‘Mad Men’ proves past can be present

AMC's sharp advertising show is catching on

Sometimes you have to take a step back to gain perspective, which is one reason why “Mad Men” has quietly emerged as the standout series of this busy, busy summer.

A rare period piece, AMC’s serial set inside an ad agency during 1960 tells us more about where we are today than any recent programs except “The Wire” and “Battlestar Galactica” — the latter of which also creates parables from a distant world (in its case space, not time).

Several lessons can be gleaned from “Mad Men” and another series several rungs below it on the evolutionary ladder, ABC’s “Cavemen,” which also sought to convey social satire but — at least in the much-derided pilot, prior to a yet-to-be-seen makeover — turned out to be a flaming mess. Unfortunately, AMC’s so-so ratings for its “Men” are already reviving the old canard that period pieces don’t work, which would absolutely be the wrong knee-jerk reaction.

In its little quirks, “Mad Men” provides veiled commentary on the rose-tinted image of the Eisenhower years advanced by cultural crusaders. Sure, it was an era of nuclear families with heterosexual moms and dads, but also casual racism and anti-Semitism, unabashed smoking and drinking, closeted gays, infidelity and dismissive attitudes toward women in the workplace. Viewers needn’t be hammered over the head to recognize that the changes visited upon us along with color TV, “Grand Theft Auto” and the “Saw” movies aren’t all necessarily for the worst.

Compare “Mad Men’s” understated observations with the three prevailing trends in primetime drama: The ever-popular cop procedural (“CSI,” “Law & Order”), resurgent sci-fi/fantasy (“Heroes,” “Lost” and their new crop of imitators) and soaps (“Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy”), with ABC staging its own parade of romantic angst and urban self-absorption.

Aping these hits, a fall lineup beckons, filled with detectives male and female, as well as living and undead; extraordinary heroes; and (again, mostly on ABC) splashy dramas showcasing lifestyles of the rich, if not famous.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the liberating creative possibilities in escaping this mold, as pay TV has done with “Rome,” “The Tudors” and “Deadwood.” That last show’s poetic dialogue, tellingly, sounded stilted and strange transplanted into a modern surf community in “John From Cincinnati,” even with showrunner David Milch helming both shows, and half of “Deadwood’s” cast trading in their chaps and spurs for board shorts and sandals.

In general, this has been a signature summer for cable, capitalizing on the void left as broadcasters dithered — hoping an inexpensive mix of quizshows, karaoke and melting pounds off fat people would slow their traditional post-Memorial Day erosion.

Yet amid solid ratings for meritorious series such as “Saving Grace,” “Damages” and “Burn Notice,” only “Mad Men” has truly taken a creative leap beyond the norm, delivering frothy elements while skewering the conservative myth of American life as having been utterly pristine and carefree before the turbulent ’60s unleashed all manner of decadence.

Given that, it would be a colossal shame if the industry’s chronic myopia took hold — the kind that leads to inane pronouncements about this genre or that not working. Epic period pieces where the lead dies don’t normally work either, unless they happen to be called “Titanic.”

“Mad Men’s” polish — and creator Matthew Weiner’s ability to zero in on present-day conventions from 50 years removed — is magnified by the Geico commercial-inspired “Cavemen,” a wild swing to coax viewers into sampling a sitcom. In its prototype, the show attempted to poke fun at racism through a current prism, subjecting its Cro-Magnon characters to the sort of slights that African-Americans have endured through the years. Although the producers have insisted that analogy wasn’t their intent, the central trio even playfully refers to themselves as “Maggers,” seemingly pounding home the parallels.

Just as Hollywood is often too quick to copy successes, the industry can be equally hasty in explaining away disappointments. And while critics have hailed “Mad Men” as one of the summer’s bright lights, in a broader sense the show serves as a beacon — a reminder that it’s possible for drama to gaze inward without being all literal and whiny about it.

Quality programming is always a tough sell. Still, if AMC’s “Men” proves less viable than ABC’s, then the knuckle-draggers will surely have won.

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