Below is Newsday’s original review of “Mad Men,” which ran July 19, 2007. The series premiered that night on AMC.
“Mad Men” does indeed evoke an era — the swank and sophisticated early 1960s, when sleek-suited young Manhattan ad agency executives socked down martinis and pulled down big bucks, creatively glamorizing the mundane, seducing a giddily consumerist America into buying anything burnished with a patina of success, freedom and sex.
Perhaps AMC, in this splashy new original series it hopes will juice its indistinct slate of not-so-classic movies, has taken the whole message of that cultural moment a bit too much to heart — or heartlessness, as the case may be. Long before its debut, “Mad Men” had already generated that much-prized 2000s commodity of media buzz with its lusciously cinematic re-creation of those men-were-men and women-serviced-them Rat Pack days. But the drama’s pilot hour, at least, behaves like some glossy advertisement, seducing us into buying something we may not want or need.
It’s all booze and cigarettes, postwar go-getterism and casual prejudice, presented in a fading Technicolor hue to lend a sort of hindsight significance the show might not otherwise earn. The feel is definitely adult, all studied casual jockeying in the bedroom and the boardroom, to not just get ahead but get one over on the other guy or girl — career and romantic advancement as competitive sport.
Maleness oozes all over, in that retro Playboy/bachelor way beloved by succeeding generations of men who resent missing out on all that comfy entitlement. “Mad Men” seems to decry the offhand submission demanded of women, as lovers and office servants alike, while rather luxuriating in the whole dominance of it all. As supposed balance to this rather weighted portrait, we’re given an “independent” career woman, whom the show’s lead agency exec can drop in on at all hours for sexual favors, while she purportedly holds her own with such cocktail-napkin bon mots as “I don’t make plans, and I don’t make breakfast.”
It’s way too obvious, as is much too much in “Mad Men,” though the show clearly fancies itself one sly fox. “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like that,” huffs our handily named hero, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), as he stomps out of a meeting where the client turns out to be a savvy (and sexy) department store owner’s daughter (Maggie Siff). Later, of course, these two combatants are bound to make so nice in a fence-mending dinner that they sense in each other conspiratorial soulmates.
Since this client is another “strong” woman, she’s one more mirror in which our hard-driving hero can gaze to learn more about, yes, himself. She muses to him about going through life feeling a sense of disconnect, as if seeing “the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it.” Do these lone wolves fit into their socially demanded cultural roles? Do they feel uneasy about those demands? Do we care?
In the end, not really. “Mad Men” comes from the pen of former “Sopranos” scripter Matthew Weiner, but it just doesn’t sing as operatically as it intends. The show itself is presented in a weird sort of emotional disconnect, passing before our eyes easily and appealingly, but not making any real human impression. The characters are narratively pragmatic types, also including the ambitious young stud (Vincent Kartheiser) out to take down the veteran agency hotshot; the seemingly innocent new secretary (Elisabeth Moss) he sets his prurient sights on; the cynical yet buddy-like agency founder’s corporate heir (John Slattery); and the seen-it-all office manager (Christina Hendricks) who knows whom to butter up and how, preferably in spike heels and red lipstick.
Notice how easy it is to summarize all these characters from the pilot, not something that would have been true of, say, “The Sopranos.” In its first hour, “Mad Men” simply lacks that kind of personality texture. Where that should have been invested in the people, it’s been lavished on the smoky clubs and vintage costumes, which ultimately end up feeling as empty as even a successful ad campaign.
There’s a twist at the end of the premiere hour that seems designed to feel shocking, yet falls flat. While it’s positioned to imply future exploration of deception and identity, this “revelation” only comes off as contrived as some TV commercial. Good luck finding the nugget of truth once again buried in pretty pictures and vague promises.
MAD MEN. Awash in alcohol, tobacco smoke and willing women, 1960 ad executives live the high life, which is actually low down. To steal from the old beer slogan, (this show) looks great, (but it’s) less filling (than it intends). Drama series premieres tonight at 10 on AMC.