The Long Comic-Tragic Death of the American Soul. On TV.

08/29/2007 10:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I stopped really actually watching television a few months ago. I have worked in it of late, and I can see the wires and lights and the cracks and the caked makeup and the other nasty bits, so I prefer not to have it in my house so much. But online, on itunes, I've been watching the greatest thing -- Mad Men, Matthew Weiner's pitch-perfect show on American Movie Classics, about advertising guys in a glamorous, brutalist howlingly macho time long, long ago -- the first moments of the 1960s. You can't take your eyes off the thing. The look alone is enough to hypnotize you, and the language is quick, sharp, nasty, brutishly Hobbsian and short. The ad men are starting to sweat. How do you sell cigarettes when Reader's Digest, which wields a very big stick, has pulled back the curtain on the Big C: Cancer? And what to do with the Jews and their department store -- the new Jews, who are in the first blush of a post-shtetl assimilationist boom - now want their store to compete with Henry Bendel. How do you sell Dick Nixon -- and why? And the women? The brilliant magic of Mad Men is in the quiet dialectic of rage and supplication between the sexes. Secretaries smile and put out, grimacing, waiting, longing. Wives wither or get hip, silently keeping their mouths shut, hoping that the nightmare of post war anomie washing over the men will wear off and Rye, Westport, and other stops on the New Haven line will live up to their promise as redemptive and serene Utopias. The young men coming up in the agency are pasty faced, weak and cynical. The brilliant John Hamm and John Slattery as senior ad men -- a little older, a lot smarter, much cooler -- closer to Korea and World War II, drink booze carefully and to excess, and watch their younger counterparts the way that slightly more elegant, aged predators on Animal Planets watch the new jackals jockeying for position. It is a particular genius of Mr. Weiner's (and that of his casting directors) in casting the original "How to Succeed in Business without really trying" star, Bobby Morse as the man at the top. He is unknowable and full of deadly mandarin good cheer -- it's a perfect joke to anybody who appreciates old musicals: This is what happened to that cheery kid who worked his way to the top, sort of.

Anyway. So much to like about this show, particularly now, when nobody in public life cares about lies or truth. Particularly now that the only thing left in America is sales. And we aren't even good at it anymore. And now that the White Upper Middle Class American male is adrift in sexual alienation and botox shots of their own, it's cool to see the Mailer/Cheever beginnings of the rot. It's funny. Not an ounce of condescending, or fretful easy user-friendly writing. AMC should be proud that this is their first series out of the gate. But hey -- they've been programming great old movies for a while now, so you realize they must have loved this thing when they read it. It fits right in. I am tempted to write about how hard it is would probably maybe be do this kind of thing on the networks, which are fueled more by fear and market testing than passion, but tact, and what little maturity I have tells me to leave that one alone.