At a time when most programs seek to dazzle viewers with big, bold concepts, the pleasures of “Mad Men” refreshingly arise almost wholly from small, impeccably detailed touches. Set in 1960, this breezy serial about Madison Avenue ad men (hence the title) circa 1960 revels in dated images of white-collar workers boozing in the boss’ office, harassing female employees, smoking incessantly and openly pondering if there’s a Jew anywhere in the building. Created by “The Sopranos” alum Matthew Weiner, it’s a rare period drama that niftily injects shades of gray into the black-and-white TV era, warts and all.
With his slicked back hair and neatly pressed suits, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the creative mastermind at Sterling Cooper, a big time Manhattan ad agency grappling with a variety of challenges among them how to market cigarettes in light of newfangled health concerns about the product. His surroundings include a suave boss (guest star John Slattery); wide-eyed new secretary Peggy (“The West Wing” Elisabeth Moss); and an ambitious protégé (Vincent Kartheiser) eager to slice into Don’s power base.
In the premiere, Don not only wrestles with the Lucky strikes account but with a Jewish department store that has the temerity to desire crossing over and is run by —–gasp—–a woman (Maggie Siff). Peggy meanwhile, is viewed by various associates as fresh meat, and receives tips on how to survive as a single gal ——mostly by cozying up to the boys——from a predatory, curvy co-worker, Joan (Christina Hendricks).
For those who have transformed the 50s into a nostalgic Wonderland, “Mad Men” captures just how much things have changed since the morality that governed those days. Beyond blatant anti-Semitism, sexual harassment and the assumption that a woman’s place is in the home or sprawled out upon the couch, one staffer clearly appears to be gay and overcompensates by talking about nailing broads more than any of his peers.
As a serialized drama, the program’s situations aren’t especially stirring, even with its soli, perfectly outfitted cast. The sheer atmosphere, however, proves intoxicating—-from a doctor puffing away during a gynecological exam to snippets of Bob Newhart’s comedy to the backdrop of the pending Nixon-Kennedy race for the White House (Sterling Cooper is weighing whether to represent Nixon) adding a pre-Camelot significance to the proceedings.
Despite its understated approach, however, “Mad Men” actually strikes a profound chord, inasmuch as part of today’s so-called culture war involves sifting through the tumult of the 1960s, heralded by progressives for the freedoms won but now being decried by conservatives for the standards that were eroded. In that context, the show illustrates that period’s own form of excess without wagging fingers, while reminding us that before sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, there was sexual harassment, free-flowing cocktails and bluesy ballads, invariably sung by white guys.
It’s the kind of subliminal message, actually, that those slicked-back Madison Ave. mavens could surely appreciate.