There's a new hour long drama on a basic cable network. Mad Men, a show about advertising in the early 1960's, airs on Thursday nights on AMC. AMC is fairly viewed as second rate compared to Turner Classic Movies due to commercial interruption. With this show, commercial interruption is a positive boon. It would be much, much weaker without commercial interruption.
Basic cable dramas are a bit of a mixed bag. In general, the most of these shows have a "filmed in Canada" look to them, largely because they are. There have been some successes, like The Closer and Battlestar Galactica, but also a lot of mediocre stuff. I really wanted to like The Riches, for example, because of Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver at the top of the cast, but the writing wasn't up to snuff.
On Mad Men, the writing and directing credits are much stronger, with veterans of shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under leading the creative end. I cropped a much larger picture of the cast to spotlight the two youngest actors in the cast whom I recognized from other work. Elizabeth Moss plays a secretary on her first day at work, which allows other characters to explain things to her, and of course to us, as though she knows nothing about the world she just entered. Ms. Moss also played Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing. Vincent Kartheiser, who played Connor on the show Angel, plays a junior executive with no scruples whatsoever. His character is supposed to be 26; if you told me Kartheiser was 19, I'd believe you. The actor is actually 28.
The real reason to watch is the evocation of a time now long gone. We saw somewhat sanitized versions of ad executives of this era in the TV show Bewitched and romantic comedies like 1961's Lover Come Back with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Mad Men isn't sanitized and not just because there are a few quick uses of obscenities, about one every half hour or so it seems. Details are emphasized for dramatic effect, but young people might ask themselves if it's just overstatement. People didn't actually drink a lot at work, did they? Did nearly everyone smoke? Were they really that openly racist, anti-Semitic and sexist? Were young women in the workplace really treated as little more than whores you didn't have to pay?
The correct answers to those questions are yes, yes, pretty much and yes. In that order.
Other details evocative of the era are the changes that are coming, including the government starting its crackdown on cigarette advertising by disallowing doctor's recommendations and that women are using birth control. At that time, Freud's work was taken very seriously by advertisers, though the grip was slipping. Another little throwaway detail is the power held by the women operators responsible for getting outside phone lines.
And then there are the commercial interruptions. Here, AMC has borrowed and improved upon a trick from Cartoon Network's Adult Swim by having silent bumpers in between the commercials. On Adult Swim, the bumpers are snarky comments or quick reminders of products the network hawks, like some show's release onto DVD or a change in the schedule. The bumpers on Mad Men are little fun facts about the history of advertising in general. It's brilliant stuff.
The series appears to be only six episodes. I hope this is just the first installment and more can be made with the same production values and attention to detail. These kinds of short runs are part of the reason the best of British television maintains its high standards.
Matty Boy says check it out. You'll love the taste because it's toasted.
And with that, we close with the Friday Random 10.
This Wheel’s On Fire The Band
Beat on the Brat The Ramones
Satisfy My Soul Bob Marley & The Wailers
Got To Get You Into My Life The Beatles
I’m Afraid Of Americans David Bowie
Do You Want My Job Little Village
You Don’t Know Me Ray Charles
Join The Navy The Wonders of Science
Cigarette Ben Folds Five
At Last Etta James
I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter Fats Waller
Slightly obscure: Little Village was a band of songwriters who got together to put out an album. John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner. Do You Want My Job is a terrific song about what globalization looked like in 1991.
The truly obscure: The Wonders of Science are my band. (Technically, the band belongs to Padre Mickey and me. If both of us show up, it can be called a Wonders of Science gig. If either of us is missing, you have to call it something else.)