Last Night's TV: When men weren't afraid to kick butts

Mad Men, BBC2

Mad Men takes place in a haze of cigarette smoke and an even thicker haze of knowing hindsight. Everyone in it smokes, even a gynaecologist preparing to examine a patient. But this prelapsarian age, in which every interior is blued by exhalation and you can inhale without anxiety because doctors endorse cigarettes, is about to end. Reader's Digest has published an article linking cigarettes and cancer, the surgeon general is putting his foot down on health claims, and the news has even trickled down to the nightclub waiter who has to clear out the ashtrays, a task that presumably requires the use of a snow shovel and a wheelbarrow. And all of this is very bad news for Don Draper, head creative at the Madison Avenue agency in which Mad Men is set. The Lucky Strike people are due in for a crisis meeting and Don has nothing to offer them. He doesn't know the half of it either, because Mad Men is set in 1960 and everything that Don's world depends on – the unquestioned entitlement of the Wasp male – is beginning to change.

Which is where the knowing hindsight comes in, to such a degree that it almost unseated the first episode of a drama that arrives with Golden Globes in the trophy cabinet and the name of a Sopranos veteran, the writer , tacked to the credit list. It's as if every character knows that it's their obligation to map out the seismic changes in the landscape of received opinion that have occurred between then and now. Showing a new secretary to her desk, the office manager hauled the cover off an electric typewriter and said reassuringly: "It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use." "Have we ever hired any Jews?" the agency boss asked, trying to track down an employee who might make a Jewish client feel more at home. "Not on my watch," replied Don cockily, serenely confident that anti-Semitism was what the occasion required. And when Salvatore, a closeted homosexual, was introduced to Freudian ideas about repressed desire, Don scoffed: "So we're supposed to believe that people are living one way and secretly thinking the exact opposite? That's ridiculous!" I'm still trying to work out whether Salvatore was in on this irony or not, but either way the moment couldn't have been much less subtle if he'd carried a placard reading "Unraised Consciousness" and was wearing turquoise pedal pushers and a feather boa.

For those of us looking down from the perspective of 2008, there are curiously mixed pleasures in all of this. There's a straightforward wallow in period detail – the retro-chic of the suits and the Saul Bass-pastiche opening titles and the uncanny Eisenhower-era physiognomy (even their skulls seem to be in period). Then there's a self-congratulatory frisson as we contemplate how far we have advanced in the past 50 years. And beneath that – lurking a little furtively – is something oddly like envy, for the thoughtless swagger of a time when you just didn't have to worry so much about doing the right thing. Not being black, Jewish, gay or female, I'm not really in a position to say whether this is universal, or a whisper heard only by the dethroned, but I suspect that the glamour of unselfconsciousness may have an appeal to everyone. It's not a nostalgia for the inequalities; only for the sense that you have no responsibility to do something about them. And the result of all this – at least at a point where the characters have still to get their hooks into you – is something that feels more like a historical parade float than a real slice of life. Oh, look, that must be Undisguised Racism... and there's Sexual Harassment giving us a wave.

Fortunately, the characters are not just tableau models. Don Draper's strut, for example, stutters a little in the face of two women who have decided not to wait around for women's liberation: the proprietor of a Jewish department store who has the temerity to tell him he's wrong about the campaign he's proposing, and his artist mistress who outdoes him in sexual independence. Even the drama's least sympathetic character – a creepily ambitious young buck called Pete – turns out to have some softening complications. And when Don goes home at night, he returns to a wife whose suburban idyll appears to be slowly killing her. I'm not buying the whole package yet, but I'm still open to the pitch.

I would have liked to review last night's The Hard Sell as well, given that it covered the advertising of alcohol and cigarettes. But the BBC supplied the wrong programme, so I can't. It's a pity, because it would have been nice to see if British advertisers concurred with the Austrian researcher in Mad Men who proposed that Don's best strategy for Lucky Strike was to tap into a hitherto unexploited aspect of consumer psychology: "ze death vish".

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