“WHAT YOU call love was just invented by guys like me to sell nylons,” says the smartly cynical advertising genius Don Draper in tonight’s opening episode of “Mad Men” on AMC. Here’s my prediction; this will be the hit of the year. It’s “Sex and the City” with a historical imperative harking all the way back to 1960. This brand new adult and unusual series tellingly bears the subtitle “where the truth lies.” It’s a double entendre because this show is all about New York’s advertising world pretty much as it existed as the ’50s merged into the ’60s. Matthew Weiner wrote this show. Nowadays, the ’60s seem as different from our present day as the Renaissance seemed after the Dark Ages. Starring Jon Hamm, the storyline is punctuated by meaningful dialogue true to that moment. Tonight’s premiere shows our “hero” struggling to come up with an ad slogan at a moment when Reader’s Digest was warning Americans that smoking caused cancer. Flying by the seat of his pants, Draper lets the very tobacco tycoon he is trying to win lead him into a hit advertising slogan. Draper solves his problem with a cliff-hanging moment accompanied by a hangover resulting from a desperate night with his mistress. And the dialogue is precise. One hit-upon secretary and “new girl” in the steno pen is told: “If you really make the right moves, you’ll be out in the country and you won’t go to work at all.” Meaning, she could possibly marry one of these guys. “They (the men at the ad biz top) are looking for something between a mother and a waitress,” says the knowing head secretary. A depiction of Manhattan as it existed for women — and for men — in that moment before women’s liberation seems exact to me. One ad man describes the second-class citizen females toiling at their big typewriters as “one big brassiere strap just waiting to be snapped.” In another instance, a woman shopping for ads to boost her department store is attacked by our hero, a misogynist who sputters, “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like this.” The water cooler chat ranges from “Have we ever hired any Jews?” to the answer, “Not on my watch.” A client says, “Manipulation of the media? That’s what we pay you for.” And the clients range from a young naval veteran named Richard Nixon seeking to be president, to a Bethlehem Steel exec being shown ads describing his company as “The Backbone of America.” At one point our hero points out that his work is based on one thing — “Happiness.” He describes “the smell of a new car…reassurance … the belief that you’re O.K.” There are references to long gone icons, such as the Automat. We also get the deserted wives in suburbia where everybody, but everybody in this story smokes, incessantly. And they cough as they light up. It is all impossibly smart, sophisticated and politically incorrect. I’ve seen three of these “Mad Men” shows and find them first-rate and compelling. I loved the close-up of Alka-Seltzer tablets plopping into a glass of water after lots of Old-Fashioneds and cigarettes the night before. “Mad Men” smells like a hit if you like revealing “ancient but recent history” at the precise NYC moment before John F. Kennedy became president.
(Email Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com)