Screen Savors: Sex and cigarettes

Mad Men is madly entertaining, and the American Movie Channel deserves heaps of accolades for getting it on the air, as does Xtra HOT for bagging this brilliant if disturbing show.

Stumbling recently on one of our mother's photo albums chronicling a ladies' luncheon in our birthplace of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, we were immediately transported to another era: the clothes, the hair-dos, the horn-rimmed eyeglasses, the mere idea of ladies going out to lunch. If the photo served as a wonderful time machine, Xtra HOT's new series Mad Men (Sundays, 10 p.m.) is even better. For while a photo could capture the look, Mad Men captures the spirit: the feeling that anything was possible and that if you worked hard enough, you too could own a house in the suburbs. Beating as strongly alongside the drive to succeed is the sexism of the period, when a woman would do well to let a boss see her legs if she wanted to advance. Mad Men gets it all right: the sound and soul of America circa 1960. Don Draper's a Purple Heart winner who's fighting new battles now in the trenches of Madison Avenue, willing to do just about anything to push an account. Trouble is, he's stuck with Lucky Strike cigarettes, and research linking smoking to cancer is emerging at a rate that's discouraging to his North Carolina clients, who protest: "We're selling America - the Indians gave it to us, for Christ's sake." He's also stuck in the middle of a sexist atmosphere that, despite his seeming loathing, has also sucked him in. For while on the surface he may seem above it all, delivering stinging reprieves to his skirt-chasing second boss Peter Campbell ("I bet to you the world looks like one big bra strap just waiting to be snapped"), the truth is far from it. The accounts are the thing, though, and Draper will do anything to keep his and prevent Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser of Angel) from nipping at his heels, even if it means having drinks with Jewish department store magnate Rachel Mencken (the outstanding Maggie Siff of Michael Clayton). Trouble is, Rachel's not exactly the female stereotype Draper and the rest of the men at Sterling Cooper Advertising are used to dealing with. The brilliantly written script by Matthew Wiener (The Sopranos) even captures the anti-Semitism of the time, when Jews were still barred from certain clubs, schools and North American communities. So when the firm goes after the store's account, Draper's boss Roger (John Slattery of Ed, Jack and Bobby and Desperate Housewives) runs down to the mailroom to find a Jewish employee, passing him off as a "staff artist" to his Jewish client. The men are pigs. As "new girl" Peggy rides up in the elevator with them, they gossip about Campbell's fiancée, and the bachelor party planned for that night. "I hear she's a nice girl," says one. "Ah, who wants that," snorts another, as Peggy hangs on every word. "You gotta let 'em know what kind of guy you are - then they know what kind of girl to be," says another. The women aren't any better, however, having learned the rules of the office mating game. Peggy's boss Joan sends her out to get a prescription for birth control pills, advising her that as Draper's new secretary, she'll want to fit the role. "He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time they're looking for something between a mother and a waitress, and the rest of the time, well…" Every detail is spot on, from the Alka-Seltzer Draper's taking for his pre-presentation stomach ache to the fins on the cars outside. And a delicious taste of cynicism coats the script, which benefits from the beauty of hindsight, such as when Roger tries to get Draper involved in a political campaign that's picking up steam: "He's young, handsome, and a navy hero. Honestly, it shouldn't be hard to convince America that Dick Nixon's a winner." As Draper, John Hamm (We Were Soldiers) is perfect as the man whose own slogans are beginning to sound trite, and whose high moral declarations are actually becoming as shallow as his latest campaign. Elisabeth Moss (Zoey Bartlett on The West Wing) also shines as Peggy, the secretary willing to do just about anything - or anyone - to get ahead. And supplying a healthy dose of realism and humor is Bryan Batt as Salvatore Romano, a gay artist at the firm who makes the most of being a fish out of water. Coming in future episodes is Robert Morse - a cute nod to his famous role in the '60s musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, including its famous song, "A Secretary is Not a Toy." Mad Men is madly entertaining, and the American Movie Channel deserves heaps of accolades for getting it on the air, as does Xtra HOT for bagging this brilliant if disturbing show. For truth be told, over four decades later, we'd just be blowing smoke to say we've come very far from those not-so-glorious days.