Last month, AMC threw a New York press lunch for Mad Men (Thursdays at 10 p.m.), its first substantial original series, a period piece set at a Gotham ad firm in the early 1960s. The venue, inevitably, was the media feeding trough Michael's, and in between the pre-prandial Manhattans and the undrinkable coffee, the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, shilled his show via panel discussion and also received questions. Predictably, many of the questions had been designed less to elicit a response than to deliver obsequy, but one still yielded a compelling statement. Asked about the commercial prospects of a show "subversive" enough to present advertising professionals as a pack of phonies, Weiner gave his take on the appeal of the ad man: "When you can be that cynical about the machine and still be a part of it, that, to me, is the definition of the American character."
Spoken like a man who's done time in the entertainment business, and, indeed, Weiner made his name as a writer and executive producer of TheSopranos, but let's not waste too much time by playing compare-and-contrast with that dense Mafia epic and this spiky piece of ring-a-ding lyricism. Gangsters are heroic. If you believe Arthur Miller, salesmen are tragic. With their particular breed of cynicism—not the dashingly bitter Bogart kind, but a pay-the-bills willed blindness—the WASP Barnums and pretty good deceivers of Mad Men can't quite reach either state. The show's been shot and art-directed such that we often catch them in corners. Mostly, they look as sadly absurd as you and I.
But with better suits. The series picks up in March of 1960, and it's scored to the clack of Selectrics and the click of Zippos in a way that heightens the pivotal feeling of the birth-of-the-postmodern moment: An unmarried woman can go to the gyno and get the Pill, but he'll have a speculum in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and he'll very nearly call her a slut. Superman will soon make it to the supermarket, to abuse Norman Mailer's 1960 take on JFK, and the characters here are interested in the race. "Consider the product," a boss pitches an underling skeptical about selling presidents like soap. "He's young, handsome. Navy hero. Honestly, it shouldn't be too difficult to convince America that Dick Nixon is a winner."
For a hero, or maybe instead of one, we have Don Draper, a big deal at the firm of Sterling Cooper, a name sure to conjure gilded cages. He's hazed over much of his family history, but he's got a Purple Heart around to remind him that, like Tom Rath in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, this was all he was fighting for. One blond wife, one brunette mistress. Perhaps another other woman on the way in the form of a hard-charging department-store heiress whom Don's co-workers would certainly call a Jewess. His job requires him to be a philosopher of desire and he fills the role darkly, not quite joking that ad men invented the idea of love in order to sell nylons. Elsewhere, Don shoots down the notion of illustrating an ad for aerosol Right Guard—"modern deodorant for a modern man"—with a drawing of an astronaut. It's too negative: "I don't think it's ridiculous to assume that we're looking for other planets because this one will end."
This week, Don saves the company's Lucky Strike account: With the government newly skeptical about the health benefits of tobacco, cigarette merchants need a new spin. Don, having no ideas in the client meeting, flails around the conference table for a while, and the tobacco boys are drawling out the door when Don has his eureka moment. (Low but too thickly, the music comes on mystically, as if this were an Oliver Stone film and a shaman is being cued.) He asks the clients how cigarettes are made. They mention toasting tobacco. So we have a slogan—"It's toasted"—and Don is patient enough in telling the hicks it doesn't matter that this is likewise true of Marlboros and Pall Malls and the rest. A slogan is a fact.
The show could do without the subplot concerning Don's wife and her sense that her leafy block in Ossining is fate worse than Sing Sing itself. This story's been getting told since the first sod was laid in Levittown. More compelling is the tension between Peggy—the new girl in the steno pool, a Brooklyn mouse cringing under the gaze of these unneutered cats—and Joan, her superior and mentor in the secretarial arts. Joan can swing a caboose and wear a sweater and, every bit as verbally clever as the men she turns on and fends off, dispenses advice like aspirin: "Don't take this wrong way, but a girl like you with those darling little ankles oughtta find a way to make 'em sing. Also, men like scarves."
That we do. Some us also go in for TV shows that have the potential to ripen into astringent Billy Wilder-style examinations of what lust can do to the white-collar soul. And everyone appreciates the care that people like Don and Joan take in making gorgeous promises. Here's Weiner again, pitching the show at his snazzy lunch: "America is in love with selling."