AMC's 'Mad Men': A Bunch of Cutthroats Without an Edge

Welcome to the club, circa 1960: Set in an advertising agency, the series provides a rich visual evocation of the era but little dramatic pizazz.
Welcome to the club, circa 1960: Set in an advertising agency, the series provides a rich visual evocation of the era but little dramatic pizazz. (Amc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

Don't expect "Mad Men," a new drama series, to blow the lid off the advertising business. It doesn't even pry it off, really, instead taking an oddly artsy, muted approach -- not so much explosive as elusive.

Perhaps Matthew Weiner, the creator of the 13-week series (premiering tonight on American Movie Classics), imagined he was being sly and subtle. His credits include work as a producer on "The Sopranos" and he might be trying to emulate maestro David Chase's insistence on avoiding cliches or turning them on themselves.

Good guys and bad are largely indistinguishable; the bad have their good sides and the good their bad. That does not, however, result in complex characters in "Sopranos" style. Instead you find yourself in the company of people not one of whom is worth giving a hoot about. They scheme and connive and lie and cheat, but lethargically. The least an audience can ask for is rats who enjoy their rattiness, who go about it with gusto.

"Mad Men" is set on the Madison Avenue of the early '60s, when cigarette advertising was still allowed on television, and the cigarette is the show's avatar and talisman and symbol of social decay and incredibly ubiquitous amulet. The fictitious Sterling Cooper ad agency has Old Gold as an account, and right off the bat we see the agency's creative team looking for ways to circumvent morality and pitch what a dear old auntie of mine called "coffin nails" to the susceptible American people.

Our nominal hero, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), the agency's creative director, accepts a report from an in-house researcher on the hazards of smoking and without reading it, drops it into the wastebasket. Draper came home from World War II with a Purple Heart, but the one in his chest has turned to clay. He cheats on his angelic wife, humiliates colleagues and appears to be something of an anti-Semite besides.

When Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), the Jewish owner of a big department store, disagrees with Draper at a meeting, he barks that she's "out of line" and then shouts, "I'm not going to let a woman talk to me like this," before storming out of the room.

Draper's wife Betty, played by a compelling actress with the unfortunate name of January Jones, is heading for a breakdown. After being told there's nothing physically wrong with her, she decides to see a psychiatrist and at their very first session talks about "the bomb" and nuclear-age angst -- shamelessly obvious baloney. Meanwhile, hubby is in Greenwich Village visiting his mistress, who lives in what must be the dreariest apartment building west of East Berlin.

Jones, who looks like Grace Kelly in some shots, is perhaps the most (or only) sympathetic character in the piece, at least so far. The character seems awfully naive, however, when it comes to accepting her husband's lies and tolerating his crude macho arrogance. There are times when the show seems so true to its time that it almost could have been made in it -- a combination of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" and "The Carpetbaggers" maybe, but without any of those films' lurid melodramatic energy.

Weiner and company lay it on thick and stack the deck (one cliche will not suffice here), especially when it comes to the moral culpability of Sterling Cooper. Not only is the firm helping to sell demon cigarettes, but it also helps peddle the environmentally incorrect aerosol can. The executives celebrate getting the Right Guard deodorant account by staging a bizarre homoerotic rite: One guy is stripped of his shirt and held down on a desktop while the others spritz his armpits. Weird.

But even cigarettes and aerosol cans are not enough distasteful stuff, and so we learn that another of the agency's accounts is likely to be that big bad wolf of American politics, "Dick Nixon." Good grief; maybe Sterling Cooper could grab the Halliburton and Enron accounts while they're at it.

The odd thing about all this is that the content might sound, well, contentious, or at least controversial, but the stories unfold in a dry, drab way and the pacing is desultory. Series directors are fond of long pauses that serve no purpose other than to give the impression that an actor forgot his next line. It's a shark-eat-shark world populated primarily by sea turtles.

Details of the period, however, are nicely captured. Men wear white shirts and cuff links to work; women don't mind being called "girls" and accept pats on the fanny as friendly flattery. The soundtrack includes such tunes of the time as "Band of Gold" and "Shangri-La" (immortal as the theme played to herald Reginald Van Gleason III on "The Jackie Gleason Show"). Kids sit before a TV set watching "People Are Funny," an early example of humiliation (i.e., "reality") television.

The costumes and sets are just ducky and highly evocative, but the people in and around them spoil the show, gum up the works and shatter veracity.

Mad Men (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on AMC.

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