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"Mad Men was a term used in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue, New York. They coined it."

So the scene is set for the new series created by Matthew Weiner. As you would expect from the producer and writer of The Sopranos, this is brilliant and imaginative television. The opening credits of a falling man are reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, but after the 9/11 attacks they are even more ominous, set against buildings emblazoned with colourful images of products and lifestyles the (m)ad men are trying to sell.

Set in the early 1960s, Mad Men depicts the advertisers' world where men wear sharp suits, drink cocktails and harass their secretaries. Black people are waiters and porters. They may be seen but are definitely not heard. And women are called "girls", and men who love men - well, they just kept that to themselves.

The 1960s was a time when the US economy was booming. The job of these ad men was to sell a piece of the American Dream, even if it was just a new fridge, a car or a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes. This series captures beautifully the world these people inhabit, the ambient-lit bars and soaring skyscrapers.

But the US of the 1950s and early 1960s was a deeply contradictory society. The economy may have been booming but Cold War paranoia and the stench of racism were never far from the surface. Many people view the 1960s as a time of liberation and the break up of so called traditional family values. But what Mad Men shows is that for much of that decade the social straitjacket of the 1950s lingered on.

Just like the television series The Sopranos and The Wire, the 13 one-hour episodes give the filmmakers of Mad Men plenty of time to develop complex and dynamic characters, plots and subplots.

This is typified by one of the central characters of the series, Don Draper. On the surface this handsome and suave creative director of the advertising agency Sterling Cooper seems to have everything - a trusting wife and two children and a beautiful home in the suburbs. But behind the fa├žade is a troubled man, trapped in a claustrophobic relationship with a cupboard full of skeletons.

The series also portrays the deep rooted sexism found in the workplace at that time. The women in the ad agency are secretaries or telephonists and they are viewed by the young male executives as just "office eye candy".

Peggy is the "new girl" in the office. She is the prototype of the 1960s young woman. Unlike her workmates she is not married or living with her parents. She shares a flat with a friend and goes on the pill - which was just being made available. Even this is a battle with the old values. When Peggy goes to see her gynaecologist he instructs her not to abuse the contraceptives he's willing to prescribe. "Even in our modern times", he warns sternly, "easy women don't find husbands".

But there are women who reluctantly accept their lot. The head of the typing pool, Joan, is one of them. When she removes a plastic cover from an IBM electric typewriter she tells Peggy, "Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology. It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use."

Sterling Cooper, the ad agency, may be based in New York and not the Deep South but racism is ever present. Anti-Semitic jokes and casual racist remarks are accepted as the norm. One episode really captures this deep-seated bigotry.

Don's boss, Roger Sterling, asks him to run an advertising campaign for a new client, Rachel Menken, whose Jewish family owns a department store. Before the first meeting Roger asks Don to bring in a Jewish colleague to make her more "comfortable". Don says there aren't any, and is surprised to enter the room and find himself being introduced to David Cohen. Roger murmurs, "I had to go all the way to the mailroom, but I found one."

The ad men sell everything - even politics. Roger tries to enlist Don to work on a presidential campaign. "Consider the product: He's young, handsome, a navy hero," Roger says. "Honestly, it shouldn't be too difficult to convince America that Dick Nixon is a winner."

Mad Men is based on a point in history when the US was on the cusp of change - a time when the old ideas were about to be challenged by a wave of struggles against racism, war, sexism and homophobia, and for many a battle against consumerism and greed. Only a fool could not see the parallels with today.

If you missed out on The Sopranos and The Wire don't make the same mistake with Mad Men - this is television of the highest quality.


Mad Men is shown on BBC4.