Inspired by cynical Eisenhower-era comedies of manners (Sweet Smell of Success, The Apartment) and the stories of John Cheever, frequent Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men is a scathing chronicle of the ad industry’s boozy midcentury heyday, and one of the freshest series to hit basic cable in years. Set in 1960 at Sterling Cooper, a Madison Avenue agency populated by “more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich,” as creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) puts it, the series rivals Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm in skillfully reconstructing the past on its own terms.
Draper’s coworkers—including a baby-faced upper-crust schemer (Vincent Kartheiser) and a naive, husband-hungry secretary (The West Wing’s Elisabeth Moss)—initially seem like simple devices to let the series explore class, gender and sexuality, but they soon take on a depth that speaks more to the constancy of human nature. In the early episodes, Draper himself is largely a cipher, defined mostly by Hamm’s machete-sharp cheekbones, though hints of wartime trauma and a complicated childhood gradually suggest he’s a white-collar Tony Soprano whose emotions are held prisoner by the era’s preference for cocktails over therapy.
Weiner can’t resist a few pokes at now-primitive technology, and some historical facts are bent for dramatic effect (Draper coins a slogan for Lucky Strikes that actually dates to 1917), yet the series generally protects itself from the ironic laughter that greeted Todd Haynes’s equally sincere Far from Heaven by appealing to viewers’ heads as much as their hearts. Draper’s print campaigns may seem quaint, but they push the same buttons as the ads that consume more of our public space every week. Behind the billowing smoke, narrow lapels and beehive ’dos of Mad Men lies the most relevant new drama of 2007.