AMC is a head-scratcher of a cable channel. The network formerly known as American Movie Classics has sort of abandoned the "classics" part -- it issued a press release last week touting a marathon of Chevy Chase movies -- and edits the ones it does show, like any commercial network.
And yet its original programming, such as the slick British import "Hustle" and last year's hugely rated western "Broken Trail," hits a lot of right notes. As a whole, it's sometimes hard to get a handle on just what AMC wants to be.
If, however, AMC wants to be more like its first homegrown drama series, "Mad Men," that would be a big step in the right direction.
A stylish story about advertising men in the early 1960s, "Mad Men" has visual flair to spare and a fair amount to say about the media age its characters helped create and the roles men play both then and now. The period details are spot-on, and creator Matthew Weiner, a veteran of "The Sopranos," has created a complete world for his characters to inhabit.
At the center of things is Don Draper (Jon Hamm, "The Unit," "The Division"), the creative director at Cooper Sterling, a Madison Avenue ad agency. Prone to asking things like "What do women want?" ("Who cares?" is the response of his boss Roger Sterling, played by John Slattery) of his colleagues, Don plays just about everything close to the vest -- which is good, because it becomes apparent over the first several episodes that he has plenty to hide.
The square-jawed Hamm is not playing a man of many words, but he's able to convey a lot with a withering look or an exhalation of cigrette smoke. And, by the way, just about everyone on "Mad Men," including a pregnant woman, smokes. A significant portion of the first episode, in fact, revolves around Draper and his team working around some new restrictions on cigarette advertising.
The smoking is probably a fairly accurate representation of the time, but it also speaks to the fact that Weiner isn't making any present-day corrections to the way people behaved back then. Sexism, particularly for the platoon of junior execs at Cooper Sterling, is deeply ingrained, as is the more-or-less casual acceptance of it by the women who work there (who occasionally turn it to their advantage). So is a fairly unsubtle bigotry, as evidenced when Don and Roger frantically search the agency ranks for a Jewish employee (finally finding one in the mailroom) to join in their meeting with a department-store owner (recurring guest star Maggie Siff) who's also Jewish.
Though Hamm is the central figure, Weiner has also assembled a standout supporting cast that includes Vincent Kartheiser ("Angel") as a skeevy junior exec at Cooper Sterling, Elisabeth Moss ("The West Wing") as a possibly out-of-her-depth secretary and Christina Hendricks as her va-va-voomy guide to navigating the shark-infested waters at the office. Slattery ("Ed," "Desperate Housewives") gets some great lines as Don's cynical boss, and as a woman in Don's life, Rosemarie DeWitt is sexier and more interesting in five minutes of the pilot than in any hour of "Standoff."
Not everything works. A couple of the if-they-knew-then winks early on are a little obvious, and you'll probably see a development at the end of the pilot -- which Weiner asked us not to reveal -- coming from a good distance away.
But to Weiner's credit -- and to that of his fellow "Sopranos" veteran, director Alan Taylor -- he doesn't want to spoon-feed the audience. Don remains a somewhat ambiguous character throughout the early episodes. He does some rather unsavory things, but he's also nearly always the smartest guy in the room, and like the people who work with and for him, you can't help but be drawn to the guy. Similarly, Moss' Peggy comes across as a wide-eyed doormat at first, but by the end of episode one you're re-assessing that idea.
More projects like this could have me reassessing AMC as well.