- 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.

Smart, kicky and cosmopolitan, “Mad Men” is redolent of John Cheever short stories and of “The Apartment,” the multi-Oscar winning film about corporate climbers that happens to have been released in 1960.

“By talking about that era,” says Mr. Weiner, “I can talk about everything right now that I care about. Social mores. Civil rights. Sex. Gender roles. The definition of adulthood.”

Mr. Weiner wrote the pilot script seven years ago, when he was 35 and had three children (he has four now) and already had been married for a decade. “I was thinking about what it means to be a man,” he recalls, “and I realized: This is more complicated than I thought it was gonna be.”

His credits included the TV comedies “Becker” and “Andy Richter Controls the Universe.” But his “Mad Men” script came to the attention of “Sopranos” mastermind David Chase, who hired Mr. Weiner as a writer for his lofty drama at the start of its fifth season.

Then AMC bought “Mad Men.” A day after Mr. Weiner completed work on the first half of the sixth season of “The Sopranos” in March 2006, he began casting the pilot. Shooting wrapped a few weeks later, and he returned to “The Sopranos” for its final stretch. He finished up in January. The next day, production began on “Mad Men’s” 13-episode season.

Among the countless challenges the series has imposed is its exacting period look, from the men’s natty suits to the plush midtown saloons. Behold the IBM Selectric typewriters — a high-tech marvel in 1960 but nearly impossible to find in 2007. This is just one detail of the Sterling Cooper set, whose design is plenty modern for its day but also comes across as appropriately lived-in.

“We try to keep things dirty and cluttered enough,” says Mr. Weiner, “and to keep the ashtrays filled.”

This just in…

Big casting news from ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters”: Danny Glover (“Dreamgirls,” “Saw”) has been tapped to play Sally Field’s new love interest in eight to 10 episodes this season, TVGuide.com reports. His character is Senator McCallister’s (Rob Lowe) presidential-campaign manager and is described as extremely smart and charming but also as a political shark.

The “B&S;” stint marks a reunion of sorts for Mr. Glover and Miss Field. The duo shared the screen in 1984’s “Places in the Heart,” for which Miss Field won her second Oscar.

Compiled by Robyn-Denise Yourse from Web and wire reports