Let’s get retro: My 2007 ‘Mad Men’ review for The Hollywood Reporter

Back in July of 2007, I was about a year and four months from getting laid off from The Hollywood Reporter after a pretty good run at the troubled trade publication (which has very much bounced back in the years since after going through a visionary rethink). But they were at loose ends in a lot of ways, having laid off plenty of other folks — giving me some room to maneuver into the TV reviews section now and again.

Along with a clutch of other media types, AMC invited me to a lunch at a nice restaurant with the premise that they were getting into the original programming business (that was funny back then, this network that chopped up classic movies and added commercials, coming up with anything original worth watching) with a new show about the advertising business in New York City during the 1960s. They had a legendary ad man there, they (probably) had Matthew Weiner, but memory does not serve.

They showed some of the pilot episode of Mad Men, gave us a portable flask-and-shot-cup box with a nifty leather handle, and lunch. I went home fired up to write the review of this first episode and got permission to do so. The fact that I had to plump for it — “this is AMC’s first original series, non-premium cable networks are starting to do their own original programming” says something about how the eye was off the ball at THR in those days and that nobody really took this new series seriously.

That means that I got to review the show outside of the zeitgeist bubble it would become, away from the highfalutin’ discussion on its meaning and interpretation, and aside from the success it turned into. At the time, it was just another series to watch. And while it had lots to say for it, I had my doubts. From episode one it was clear that this was the apex of the white straight Christian American male, and things were only going downhill from here. (I say as much in the review.) Why would we want to invest in a lead character who hadn’t a clue he was about to lose it all?

Well, we did and we have. (And actually, Don Draper’s world has upended, but he’s turned out all right.) Tonight, Mad Men goes off the air in what will undoubtedly be an understated meditation many will discuss extensively. So before that happens, I’m including the review below (to my surprise it still exists, with no images or credits, on the revamped THR site. Enjoy. I still hold true to a lot of what I said then, but — to my great pleasure, the show has turned out to be much better than its pilot would suggest.

Enjoy, and stay Mad, people.

“Men” delivers retro charm but succumbs to soft sell
By Randee Dawn
The Hollywood Reporter (July 17, 2007)

Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness, says Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director on AMC’s shiny new hourlong drama series Mad Men, which takes place in a 1960s-era Madison Avenue ad agency.

Clearly, as writer/executive producer Matthew Weiner portrays it, the era is packed with happiness: There’s smoking and drinking and extramarital sex and oodles of charming of secretaries (2007 translation: harassment). It was the gilded age of white, male, heterosexual Christians (Draper’s agency, Sterling Cooper, has but one exotic Jew in the mailroom). Little did they know that the rest of the century would be a slow, privilege-stripping roll downhill.

Which makes watching the agency’s alpha males (who seem to have matriculated from the Patrick Bateman school of style and manners) prowling their natural habitat a glorious thing. There’s crisp, knowing dialogue: Secretary Joan (Christina Hendricks) plays up to her bosses but knows their M.O.: “Most of the time they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress.” There’s competent, if not standout-worthy acting (Hamm’s square-jawed woodenness likely is part character-based, but it would help to know there’s something there). There’s beautiful camerawork from Phil Abraham (a Sopranos vet like Weiner and director Alan Taylor) that paints 1960 in clean, natural tones.

Yet if the pieces are in place for Mad Men to break big, why does its center feel so hollow? Watching characters indulge with relish in what today are vices has a transgressive quality, yet it’s all done with an insider’s wink to the audience. A fawning tone would grow just as tiresome, but who can identify with characters from whom even the writers seem to shrink?

A lack of an obvious narrative entry point also keeps that distance — viewers are just shot back in time and plopped into the agency, expected to run with the pack. That the rest of that episode’s soft spine focuses on little more than character introductions and a B-story of how to sell cigarettes without touting their health benefits (an issue solved by the credit roll) is hardly compelling enough to bring those eyeballs back.

There’s much to admire about Mad Men, and much worth tuning in for. But so far, it’s all soft sell. At one point, Draper advises a cigarette exec (John Cullum) that they’ll promote his product’s “toasted” quality,” thus ushering in the era of pitching lifestyle over product, the birth of selling nothing. Unfortunately, at this stage, Mad Men is giving its audience pretty much the same thing.

Bonus: My chat with Jon Hamm (Don Draper) for the L.A. Times in 2011.