When "The Sopranos" came to its much-anticipated conclusion last summer, HBO tried in vain to plug the breach. Its opening gambit -- "John From Cincinnati," a surf noir drama with a metaphysical subtext -- flopped. "Tell Me You Love Me," an emotional rollcoaster that blended soft-core porn with relationship anguish, didn't quite capture "The Sopranos" audience (although it did have my three female roommates glued to the TV like nothing since "Sex And The City"). "Flight of the Conchords," with its deadpan humor and parody sing-a-longs, was an instant hit, but we're still waiting impatiently for its second season. And did anybody actually get through all the daily installments of "In Treatment"?
Enter AMC, with its first ever scripted series, "Mad Men." Created by Matt Weiner, an executive producer and writer for the last seasons of "The Sopranos," the show touted itself as manna to succor the entertainment-starved.
Set in the early 1960s, during Madison Avenue's supposed "Golden Age" of advertising, "Mad Men" follows the dreamweaving ad executives of fictional agency Sterling Cooper as they lie, cheat, drink and smoke (and, as an incidental byproduct, create ad campaigns). The ensemble cast is led by John Hamm as Donald Draper, an ad man at the top of his profession who is restless, yet ambivalent. While not quite "The Sopranos" -- no one gets killed -- "Mad Men" filled the void by creating a mood so captivating that you could curl up on your couch and almost feel the haze of cigarette smoke settle in the room.
The show is nostalgia-ridden with a cheeky twist, because it mocks its characters and their time, while trying to capture them in all their glory. As The New York Times wrote last summer,
Men wore white shirts, drank Manhattans and harassed compliant secretaries in the elevator. Everybody read Reader's Digest. Jews worked in Jewish advertising agencies, blacks were waiters and careful not to seem too uppity, and doctors smoked during gynecological exams. Women were called "girls." Men who loved men kept it to themselves.
USA Today also had high praise for the show:
On a pure visual level alone, Mad Men is a joy to watch -- the clothes, the clocks, the furniture, it's like a mid-century night's dream. But this is no mere period piece. It's a smart, complex drama that attempts to get through the facades that have always hidden the truth.
Entertainment Weekly called "Mad Men'" a "ripe fantasy":
What gives Mad Men its zing is that play is part of work, sexual banter isn't yet harassment, and America is free of self-doubt, guilt, and countercultural confusion.
The New York Post said "Mad Men" was addictive:
If you check out "Mad Men" tonight, I guarantee you'll be back next week. Or, to paraphrase a classic slogan for potato chips, nobody can watch just one.
Season one is finally out on DVD and Blu-ray. The four-disc set comes with the requisite audio commentaries and "making of" featurettes but little else -- which reflects the fact that the show stands on its own merits, and didn't need to be dressed up with any extras to coax viewers into buying it. The box is shaped like a lighter, and the only gimmick inside is an ad for "Mad Men"-engraved Zippo lighters.
The second season of "Mad Men" is scheduled to begin on July 27 on AMC.