Will Mad Men Catapult AMC into the Buzzsphere?

It’s not that AMC hasn’t enjoyed success lately with their originals.  Last year’s Broken Trail mini starring Robert Duvall was cable’s second most-watched movie since 1995 and the network’s ratings leader with a 7.7 household mark and total viewership of 9.7 million.

The fourth season of Hustle, a BBC co-production featuring the iconic Robert Vaughn, got underway last April.

In spite of the impressive successes, the network so far lacks a breakout original series (a la Nip/Tuck) that anchors its identity in the minds of viewers and critics.  (According to Multichannel’s Mike Reynolds, the network is in the midst of a rebranding initiative.)

The sizzle of AMC’s initiative will be evident on Thursday, July 19 at 10p when AMC’s new original series, Mad Men, is set to launch.  This is a show that could catapult the network into the buzzsphere.

Created, written and executive produced by respected Sopranos vet Matthew Weiner, the Mad Men pilot is a superbly cast, snappily scripted homage to America on the cusp of a cultural and sexual revolution.  The show, set in a Manhattan ad agency circa 1960, immediately locks the attention with a series of opening credit graphics and then just never lets go, holding firm with meticulous, feature film commitment to period detail.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm), an ad industry veteran, is trying to figure out how to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes after Reader’s Digest publishes a story about the health risks.  Another character, we will probably discover in later episodes, is a closeted gay man.   Prejudice against Jews and Italians is rampant, even expected, even cool.  Conformity in those days was an imperative but the women are just beginning to venture out of the house and into careers.  And beneath the Organization Man veneer, the men lead secret lives.

The audience is escorted around the agency alongside Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), the poodle-skirted "new girl" and recent graduate of Miss Deaver’s Secretarial School.  Peggy is advised during her first day tour: "Don’t be overwhelmed by the new technology" as her mentor slides the dust cover off… of an IBM Selectric typewriter, state of the art in its time.

I was utterly transported back to an almost forgotten, very young childhood when adults revelled without a second thought in a lot of very politically incorrect, even illegal, behaviors:  smoking, martini drinking at noon, and sexist and racist comments that would get you fired these days.  I don’t know if anyone younger than age fifty will catch all the references, like the IBM Selectric or the off-hand mention of the Danny Thomas Show, but it won’t be long before some blogger creates a handy guide to Mad Men.  

My husband aka Mr. Impossible-to-Please, a fannish butterfly who flits between HBO, Showtime, IFC, Sundance, FX and Current, was glued.  "That show’s a winner," he said emphatically as the credits rolled.  Then, he demanded to know, twice. "Did AMC send more episodes?"

A ringing endorsement.

We’ll be taking a closer look at Mad Men as the series premiere approaches.