- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2007

‘Mad’ adds up for AMC

At first glance, the world of “Mad Men” seems as distant from the here and now as Neptune.

Set in 1960, the ambitious new drama on cable’s AMC centers on the Sterling Cooper advertising agency perched high above New York’s Madison Avenue.

In this world, women of all ages are girls, and know it. Liquor punctuates the workdays of the men in charge. Everybody smokes — anytime, anywhere — despite the recent Reader’s Digest article that warns how cigarettes can kill you.

Meanwhile, the Pill has just burst on the scene. Desperate housewives are trying psychotherapy. A record by a hot young comic named Bob Newhart is slaying listeners with his “button-down mind” (whatever that is).

Plenty of questions (if not so many answers) are blowin’ in the wind, and “Mad Men” identifies them vividly.

But the charm of this series (premiering tonight at 10) is that it doesn’t treat 1960 as a quaint aberration. Instead, “Mad Men” provides an unexpected window on America in 2007. It’s a contemporary series, purposefully unfolding at a half-century remove.

“Things don’t change, people don’t change,” Matthew Weiner, who created “Mad Men” (and was a writer for “The Sopranos”), tells Associated Press. “The rules change.”

A good barometer of those rules is advertising.

“It’s a reflection of the culture,” says Mr. Weiner, explaining that ad executives have always aimed “to find out how you feel, then tell you how their product is going to make you feel better.”

But in 1960 the advertising business, like so much else, was at a turning point.

How will Sterling Cooper adapt? That’s largely in the hands of its creative director, Don Draper. Played by Jon Hamm (“We Were Soldiers”), Draper is a star at the agency. He’s smooth, witty and tormented. And more candid than most.

As he tells an attractive woman over cocktails, “You’re born alone and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget.”

Right now, though, it’s Lucky Strike cigarettes he’s under fire to sell. And in a tough new regulatory climate, he must hatch a campaign that avoids any claim that Lucky Strikes are somehow beneficial to a smoker’s health.

That’s not the only thing weighing on him at work. Though barely over 30, Draper feels pressure from Pete Campbell, an even younger up-and-comer eyeing Draper’s job. Played by Vincent Kartheiser (“Angel”), Pete is also eyeing Draper’s winsome new secretary (“The West Wing’s” Elisabeth Moss) — although he’s about to be married.

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