It's a maxim in advertising that a good ad should immediately capture the interest of the audience and pique its interest in whatever product is being hawked. Odd, then, that Mad Men, a superlative new AMC series now debuting its first season on DVD, actually takes its time to develop its characters and some intriguing mysteries at the center of its focal man, Sterling Cooper ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Now, I'm not complaining about this--we live in an era of instant gratification, and it's kind of refreshing to find a series that trusts its audience enough not to spill every bean possible in the first 30 second tease. But I suspect that Mad Men's less than stellar ratings (though it's about to premiere its second season on AMC) have more than a little to do with the ADD generation that seems to be the bulk of today's audience. For those with a little more patience, Mad Men is one of the most literate and unique series to come down the pike in a long while.
Writer/creator Matt Weiner and director Alan Taylor set up the enigma that is Don Draper right off the bat with a neat little dolly toward the back of Draper's head. It's a trope that will be reused throughout the series and it's a subtle technique that leaves Don both literally and figuratively faceless: who is this man? What lies beneath his crisp Brooks Brothers suits and impenetrable eyes? It's a testament to the series' long story arcs that a major reveal about Draper's private life doesn't come until the very end of the first episode, and an almost throwaway moment in the third makes the issue of Draper's "real" identity more of a mystery than ever.
The series is peopled with a banquet of various types, all of whom share interwoven storylines that slowly develop their individual arcs. Of most interest is new Sterling Cooper secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), whose first day on the job is delineated in the pilot episode. Having this character front and center allows the audience to be indoctrinated right along with her not only in the modus operandi of the office, but the office politics, too, consisting mostly of leering glances and actual advances by her male cohorts. In fact the entire series is a sort of shameful expose of patronizing and outright misogynistic attitudes that dominated the early 60s, made most explicit in the palpably uncomfortable scene of Elisabeth visiting a gynecologist to have a pelvic exam and request that newfangled contraption, the birth control pill.
Also on board in this gamut of personalities is January Jones as a housewife undergoing psychoanalysis after her seemingly perfect world starts to literally go numb (I am purposely not revealing her role in order to prevent a spoiler), a rat-like Vincent Cartheiser as Pete, a junior executive on the make, job-wise and woman-wise, and a very alluring Maggie Siff, as Rachel Menken, a Jewish department store heiress who hires Sterling Cooper to beef up her business (so to speak). John Slattery gives equal parts slipperiness and suavity to owner Roger Sterling, and Broadway fans will be delighted to see such talent as Robert Morse (as Cooper) and John Cullum (as the owner of Lucky Strike Cigarettes) drop by for a cameo or two. But this is just the tip of a very deep iceberg that also includes a divorcee with young children (something shocking in 1960), a closeted gay ad man (in one of the few too-obvious characterizations in the show) and more nascent Stepford Wives than you can shake a robotic stick at.
Mad Men's actual strength lies not only in its characters, but in its picayune attention to detail in its recreation of the time period. Everything about this show has been artfully assembled, from absolutely superb set and costume designs, to the well-used source material, including vintage television shows and, as you might expect, print ads. For those of us who may be a bit too young to remember the early 60s, this show is a like a time capsule, taking us back to an era when space-age technology was seen as the answer to life's every problem, something that can be outright humorous when an ad campaign for something like Right Guard Deodorant is being strategized. David Carbonara's moody underscore is a gem, and most of the source music is well-planned, though a tune or two, like Julie London's bossa nova version of "Fly Me to the Moon," would more accurately have been placed in 1962 or 1963.
As the first season progresses, and layer upon layer of Don Draper's personality, some of it not particularly likable, are revealed, Mad Men similarly develops greater and greater depth. Hamm does an outstanding job portraying a man with some deep wounds in his past, as well as several current ones he insists on inflicting on himself. Though the first season ends with some major questions unanswered, there's enough closure on at least a couple of plot points to provide a neat ending after this first batch of episodes. I only hope people have enough patience to let the show unfold at its own pace, a pace devoid of the many manic stylizations that seem to "augment" most hit prime time series. As another old maxim states, patience is a virtue, and your patience will be rewarded many times over if you give Mad Men several episodes to weave its spell around you.