Finally, in a summer of light, fluffy dramas and umpteen look-alike reality shows, there's a new series for adult fans of quality, meaty dramatic television: "Mad Men" (10 p.m. Thursday). That it's presented by AMC, a network not known for drama series, is a little worrisome. That it's a period drama from the same network that treated the 1940s period drama "Remember WENN" shabbily when it was unceremoniously canceled with an unresolved cliffhanger makes investing in "Mad Men" a risky venture. But it's a risk worth taking.
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Christina Henricks, John Slattery, Aaron Staton, Jon Hamm, Rich Somer, Michael Gladis and Vincent Kartheiser.
Created by Matthew Weiner, one of the writers of HBO's "The Sopranos," "Mad Men" is set in New York's advertising community in 1960. (Evidently Madison Avenue's ad executives dubbed themselves "Mad men.")
The roles of men and women in the workplace are just beginning to change, leading to great conflicts that simmer just beneath the surface. "Mad Men" strips away the niceties to depict the seamy underside of a polite smile and handshake.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the creative director at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. He's a ladies' man, but not as much of a shark as ambitious account executive Pete (Vincent Kartheiser, "Angel"), who puts the moves on Don's sweet new assistant, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss, "The West Wing"), who turns out to be less na??? and more ambitious than she initially appears.
Don's latest headache is the Lucky Strike cigarette account. The Federal Trade Commission will no longer let him tout the "health benefits" of cigarettes, leading him to complain, "All I have is a crush-proof box and four out of five dead people smoked your brand."
"Mad Men" is a fascinating examination of the culture at that time, particularly as it relates to women and minorities. Peggy, who is unmarried, goes to see her doctor to get contraceptives. He claims he won't judge her even as he does, saying, "I'd like to think putting a woman in this kind of situation is not going to turn her into some kind of strumpet."
Then there's Don's other account, a Jewish-owned department store. Sterling Cooper employs no Jewish account executives (they work at the "Jewish agencies," we're told), but for a meeting with the department store's progressive, young, female manager, agency partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) procures a Jewish employee from the mailroom to make Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) feel "more comfortable."
But it's Don who's designed to be the audience's window into this world. He's not a beacon of morality, but he's certainly more principled than some of the younger guys in the office, one of whom is played by 2004 Carnegie Mellon University alumnus Aaron Staton.
"You're born alone and you die alone, and this world drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts," cynical Don tells Rachel over drinks. "I'm living like there is no tomorrow because there isn't one."
Not a pretty sentiment, to be sure, but it makes for an intriguing character in what's likely to be the best new summer series of 2007.