MAD MEN airs Thursdays at 10 pm on AMC. Rating: NNNN
If you've had enough of that Michael Bay movie where a vacuum cleaner battles a Rubik's Cube inside a washing machine before transforming into an 18-wheeler, two new-to-the-Toronto-dial TV channels are busy giving movie lovers a reason to stay home.
TCM (aka Turner Classic Movies) offers everything from 42nd Street to Stalag 17, with a bit of Mad Max thrown in for summer thrills. (We'll pretend we didn't see the one about Mel Gibson single-handedly winning the American Revolution.)
A few clicks up, AMC (formerly American Movie Classics) seems similar - until you notice the commercials, often for the inside-Hollywood celeb hand job called Sunday Morning Shootout, which feels as superficial as Entertainment Tonight only more pretentious.
Before long, you realize AMC isn't like TCM at all. It's really more like TBS. But instead of showing Men In Black II 19 times in one weekend, you get Dances With Wolves.
And like TBS, AMC is making a foray into original programming, which in this case actually turns out to be a good thing.
Mad Men is a smart, sophisticated drama about on-the-make Madison Avenue ad execs in pre-PC 1960. Focusing on booze, broads, cigarettes and swagger, it's an un-nolstagic look at a time when viewers were actually bewitched by genial TV ad men like Darrin Stephens and Larry Tate.
Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper, who, like the year in which he lives, is stuck between the steadiness and safety of the past and the seismic cultural shift to come. Vietnam, women's lib, the civil rights movement, free love and Watergate all loom ahead and above the series without ever being mentioned. We know what the future holds for men like Draper and can take satisfaction in the rude awakening they face.
Smart, successful and smug - again, much like that uniquely guilt- and self-doubt-free period in American history - Draper's suddenly confronted with a question men never really had to face before: What do women really want? Thankfully, he doesn't put on pantyhose and read their minds to find out.
Created and written by Matthew Weiner, a writer and exec producer on The Sopranos, this is a rich and serious character study that also delivers moments of dark humour and sly sexuality. Short skirts and subservience were the order of the day, while women in positions of power were condescendingly called "career girls," providing Weiner with plenty of fodder.
And because the series is set in an advertising agency, a business based on manipulation and deception, shades of Sweet Smell Of Success begin to seep in, adding yet another layer to an already textured story.
Draper and his ad buddies are hardly sympathetic - racism, sexism and general elitism prevail - but that's only because they're products of their time, just as Mad Men is distinctly a product of this drama-rich time.
THE BILL ENGVALL SHOW airs Tuesdays at 9 pm on TBS. Rating: N
Speaking of tbs, the atlanta cable net that bills itself as the channel that knows comedy makes you wonder about truth in advertising with its original sitcom The Bill Engvall Show.
It's a blue-collar domestic comedy in the vein of Roseanne, built around blue-collar comic Engvall - think Jeff Foxworthy without the redneck routine.
Engvall plays a family counsellor who - surprise, surprise! - has a hard time keeping his family life under control. His long-suffering wife (Nancy Travis) is the only one who actually seems to know what's going on, and their three kids come armed with the usual array of kid problems (school, sibling rivalry, dating, the odd escaped pet snake).
Cue the madcap mix-ups and miscommunications - like the one about TBS being able to judge what's funny.
What to watch this week
MONDAY, JULY 30
BIG LOVE (Drama) Season two of the controversial HBO drama about a polygamist family in Utah continues. Bill Paxton (Aliens) stars as a successful store owner married to three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Chloë Sevigny). They have seven children, not all of whom are happy about the shape of their family. Toss in a Church prophet, a closeted homosexual, some wayward Mormons and a Mother of the Year Award and you have one of TV's most complex dramas. 10 pm on TMN