We can't say he didn't warn us. Before his new AMC drama Mad Men premiered last month, former Sopranos executive producer Matthew Weiner said, "There will hopefully be a ‘Holy s--t!' moment in each episode." Three weeks in, he's holding up his end of the deal, as the show reveals the amoral underbelly of perfect-on-the-surface protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm).
Set in New York City in 1960, Mad Men (airing Thursdays at 10 pm/ET) slickly re-creates a topflight Madison Avenue advertising agency and its ruthless, ego-driven players. You can practically smell the Brylcreem, whiskey and cigarettes as the bright, sexy characters look sharp and crack wise. But all is not well underneath those sharkskin suits and bullet bras. Says Weiner: "Most of the men are asking, ‘Is this it?' And most of the women are asking, ‘What's wrong with me?'"
The brilliant creative head of the Sterling Cooper agency, Don "is somewhere between The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and the Marlboro Man," Weiner says. But he's leading a double life. Not only is the married father of two having an affair with an illustrator (Standoff's Rosemarie DeWitt) and romancing a department-store owner (Maggie Siff), he secretly discusses his wife's psychiatry sessions with her doctor. And it turns out the philandering and skulduggery are just the tip of Don's dysfunctional iceberg.
"If your job is to tell people what's going to make them happy and yet you're not the happiest person, there's a layer of hypocrisy that's exciting and difficult to watch," Hamm says. That existential crisis is complicated, says Weiner, because "like a lot of men of that period, he has a very deep emotional life that he's trying to avoid." As a result, he adds, "There's not a woman who does not want to marry that man — and also shoot him."
The woman who did marry him, Betty, "obviously loves him, but he's got a very dark past and she doesn't really know that much about him," says the actress who plays her, January Jones. "That's intriguing and romantic to her, but obviously it causes problems." Like Don, Betty's got bigger issues, too. "She [grew up learning] how to be a good wife and mother, but for a lot of women during that time, it wasn't enough," Jones says. "So what do you do?"
Though Mad Men is a period piece, its themes remain relevant. "If you look at our society today and what we value, so much of it came out of what Madison Avenue was selling us back in that period," says Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete Campbell, a young Turk with designs on Don's job. "The only way to move up in business," he says of his character, "is by taking the reins and doing it dirty." Some things never change.
Mad about Mad Men? Let our new Online Video Guide show you some clips.
Send your comments on this feature to firstname.lastname@example.org.