It's more than a little ironic that AMC is attempting to go legit with an original drama about soulless ad execs, when the network itself has had a notoriously hard time selling itself to the viewing public. The commercial-free channel that once billed itself as American Movie Classics and aired mostly movies from the 1950s or before has become AMC: The slogan is now "TV for movie people," which makes about as much sense as "a record company for heavy readers." The vibe on the channel is actually closer to "TV for people who would like to think of themselves as movie people but lack the energy," and the schedule of films in rotation reads like a completely average DVD shelf you'd find in any dorm at a Midwestern college: Classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sit next to the decidedly unclassic Blues Brothers 2000. The high meets the low in a confluence of mainstream predictability and inoffensive dreck, which pretty much makes the network the perfect place for Mad Men.
Mad Men ostensibly deals with an ad agency in 1960 New York, when men were men and women wore architecturally frightening underwear while being accosted in the workplace with the kind of sexually harassing remarks that are actually a little shocking to hear. Half of the gimmick of the show, created by Matthew Weiner, writer-producer for The Sopranos, is that kind of cultural cognitive dissonance of seeing a secretary get groped or watching a mother find her daughter with a plastic laundry bag over her head and merely express mild annoyance that her fresh dresses are now rumpled on the ground. There's also the clearly gay exec who does his best to cover his sexuality by amping up the sexual remarks—which adds to the feeling that Mad Men isn't about the stories or the characters, but is merely looking into a bygone era with a mixture of curiosity and mild disgust.
But if half the show is just the cheap thrill of watching people play dress up, the other half is watching those people act out a fairly rote melodrama. Weiner's time on The Sopranos means that Mad Men is inevitably being forced into that same mold of darkly lit offices, slick hair and commonplace adultery, and while Weiner certainly knows his material, the fact that he's so willing to stylistically rehash it is a disappointment. Mad Men lacks the sheer fire and energy of The Sopranos, and not simply because AMC won't let you get away with nearly what HBO does (AMC after dark consists largely of the same boring content as AMC daytime). It's also because while The Sopranos was a complex and original show, Mad Men wants to be all things to all people, offering the same aesthetic and stilted drama—unhappy philanderers, ambiguous mistresses, depressed housewives—that have marked too many series before it. It's as if Weiner wants his show to be just edgy enough to be noticed but actually safe enough to be digested by even the most casual viewer; no one has to think too hard here, and no one is asking you to. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the new show that feels like everything you've already seen. In a terrible twist, Weiner has fulfilled the calling of his characters by turning out something soothing in its blandness. Ad men call that kind of comfort "brand loyalty," and brother, you can't buy that.
New episodes of Mad Men air Thursdays at 9 pm on AMC.