A fizzy drama that makes you smile without needing jokes, Mad Men — punny slang for hot-blooded Madison Avenue ad executives — takes us back to the early ’60s, when guys wore narrow-lapelled suits, guzzled bourbon before and after meetings, and smoked like a Neil Young guitar solo.
The premiere introduces us to Don Draper (Jon Hamm), an adman with dark, hungry looks who’s handling the cigarette account for the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. Hit with new research suggesting that smoking may — cough, cough — kill you, Don must turn potential death into an ad campaign. But Mad Men, created by Matthew Weiner (The Sopranos), is less about the job than the style involved in doing the job. In this pre-PC period, Draper and his sharp-cut crew swagger through the office eyeing the secretaries in the steno pool. The savviest of these is Joan (Christina Hendricks), who wears high heels and dresses so tight they may as well be bathing suits — she’s the office version of a beauty-pageant contestant, which is just the way these wolves like ‘em.
We watch much of the pilot through the eyes of a newbie secretary played by Elisabeth Moss (The West Wing’s First Daughter Zoey), who is encouraged by both Joan and the fellas to wear shorter skirts to show off her gams. 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. It’s the ripe fantasy before it turns rotten. B+