress, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt, “Standoff”), a Greenwich Village-dwelling greeting card designer who is sexually liberated and sees no reason to get married. She doesn’t like Don talking about his wife, not because she’s jealous, but because it makes her feel mean. Don may have been the man to utter the “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me that way” declaration when meeting with a Jewish department store heiress, but when the chips are down, Midge is the one he seeks out.
Midge’s character may be the hardest to swallow. Midge’s counterculture antics are over-the-top, presumably in an effort to separate her from the other women in Don’s life. When Don is jealous at the sudden appearance of a television set in Midge’s studio apartment, she responds by tossing it out the window to make him feel better. She is also prone to deep pronouncements that come with a disturbingly high eye-rolling quotient. When Don tells her that he doesn’t know if she has everything or nothing, Midge responds, “I live in the moment; nothing is everything.” I guess it’s supposed to make us think Midge is deep, but it caused me to feel like she was full of it.
Ultimately, “Mad Men” is original, smart and well-acted. While shows from time to time are set in an earlier era (“Happy Days” and “M*A*S*H” spring to mind), Weiner’s decision to plunge us into an earlier era (at least an exaggerated version of it), dissecting the culture, practices and philosophies of the time, is refreshing. The writing, while precious at times (like Midge’s philosophical musings), is more often sharp, observant and clever.
Despite the paucity of recognizable names and faces in the cast (everyone was unfamiliar to me except for Moss, Jones and John Slattery as Don’s boss), the actors deliver, diving with relish into the world Weiner has created. Hamm makes the smart decision to underplay Don, infusing him with a mystery and depth that keeps you on your toes. Moss does a nice job of mapping Peggy’s growth (or descent, depending how you look at it), creating a believable progression from the girl on her first day of work who was mortified at the attention paid to her by men to a woman trying to use it to her advantage. Jones is especially good as Betty, trying to hold it together while facing her problems completely on her own. In a scene where she looks at a sleeping Don and realizes how little she knows about him, her aching look tells us far more about the moment than the overwritten line given to her in the script (something like “Who is inside of there?”).
Not surprisingly given its pedigree (in addition to his work on “The Sopranos,” Weiner was a writer-producer on the criminally underrated “Andy Richter Controls the Universe”), “Mad Men” is entertaining, smart television, definitely on the high end of the scale of originality and quality. But it is its unique nature that is also its obstacle to ongoing success. One has to wonder if the show will hold the attention of its viewers once the novelty of its “I can’t believe he said/did that” moments wears off. Once viewers are past the shock value, will the characters and plot lines carry the day? It’s not an easy question to answer.
In addition to a tough protagonist to root for, there is a question as to whether audiences will be able to hang with the wafer-thin plot points that drive the episodes. While the episodes explore larger questions like “What do women want?”, the stories turn on Don’s ability to come up with ad campaigns when he needs to. Yeah, it’s cool to see the guys talk about how Right Guard has made the first deodorant in aerosol cans, and there is a bit of an “aha” moment when you see Don come up with the “any reason to get closer” tagline, but, ultimately, the show is about a guy who comes up with marketing plans. Tony Soprano may not have been likable, but criminals killing people is a more compelling activity than guys drawing and writing. It’s fair to ask if waiting to see if Don can come up with the right idea for a product is enough to keep people coming back.
I enjoyed the first two episodes of “Mad Men,” so I hope the show, much like Peggy (according to the guys in the office), has legs. Maybe if things get boring, Weiner can have a toddler Tony Soprano threaten to whack Don’s son or try to sleep with his daughter. More likely, Weiner will find a way to guide the audience through the shock factor to latch on to the characters and their travails. Let’s hope so. If he doesn’t, “Mad Men” may find itself facing a fate as gruesome as disappearing into the New Jersey Pine Barrens, never to be seen again.