At first glance, the world of "Mad Men" seems as distant from the here and now as Neptune.
Welcome to an ambitious new drama on cable's AMC, and to the Sterling Cooper advertising agency perched high above Madison Avenue. The year is 1960.
In this world, women of all ages are girls, and know it. Liquor punctuates the workdays of the men in charge. Everybody smokes — anytime, anywhere — despite the recent Reader's Digest article that warns how cigarettes can kill you.
Meanwhile, the Pill has just burst on the scene. Desperate housewives are trying psychotherapy. A record by a hot young comic named Bob Newhart is slaying listeners with his "button-down mind" (whatever that is).
Plenty of questions (if not so many answers) are blowin' in the wind, and "Mad Men" identifies them vividly.
Window on America
But the charm of this series (premiering Thursday at 10 p.m. EDT) is that it doesn't treat 1960 as a quaint aberration. Instead, "Mad Men" provides an unexpected window on America in 2007. It's a contemporary series, purposefully unfolding at a half-century remove.
"Things don't change, people don't change," insists Matthew Weiner, who created "Mad Men" (and was a writer for "The Sopranos"). "The rules change."
"It's a reflection of the culture," says Weiner, explaining that ad execs have always aimed "to find out how you feel, then tell you how their product is going to make you feel better."
But in 1960 the advertising business, like so much else, was at a turning point. The rules had been upended a year earlier by the revolutionary Volkswagen campaign that invited drivers to "Think small" and choose the VW Beetle. No grandiose come-on. The pitch was subversive and ironic.
And it's remembered as maybe the greatest ad campaign ever. Advertising would never be the same.
Changing ad landscape
How will Sterling Cooper adapt? That's largely in the hands of its creative director, Don Draper. Played by Jon Hamm ("We Were Soldiers"), Draper is a star at the agency. He's smooth, witty and tormented. And more candid than most.
As he tells an attractive woman over cocktails, "You're born alone and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget."
The woman asks if love might brighten his outlook.
"What you call love," says Draper, "was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons."
But right now it's Lucky Strike cigarettes he's under fire to sell. And in a tough new regulatory climate, he must hatch a campaign that avoids any claim that Lucky Strikes are somehow beneficial to a smoker's health.
That's not the only thing weighing on him at work. Though barely over 30, Draper feels pressure from Pete Campbell, an even younger up-and-comer eyeing Draper's job. Played by Vincent Kartheiser ("Angel"), Pete is also eyeing Draper's winsome new secretary, played by Elisabeth Moss ("The West Wing") — never mind he's about to be married.
It's a man's world
Smart, kicky and cosmopolitan, "Mad Men" is redolent of John Cheever short stories and "The Apartment," the multi-Oscar-winning film about corporate climbers that happens to have been released in 1960.
"By talking about that era," says Weiner, "I can talk about everything right now that I care about." Social mores. Civil rights. Sex. Gender roles. The definition of adulthood.
"I love the division that has existed since then," he adds — "a countercultural wave and a conservative wave that keep co-opting each other."
Weiner wrote the pilot script seven years ago, when he was 35 and had three children (he has four now) and already had been married for a decade.
"I was thinking about what it means to be a man," he recalls, "and I realized: This is more complicated than I thought it was gonna be."
His credits included the TV comedies "Becker" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." But his "Mad Men" script came to the attention of "Sopranos" mastermind David Chase, who hired Weiner as a writer for this lofty drama at the start of its fifth season.
Then AMC bought "Mad Men." A day after Weiner completed work on the first half of "The Sopranos'" sixth season in March 2006, he began casting the pilot. Shooting wrapped a few weeks later and he returned to "The Sopranos" for its final stretch.
He finished up last January. The next day, production began on the 13-episode "Mad Men" season.
Will viewers buy it?
Among the countless challenges the series has imposed is its exacting period look, from the men's natty suits to the plush midtown saloons.
Behold the IBM Selectric typewriters! A high-tech marvel in 1960 but nearly impossible to find in 2007, this is just one detail of the Sterling Cooper set, whose design is plenty modern for its day but also comes across as appropriately lived-in.
"We try to keep things dirty and cluttered enough," says Weiner, "and to keep the ashtrays filled."
Regular visual updating awaits "Mad Men," if it's a hit. Its first season will carry the story through December 1960, but successive seasons would likely advance in two-year increments.
"In five years, we would be at 1970," Weiner says. And what of Don Draper? His creator hopes to have the chance to take him all the way, while continuing to show that rules are made to be broken.