Tube Talk: New TV shows stepping back in time

If summer TV is any indicator, life in the ’50s and ’60s was smoky, secretive and full of beautifully-saturated color.

TNT’s three-part mini-series, The Company—which stars Chris O’Donnell, Alfred Molina and Michael Keaton—takes viewers into the world of Cold War espionage from the 1950s to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, while AMC’s new original series, MadMen—starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery—showcases corporate politics in an upper-echelon ad agency circa 1960. The two productions span very different worlds, yet share great attention to period detail.

While The Company is a dramatic look at the CIA’s covert involvement in pivotal moments of the 20th century, MadMen underscores how much life has changed since 1960, often in not-so-subtle ways, from a doctor smoking while seeing a patient to young kids playing—unrestrained—in a moving car, climbing from the back seat into the front. One of the funnier scenes showed two women chatting in a typical 1960 suburban kitchen when they realize their kids are being too quiet. One of the moms stands up—cigarette in hand and obviously pregnant—and calls for the kids. The kids are playing “spaceman,” and the little girl rounds the corner with a plastic dry cleaning bag over her head. Is the mother concerned for her child’s safety? No. She says the girl better not have wrinkled the clothes she took out of the bag.

Watching scenes like that makes you wonder how anyone managed to survive childhood in that era. Similarly, The Company makes viewers wonder what might have been if the handful of men (and the occasional woman) involved in a few key moments of history had acted the slightest bit differently.

Also true is that both of these programs have stellar production values. Where MadMen’s Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency has a vibrant look reminiscent of the movie version of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (fans of which will note that its star, Robert Morse, plays the recurring role of the agency’s founding partner, Bertram Cooper), The Company has a darker, sometimes shadowy, look that beautifully echoes the cloak-and-dagger world of Cold War spies.

Both MadMen and The Company draw viewers into rich, intriguing settings from our not-so-distant past. When watching those smoke-filled eras fraught with inequality and every kind of -ism one can imagine, just be glad those times are in the past. Sure, the CIA is still undoubtedly running covert ops all over the world, but fewer agents—advertising as well as secret—are probably smoking.

Programming notes: MadMen airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on AMC; and The Company airs Sundays, Aug. 5, 12, and 19, from 7 to 9 p.m. on TNT.

from the Aug 1-7, 2007, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!