The '60s Sultans Of Spin

By Kathy Blumenstock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

Neckties were skinny, the expense accounts fat, and lunchtime liaisons were as plentiful as secretaries' IBM Selectrics.

In the 1960s world of AMC's "Mad Men," the retro drama populated by busy advertising executives, "those men were the real power players of the era," said Elisabeth Moss, who plays a naive but ambitious secretary-turned-copywriter. "They were at the forefront of everything. There were changes happening [in the world], and they definitely felt that power."

Those ad men and their storyboards return for a second season next week. For those who missed the initial run, AMC is airing a marathon of all of the first season's 13 episodes on Sunday from noon to 1 a.m.

With the feel of a theatrical film, the show is complemented by period details, including references to 1960s pop culture and politics. It drew almost instant critical acclaim with its intriguing, interwoven storylines. "Mad Men," AMC's first original series, also garnered a pair of Golden Globes and a Peabody Award.

Its ensemble cast includes Moss, Jon Hamm, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery and iconic Broadway veteran Robert Morse. The program depicts the professional and personal lives of executives and secretaries at the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency. Triumphs and schemes, secrets and lies play out against the backdrop of the golden age of Madison Avenue -- the Manhattan location and nickname for the realm of advertising.

"I picked advertising because that's where the cool jobs were at that time," said Matthew Weiner, the show's creator. "It was the period of highly paid people in creative jobs behaving badly."

Weiner, 43, a Baltimore native, came up with the concept for his series eight years ago while working as a writer for the CBS sitcom "Becker." He said the "Mad Men" pilot script got him a writing slot on "The Sopranos."

At the time he created "Mad Men," Weiner found he was "really unhappy, dissatisfied, and wondered what was wrong with me. . . . I had a wife and three kids, and I had a complete lack of gratitude for what I had," he said.

Spurred by his own restlessness and confusion, Weiner dreamed up the series, centering on the character of Don Draper (Hamm), a suave, philandering ad executive with his own dark side.

"I tell people Don Draper is a demon who lives inside me," said Weiner, whose portrait of people at work during a pre-technology age is "imbued with the rules of the world."

"A lot is about human experience, about people being embarrassed and saying the wrong things," he said.

Weiner said he believes viewers enjoy the sensation of "injustice and irony and the small interactions."

"The show proceeds with a lack of speed, so you get a lot of moments of people knowing they're lying to themselves," he said.

Even Moss's character, Peggy Olson, whose honesty and creative flair led to a job promotion, has something "she can't be honest about," Moss said, referring to a plot development at the end of last season.

For her role, Moss often wears demure checked or plaid dresses. She said the series' vintage wardrobe choices add to its realism: vested and three-button suits for the men, sheath dresses or full, flared skirts for the women, whose heavy "foundation" garments ensure the right silhouette.

The clothes are "what you see if you look in magazines. It's all going back to that -- a very structured, '60s look of being all covered up and put together," Moss said. "But it's much more comfortable today. I'm so glad we don't have to wear girdles now."

She was struck by another realistic touch on the set: Characters routinely puff away on cigarettes. "The smoke just sort of hangs over everything; it's disgusting," Moss said. "But that's how it was then. And it's not really so long ago."

When filming, Weiner said, "we always have to remember that somebody doesn't have to go outside for a cigarette; you just smoked in the office then. Even Peggy tried to smoke on a blind date, to look sophisticated, but it was a disaster."

And Weiner insists on accuracy. "Even with the extras," he said. "If you never smoked in real life, I won't let you hold a cigarette on this show because you'll look ridiculous."


Season premiere July 27

10 p.m.


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