With every basic-cable network scrambling to find the next critically and commercially successful drama along the lines of The Closer and Rescue Me, it’s a little surprising that the actual strongest candidate comes from the network formerly known as American Movie Classics. Mad Men (AMC, Thursdays, 10 p.m.) is sophisticated, dark and daring, and it’s got the strongest summer-drama debut since FX’s Rescue Me in 2004.
Created by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, Mad Men often looks and feels like something that would be on HBO or Showtime, with its top-notch production values and deep well of strong acting. While basic-cable networks often skimp on original series budgets in comparison to their broadcast counterparts, Mad Men looks like it’s had no corners cut, and that attention to detail is its greatest strength.
That’s because the details are central to the show’s premise, following the lives of slick advertising executives in 1960. The sets and costumes are impeccable, perfectly complementing Weiner’s warts-and-all portrait of office life in an era on the cusp of a cultural revolution. The actual 1960s brought us Bewitched’s Darrin Stephens bumbling through his ad-agency job, well-meaning but clueless and almost always home for dinner (and a stiff drink or three) with witchy wife Samantha.
But Mad Men is about as far from a nostalgia trip as it gets—the male characters are cocky, boorish, sexist pigs, and boozing and smoking and womanizing are as instinctual to them as breathing. It may be that the show is overplaying the casual misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism of the era, or it may just be that we’re so used to seeing rosy-colored views of the past that it’s shocking to see it portrayed in such a cynical manner.
Either way, it’s bracing, and although the characters are almost universally unlikable at first, by the end of the pilot they each show enough emotion to reveal the humanity behind their overconfident facades. The most nuances go to lead character Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who maintains a certain distance from the boys-club atmosphere of high-profile New York City ad agency Sterling Cooper and seems like the only person with any awareness of how toxic the environment at the office really is.
Don has an intriguing complexity, but he’s not as entertaining as Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), the vulgar young associate gunning for Don’s job. Kartheiser is best known for his role as the title character’s whiny son on Angel, but here he really comes into his own with a convincing performance as an oily, smarmy guy who’s got a hint of desperation under his relentless creepiness—which in turn only makes him creepier.
The tone of the show is so straightforward that it’s sometimes hard to tell if Weiner is aiming for parody, especially given the constant barrage of regressive, insensitive comments from nearly all of the characters (including the women). The parody angle would be the easiest way to go, and a convenient distancing tactic, but Weiner seems to be trying to do something more difficult—to get us to care about these people despite how distasteful they are. It’s something that worked on The Sopranos, and so far it’s working here as well. LVW