AMC debuted Mad Men last week, a retro show about ad execs back in the early ‘60s, a time when it seemed advertising took a major turn from direct to subversive. These were the men responsible for the ad campaigns that ended up killing millions of Americans. Mad Men isn’t just about the cigarette guys. They are putting the spotlight on a time in our past when happiness was the thing they started selling. They were no longer pushing products by saying they were good for you. They were selling a concept, an idea that everything will be okay and stable as long as you bought whatever it was they were selling. It was the beginning of what would shape American culture from then on.
It is a clever, brilliantly written and acted show. By stepping back in time to follow the tricks of the trade we can look more closely at what we’re sold even today, what our children are sold, what we choose to buy and why.
Mad Men follows the character arc of a few key players. Front and center is the big boss, Don Draper (a perfectly cast Jon Hamm). He is flanked by various up-and-comers, executives and a sleaze bag or two. A great villain-in-the-making is after Draper’s job. Vincent Kartheiser plays Pete Campbell, a sexist opportunist who is one of the most enigmatic characters to hit the small screen since Tony Soprano. Campbell will be a star. You heard it here first.
But behind every great ad exec is a great “secretary.” Being great means wearing a shorter skirt, sleeping with the boss and ultimately landing a rich husband. Such was the career trajectory of girls who graduated from secretarial school. Draper has a new secretary at the beginning of the show (Elisabeth Moss). She is homely but determined to be like one of the other girls. It isn’t long before she’s getting birth control and bringing boys home.
One of the bizarre things about Mad Men is how everyone is doing something they shouldn’t. They are smoking constantly. Doctors smoke, secretaries smoke, bosses smoke. Drinking in the morning or afternoon, we’re talking hard liquor, is commonplace. It can be quite a freeing experience just watching people do what they no longer do in public. It illustrates quite profoundly how far we’ve moved away from that both on TV and in our lives.
What keeps it from being just a shallow satire, which it easily could become, is the plight of the main character. He is wrestling with his own conscience, a dangerous thing to do if you’re head of Madison Avenue’s most innovative ad company.
It’s no wonder Mad Men is so good, as it’s executive produced by Matthew Weiner, former writer and producer of HBO’s The Sopranos. Whatever they’re doing here they’re doing it all right. Everybody looks like they belong in that world. Slyly written and acted with subtlety, Mad Men is unexpected, engaging and, like cigarettes themselves, addicting.
Mad Men airs Thursday nights on AMC at 10 p.m. Do not miss it.