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Stylish 'Mad Men' examines 1960s ad world

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- John Slattery, the smooth, handsome, gray-haired actor who recently has romanced Carrie Bradshaw on "Sex and the City" and Gabrielle Solis on "Desperate Housewives," is a man who believes in truth in advertising.

During an interview session promoting "Mad Men," the new AMC series set in the Madison Avenue advertising world in 1960, Slattery briefly seemed to forget to sell the show and slipped into an honest assessment. It premieres on basic cable at 10 p.m. Thursday.

"This isn't a simple show," said Slattery. "It's a show that takes patience to watch. I mean, it's not that it isn't interesting."

Quickly, creator Matthew Weiner, a writer-producer on "The Sopranos," went into playful damage control mode. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," he said. "That did not sound good. This is action-packed."

"No, I mean patience as actually . . . you want to get to the end," explained Slattery. "The characters are complicated and they unfold."

Slattery was right to avoid blowing smoke and to lower expectations for a stylish, intelligent series that doesn't immediately make you fall in love madly. Weiner's "action-packed" line is the kind of hyperbole used in misleading advertising claims. His creation about the politically incorrect attitudes of powerful men is welcome at a time that most new basic cable shows are focusing on smart, powerful women of the 21st century.

"Mad Men" illustrates that women have come a long way, baby, since the sexist days of 1960. It was a time when businessmen drank heavily before, after and during work and women were primarily viewed as sex objects there to serve them.

The 42-year-old Weiner said he has been interested in 1960s admen since he was in high school. "I looked at these guys, at this world, these men who were overpaid and drank too much and smoked too much and were glib and cynical and bit the hand that fed them all the time and showed up late and had no respect for authority and I thought, 'These are my heroes,' " said Weiner with perfect comic timing.

In a way, he's biting the hand that feeds him, too. Television advertising, after all, pays for the shows being produced. And here's a show with a cynical take on everything from the selling of cigarettes to the selling of a president.

"[Advertising] is manipulative," conceded Weiner in an interview after the session. "But you cannot cheat an honest man. I have never met anyone who is intelligent who does not think that advertising does not work on them. And it actually works on them the best.

"Advertising finds out what we want and then tries to give it to us," he added. "So advertising does not make women feel that they are fat. You're already worried you're fat, whether you are or are not. People hate bad advertising. They don't hate good advertising. They say, 'wassup?' We talk more about this stuff than anything."

Weiner believes people in the advertising industry will be amused by the show.

"This agency does a lot of good," said Weiner. "They do not succeed all the time. They are not always smarter than their clients. Their clients are not always that smart. They will recognize at least what it means to try and be part of the culture when you are just selling something."

When selling a show like "Mad Men," it helps to have an attractive lead. Jon Hamm ("We Were Soldiers"), who has the same cool attitude as David James Elliott of "JAG," fills the bill. He stars as Doug Draper, a handsome, brilliant copywriter who is initially stumped about how to sell cigarettes once there is evidence that they kill people. His boss, Roger Sterling (Slattery), expects him to find ways to accentuate the positive or -- at the very least -- mask the negative at all costs. Meanwhile, ambitious, engaged, young account executive, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), may be angling for his job.

Elisabeth Moss, the president's daughter on "The West Wing," is aboard as a naive secretary, Peggy.

Warning: A viewer's immediate instincts about all the characters may end up being wrong.

"Everyone in my show has a desperate secret and is living a double life," said Weiner.

Here are the positives: From the opening credits, the pilot is stylish. It also has some humor, a few great lines about the selling of love, happiness and nylons, some examples of old school prejudice and some decent surprises.

Here's the dark side: The pace is a little slow and it isn't easy to find someone besides Peggy to root for -- something that even "The Sopranos" was able to sell in the Mob world.

But overall, this cynical take on a complicated mad, ad world is a product well worth buying.


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