Empty10-11 p.m., Thursday, July 19
Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness, says Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director on AMC's shiny new hourlong drama series "Mad Men," which takes place in a 1960s-era Madison Avenue ad agency.
Clearly, as writer/executive producer Matthew Weiner portrays it, the era is packed with happiness: There's smoking and drinking and extramarital sex and oodles of charming of secretaries (2007 translation: 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.: "Most of the time they're looking for something between a mother and a waitress." There's competent, if not standout-worthy 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 that 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 tuning 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.
Executive producer/teleplay: Matthew Weiner
Producers: Greg Schultz, Scott Hornbacher, Jack Lechner
Director: Alan Taylor
Director of photography: Phil Abraham
Production designer: Bob Shaw
Art director: Henry Dunn
Costume designer: John Dunn
Set designer: Rena DeAngelo
Editor: Malcolm Jamieson
Casting: Kim Miscia, Beth Bowling
Don Draper: Jon Hamm
Peggy: Elisabeth Moss
Pete: Vincent Kartheiser
Betty: January Jones
Joan: Christina Hendricks
Paul: Michael Gladis
Ken: Aaron Staton
Harry: Rich Sommer
Rachel Menken: Maggie Siff
Salvatore: Bryan Batt