Mad Men

Thursdays at 10 p.m. on AMC. Nine episodes into the first season.

Mad Men is like a girl whose beauty distracts people from her intelligence. Or maybe it’s like a girl whose charm and good looks mislead people into thinking she’s smarter than she truly is. I’m not sure, to be honest, but the look of Mad Men is undeniably ravishing, and the analogy amuses me: insidious, condescending sexism is one of the principal threads of the show.

But it’s not the only one. Quietly provocative and sumptuously textured, Mad Men does not lack for ambition. Set in a midlevel New York ad agency during the early 1960s, it delves into sexism, classism, racism, anti-Semitism, and homosexuality without ever feeling like a movie-of-the-week. It’s too luxuriantly filmed for that and occasionally too opaque, presenting a striking tableau without necessarily spelling out what it means.

The intriguing and sometimes unsympathetic central character is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Sterling Cooper’s creative director, a charismatic but reticent man with a highly compartmentalized life built on buried secrets. Over time, Mad Men has peeled a few masks off its enigmatic protagonist, gradually revealing that “Don Draper” was not born but invented. But aside from that running thread, Mad Men has no overarching plot. Rather, each episode plays like variations on a theme: The people at the ad agency have honed their professional skills at presenting the Perfect Image through years of practice in their private lives. Yet the social upheaval of the late 1960s rumbles ever nearer, already threatening not only the increasingly outmoded agency but those carefully crafted personas.

It’s a simple but fertile conceit, nourishing a wide variety of subplots but keeping them rooted together. Ideally suited for a large ensemble cast, the structure gives everyone his or her turn in the spotlight, which I enjoy. Not all of the actors are exceptional, but neither is there a weak link, and a handful of the actors—notably Hamm; Christina Hendricks, as the sultry but sharp office manager; and January Jones, as Don’s lonely wife—consistently give beautifully compelling performances. Creator-writer Matthew Weiner provides sharp, interesting dialogue and storylines that turn in unexpected directions, and the actors reward him with intriguing, layered interpretations to match.

If anyone’s stealing the show, however, it’s the production designers, the art and set directors, the costume designer, the makeup artists, and the directors and cinematographer. Simply put, Mad Men looks incredible. Filmed with bold finesse, with the scrupulous, affectionate attention to period detail of vintage Merchant-Ivory, the drama draws you in with its atmosphere alone. Small wonder, then, the Look of the show—the tailored suits, glam hair styles, and photogenic cigarette smoke—has earned it much of its buzz, perhaps even its renewal.

Mad Men creates such a gorgeous, alien world that I sometimes find myself resisting it—am I only responding to eye candy?—but in the end, I don’t think that’s fair. Even when Weiner can’t quite pull off the parallels he’s spinning, even when a plot turn doesn’t quite feel organic, the failure is in the context of a much greater success. I enjoy spending time with his characters not because I like them (many, in fact, I don’t particularly like) but because I find them so interesting, partly as a feminist (dear God I’m glad I didn’t live back then) and partly as a human being who enjoys pondering why people do the things they do.

Because ultimately, Mad Men’s central conceit is not bound to a particular time period or locale or occupation. The disconnect between the glossy imagined world of what we would be and the troubled reality of who we truly are is something to which anyone can relate, and Mad Men explores that disconnect with an acutely discerning yet beautifully empathetic eye.

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