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New series review: Mad Men (AMC)

Straight booze and cigarettes also are part of Mad Men's ensemble.

Premiering: Thursday night, July 19th at 9 (central) on AMC
Starring: Jon Hamm, January Jones, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gladis, Christina Hendricks, Robert Morse, Rosemarie DeWitt, Maggie Siff
Created by: Matthew Weiner

Bereft of murder mysteries, action sequences or even a drop of blood, AMC's Mad Men instead is of a mind to be sharp as a tack.

It dawns in the year 1960, when that expression still hit the spot. That one, too. These also were times when a bossman in a crisp business suit dared to say, "I'm not gonna let a woman talk to me like that. This meeting is over."

That's the outward bravado of ace Madison Avenue ad agency director Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who otherwise is getting pretty damned dumbfounded on the subject of, "What do women want?"

Some of them aren't quite sure either in this instantly provocative and evocative period piece from the accomplished Matthew Weiner. He had Mad Men on his mind when he wasn't shepherding the made men of The Sopranos during a long tenure as a co-executive producer and writer.

AMC finally was smart enough to bite when several others, including HBO, were not. So here's another feather in basic cable's cap while the broadcast networks load their summertime hours with low-rent, simple-dimple reality shows.

Thursday's premiere of Mad Men fittingly enough begins in a bar, where Draper is drinking, smoking and kicking around a new way to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes. It's a tough world out there when you no longer can build a campaign around the health benefits of a two-pack-a-day habit.

Draper's married to a beautiful blonde, Betty (the niftily named January Jones), with whom he has two children. Nonetheless he's sleeping around while she's lately having anxiety attacks that cause her hands to go numb.

Betty's reluctant visit to a therapist in Episode 2 provides a stark contrast to Tony's two-way verbal bouts with Dr. Melfi. In Mad Men, a male shrink merely nods and takes notes while she keeps talking. Later he secretly fills Don in on what his wife said.

At the Sterling Cooper workplace, the secretarial force is accustomed to wearing Iron Maiden bras that also keep the men perked up. But times are starting to change, and newcomer Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) is hoping to succeed without falling into the usual man traps. Her ringwise mentor, Joan (Christina Hendricks), cautions that "even in modern times, 'easy' women don't find husbands." Still, Joan plays the game.

Mad Men isn't always sure-footed with its sexual politics. Its dialogue and various compromising situations sometimes seem a little over-cooked. But whether it entirely works or not, it's still cool-sounding when Draper tells a strong-willed woman client, "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons."

Besides Lucky Strikes, Draper is being lobbied to sell Richard Nixon's 1960 presidential campaign against opponent John Kennedy. He's on the fence in the first two episodes. But chief partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is determined to reel him in.

AMC has ordered 13 episodes of Mad Men, which so far is progressing at a leisurely but satisfying pace. Many of the principal characters are chain-smokers with a companion fondness for straight-up hard liquor at just about any hour of the day. On the face of it, this is a man's world of masked self-doubts, naked ambitions and lethal everyday vices.

It seems so long ago. Then again, it's almost as if it were yesterday.

Grade: A-minus