The pilot of AMC's new original series "Mad Men" is not so much a pilot as an hourlong seduction. First there is the light, a dim and golden radiance that softens the Brylcreemed gleam of adman Don Draper (Jon Hamm) as he sits in a bar, scribbling notes for a Lucky Strike campaign on a cocktail napkin. The crowd is steeped in smoke and swinger jazz, a cocktail of 100-proof nostalgia.
Which, at first glance, seems to be the show's leitmotif. Set in a Madison Avenue ad agency in 1960, "Mad Men" has the storied look of "The Apartment," "Bewitched" and a Melrose retro boutique all rolled into one. Men in slim suits and white shirts, women in pointy bras and sweater sets, all sideways smiles and white hip patter amid the rattle of ice cubes and the tiny clatter of lighters -- oh, the hepcat wonder of it all.
But wait, Draper is trying to talk to his black waiter about cigarette preferences and is cut off by the disapproving maitre d'. Back at the office, his new secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is appraised as if she were a heifer on auction by everyone from the guys in the elevator to the women on the switchboard. "A girl with sweet ankles like yours," says veteran secretary Joan (Christina Hendricks). "I'd figure out a way to make them sing."
Later that day, a Jew must be conjured from the ad agency's ranks to make a meeting with the owners of Menken's department store more comfortable. "I had to go all the way to the mailroom, but I found one," says Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Draper's boss. The meeting turns out to be a bust because the Menken representative is a woman, who questions Draper's campaign plans and ability. "I will not allow a woman to talk to me like that," he says, storming from the room.
But his pique is understandable. For one thing, the modern women's rights movement is several years away, and for another, he has that Lucky Strike account to contend with. A report published in Reader's Digest has concluded that cigarettes will kill you, superior filtration systems and two-pack-a-day doctors notwithstanding, and it's up to Draper to figure out a way to make that an ad campaign.
Given our post-millennial fondness for political correctness, "Mad Men" would seem more like History Channel fodder, but that's where the powers of seduction come in -- great writing and acting create a heady mix of glamour, irreverence and responsibility, a word rarely associated with a sexy drama.
Creator Matthew Weiner wrote "Mad Men" several years ago; it was the script that landed him the job writing for "The Sopranos," and it's easy to see why. Not since Cary Grant's Mr. Blandings have we seen an ad guy to swoon over.
Hamm's Draper is duplicitous, yes, shallow, certainly, but he stands up for Peggy, he has an independent-gal girlfriend (just look at her tied-at-the-waist white shirt and Audrey Hepburn pants!), and he tells off the most obnoxious of the office wolves. He is also a war hero, and his eyes are haunted by more than the fear that the younger guys at the office are ready to leave him on the ice floe.
And it is a relief to be able to enjoy a return to the nifty accouterments of yesteryear -- from the switchboard to the Old-Fashioneds, from the steno pool to the skinny ties -- but in context.
Yes, much that was cool and adult about that world is missing from ours. But the reasons for the coming revolution -- the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the hippie-driven counterculture -- were real and devastating.
"Mad Men" has found a strange and lovely space between nostalgia and political correctness and filled it with interesting people, all of them armed with great powers of seduction.
And terrific lighting.
When: 10 to 11 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DSL (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, sex and coarse language)