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Slick 'Mad Men' visits Madison Ave. at dawn of the '60s

In 'Mad Men,' Jon Hamm plays an ad man working on a campaign to sell cigarettes as the health risks become known. In "Mad Men," Jon Hamm plays an ad man working on a campaign to sell cigarettes as the health risks become known. (Craig Blankenhorn/AMC)

It's 1960, and handsome New York ad man Don Draper is living out an episode of "The Twilight Zone." With his pitch-black hair Brylcreemed back into a helmet, Don has signed a deal with the devil. He must create a successful ad campaign for Lucky Strike, despite new evidence that cigarettes can be deadly. In return, he'll win the thrill of controlling the masses, of luring the rats to the river.

Played to slick perfection by Jon Hamm, Don Draper is the slippery figure at the center of "Mad Men," a really extraordinary new drama on, of all places, AMC. He's one of the head sharks in a tank of ruthless Mad men -- Madison Ave. ad men -- whose mission is to seduce an increasingly savvy public.

The series, tonight at 10, is set at that moment right before America woke up from the 1950s. Don and his co-conspirators at the Sterling Cooper agency are watching helplessly as the rules of their game change daily, as the culture wars -- over women's rights, diversity, divorce, health concerns -- begin to kick in.

But please don't think "Mad Men" is merely nostalgia. It's so much richer than that. The show is layered with still-resonant ideas, about the oppressive reign of bottled-up WASPS in ties, about whether love is, as Don puts it, "invented by guys like me to sell nylons." In the premiere, Don and his secretary-leering assistants have an explosive meeting with a newfangled threat -- de partment-store executive Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), who is both an aggressive woman and a Jew. While Don can condescendingly tell his sweet new secretary (Elisabeth Moss) to "go home, put your curlers in, and we'll get a fresh start tomorrow," he is thrown by Rachel.

Meanwhile, Don's boss, played with cagey charm by John Slattery, tracks down the firm's only Jewish employee, who works in the mailroom, and props him up at the Menken meeting for show.

The series gets only wittier in later episodes, when, in a darkly comic twist, Don, such a whiz selling cigarettes, is pressured to promote a young politician named Dick Nixon. The movie-centric AMC may seem like a strange home for such a provocative series, until you think about classics such as "Sweet Smell of Success," "The Apartment," or "Gentleman's Agreement." Like "Mad Men," they also draw dividing lines between innocence and civilized corruption, between the appearance of happiness and the reality of anxiety. They also give us intelligent men abusing power. "Mad Men" has the feel of an Elia Kazan morality tale.

But the first thing you notice about "Mad Men" is its surface. This is a gorgeously fashioned period piece, from its IBM typewriters and rotary phones to the constant fog of cigarette smoke hanging over every scene. The show has a subtle color palette, to match the ivory metal Venetian blinds at the Sterling Cooper ad agency offices, but it may sit in your memory as if it had been filmed in black and white. The actors seem to have been cast according to their physiognomies, which recall actors from the 1940s and '50s. Hamm has a Gregory Peck-like nobility, but with haunted eyes, and his creepily competitive subordinate, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), has a Farley Granger air about him.

"Mad Men" was created by Matthew Weiner, formerly a writer-producer on "The Sopranos" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." And Weiner has made all the right choices in his handling of the material. Like the best creative forces of cable TV, he doesn't spell things out. He leaves room for ambiguity, particularly when it comes to the character of Don. Tonight, as Don the wonder boy strains to invent a new approach to the Lucky Strike account, we have to wonder: Is he having a crisis of confidence -- or a crisis of conscience? Hard to tell.

Don is far from a cipher, but his true demons will probably take many episodes to emerge from the deep. A war hero, he is clearly sitting on post-traumatic stress issues -- the echoes of explosions surround him as he naps in the office. But he has no interest in self-analysis, and he dismisses psychiatry outright, when an agency researcher cites Freud. "Freud, you say. What agency is he with?"

I am anxious to learn the truth about Don, which will surely rise to the surface as the season progresses. His rigorous efforts at repression will surely fail him, just as they failed his country.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

'Related'

Mad Men

Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, John Slattery, Rosemarie DeWitt

On: AMC

Tonight, 10-11

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