'Mad Men' First Episode: THR's 2007 Review

Courtesy Everett Collection
'Mad Men' in 2007

If "the pieces are in place for 'Mad Men' to break big, why does its center feel so hollow?"

On Thursday, July 19, AMC introduced Don Draper and Mad Men to America. The Hollywood Reporter's original review of the first episode is below: 

Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. So says Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director on AMC’s shiny new hourlong drama series Mad Men, which takes place in a 1960-era Madison Avenue ad agency.

Clearly, as writer/executive producer Matthew Weiner portrays it, the era is packed with happiness: There’s smoking, drinking and extramarital sex and oodles of charming of secretaries (2007 translations: harassment). It was the gilded age of white, male, heterosexual Christians (Draper’s agency, Sterling Cooper, has but one exotic Jew in the mailroom). Little did they know that the rest of the century would be a slow, privilege-stripping roll downhill.

Which makes watching the agency’s alpha males (who seem to have matriculated from the Patrick Bateman school of style and manners) prowling their natural habitat a glorious thing.

There’s crisp, knowing dialogue: Secretary Joan (Christina Hendricks) plays up to her bosses but knows their M.O., saying, “Most of the time they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress.” There’s competent, if not standout, acting (Hamm’s square-jawed woodenness likely is part character-based, but it would help to know there’s something there). There’s beautiful camerawork from Phil Abraham (a Sopranos vet like Weiner and director Alan Taylor) that paints 1960 in clean, natural tones.

Yet if the pieces are in place for Mad Men to break big, why does its center feel so hollow? Watching characters indulge with relish in what today are vices has a transgressive quality, yet it’s all done with an insider’s wink to the audience. A fawning tone would grow just as tiresome, but who can identify with characters from whom even the writers seem to shrink?

A lack of an obvious narrative entry point also keeps that distance – viewers are just shot back in time and plopped into the agency, expected to run with the pack. That the rest of the episode’s soft spine focuses on little more than character introductions and a B-story of how to sell cigarettes without touting their health benefits (an issue solved by the credit roll) is hardly compelling enough to bring those eyeballs back.

There’s much to admire about Mad Men and much worth turning in for. But so far, it’s all soft sell. At one point, Draper advises a cigarette exec (John Cullum) that they’ll promote his product’s “toasted” quality, thus ushering in the era of pitching lifestyle over product, the birth of selling nothing. Unfortunately, at this stage, Mad Men is giving its audience pretty much the same thing. – Randee Dawn

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