AMC succeeds with fresh take on drama

Television audiences witnessed something special Thursday night: AMC’s first venture into original programming. That’s right. American Movie Classics has taken a cue from small screen cinemas such as HBO and Showtime and fit all the spectacle of the big screen into 60 minutes.

Those still mourning the death of The Sopranos will find a little solace in Matthew Weiner’s new project. In fact, he wrote the pilot for the new series before even working on the HBO smash hit.

Mad Men has been getting press for weeks and it is easy to see what all the fuss is about. Set in the 1960s, blatant misogyny and racism flow like the smoke from their Lucky Strike cigarettes and the whiskey they drink (Jack Daniels’ Tennessee Whiskey is, appropriately, a proud sponsor) while discussing all the company ink into which they’ve dipped their pens. Despite all the smoke, of course, the program is a real breath of fresh air.

There is no such thing as politically correct, a big deal is being made of birth control and moral fiber, and Nixon has yet to lose to Kennedy and the power of TV. Everything is sleek, swanky and, well, square – except for the women, with their just-so curls and wanton curves.

So as not to leave any behind, the beginning of the program divulges the method to the madness. The term "mad men," coined in the 1950s, refers to the advertising agents and executives who worked on Madison Avenue. These particular men-about-town are frisky and untailored, except when it comes to their sharp suits and even sharper tongues. They are not the type to find themselves in the suburbs with a wife, two kids, white picket fence and bright red front door. Or are they?

The mood is set from the start as the viewer is immediately thrust into the heat of tastefully shot passion, being shared by the alpha-male protagonist, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), and his lady. This most sensuous of themes is continued throughout the episode as a fresh-faced junior agent attempts to paint the town white during his bachelor party and the new secretary gets advised to show some skin.

While trying to woo a client back to his firm, our protagonist says, "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons."

Of course, Mad Men can’t do too much to dirty the airwaves on basic cable in prime time.

Smoking breaks come in the form of commercial breaks and, at least for the premiere episode, the spots are permeated by the kind of info nuggets that might come in handy when playing Trivial Pursuit. This odd friendship between the program and its sponsors, though, makes sense only because of the occupation of the Mad characters.

As the programming trend shifts even more toward the cheap, easy-to-produce reality shows on broadcast television, channels like AMC look to experiment with drama. Well-scripted and drenched in the kind of glamour that goes well with popcorn, Mad Men is a sight for sore eyes. It is so far from any reality that can be observed today that it is as welcome as Harry Potter or Star Wars. It takes you somewhere fresh and interesting. Such is the way of good TV.

The subject matter for the first episode may seem a little dense, but that’s just it: It is the first episode. The hour is full of back story and general exposition, so it is important to pay close attention. On the same note, don’t be too quick to judge. It’s different. Let it grow on you.

Viewers who missed the pilot can get up to speed, as it will re-air several times on AMC (Channel 58), and is featured content on the iTunes Music Store.

Because the program seems so cinematic in nature, the abrupt end seems to serve as the beginning of a weeklong intermission. Be sure to tune in at 9 p.m. Thursday – and don’t forget the popcorn.

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