Dawning Of A New Era: Mad Men begins

“I never get used to the fact that, most of the time, it looks like you’re doing nothing.”

So says Roger Sterling (John Slattery), dominant partner in New York City’s Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, as he breezes into the high office of the company’s creative director, Don Draper (John Hamm), to find Draper sitting alone, smoking his eternal cigarette and staring silently into space while Madison Avenue gleams and hustles below in the hard, optimistic 1960s sunshine.

It took me two episodes of Mad Men to realise that it was the way that Draper spends a lot of his time looking as though he’s doing nothing that makes me want to keep watching him. The Sopranos aside, few TV dramas have given so much time over to someone just thinking.

Draper’s woolgathering, however, is of a different nature to Tony Soprano’s weird, spacey dwams. Draper looks as cool and confident as a Rat Pack photo shoot, but compared to the ad executives around him, treating the agency as a boy’s-club extension of college fraternity houses, he exudes a mysteriously dark vibration. Whatever he’s chewing on is eating him back, gnawing furiously at his insides. But what is he thinking about?

As the series unfolds, we learn no one knows. His wife, Betty (January Jones), barely knows anything of his life before they met, and seems oblivious to the other life he is leading with his no-strings mistress, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), a Greenwich Village bohemian, far removed from Betty and their children in the safe, repressed, suburbs.

The first time we meet Draper, though, alone in a bar, one of the things he’s thinking about is death. Specifically, how to get people to buy it. The Reader’s Digest, which, as the 1960s dawns, acts like the Bible in instalments for Mainstreet USA, has stated a link between smoking and cancer. New regulations mean cigarette companies can no longer advertise their brand as being “healthier” than others. The next morning, Draper must conjure a whole new strategy for Lucky Strike, one of Sterling Cooper’s key contracts. So far, all he has are soggy words scrawled on his cocktail napkin. He thinks again. Nothing. He lights another Lucky.

Cigarettes are everywhere in Mad Men; we even see a doctor conduct a gynaecological examination on a young woman with a fag burning happily between his lips – smoke gets in your eyes, indeed. Truth be told, the first episodes lay all this on a bit thick, as if the writer, Matthew Weiner, were merely ticking off differences between the Americas of 1960 and 2008. Along with flip, open racism and anti-Semitism, we get flagrant sexism and archaic IT. When head secretary, Joan (Christina Hendricks), a redheaded master at calculating the effect tight clothes and soft curves can have amid the office’s hard lines, shows the new girl, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), her desk, she says, “Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology,” pulling back a sheet to reveal an electric typewriter.

If it were content simply to joke over differences between then and now, Mad Men wouldn’t be worth the effort. But, Weiner, who worked under David Chase on The Sopranos, is merely enjoying laying out the laws of the land. Once the rules are understood, we can get to the characters in their grip.

In the meantime, there is plenty to swoon over on the surface: the period design ensures Mad Men resembles a glossy dream, a cocktail of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment – a movie set in the same cruel office dimension, without the luxury of hindsight – and the retro-chic of The Incredibles. But for Don Draper, one of his great problems might be that he is able to see through all this. A keeper of the temple who knows his God does not exist, he is not simply selling the American way of life, but blithely creating it, a consumerist daydream nation wallpapered over reality.

Whether the show is a new Sopranos, remains to be seen, but there is a connection: Tony’s dilemma was his paralysing sense of being born too late, weighed down by memories of how much better things were when he was a kid; Mad Men returns to exactly that period, to reveal it as a bright, glowing lie.

Published in The Sunday Herald, March 2 2008