Modern Day ‘Mad Men’

When Trust Me, the new TNT series about advertising, debuts on Jan. 26, it will have a few strikes against it from the get-go. The first, obviously, is the success of Mad Men. That show has set a high bar for writing, casting, set design, cinematography, etc., while also getting to draw on the smoky, boozy and by now hazy pull of the early 1960s. (Few people who were around in the agency biz then are still working.)

By contrast, Trust Me is set in the amped-up, dressed-down, far more complicated present day — which is both less fun to look at and easier to criticize for straining credulity. Plus, it’s written by Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny, creative refugees from Chicago agencies Leo Burnett and Young & Rubicam, who left the business in 2000. So, the claws will be out.

They write about what they know. Which is, themselves. Conner, played by Tom Cavanaugh (of Ed fame), is a brilliant, high-strung writer type. He’s partners with Mason McGuire, played by Eric McCormack (of Will & Grace), the solid, clever art director/family man, who tries to be a good guy.

(McCormack basically plays a straight Will to Conner’s male Grace.) So, there’s the third problem: two established comic leads starring in that most perilous and delicate of creations: the “dramedy.”

Fifteen minutes into the pilot, Stu Hoffman, creative director at our fictional agency, Chicago’s Rothman Greene & Mohr, pitches a hissy fit. “Clients are I-DI-OTS!” he screams, after his campaign is killed. He returns to his corner office, slams the door and drops dead of a heart attack. Everyone’s afraid to go in, so it’s a few hours before a new hire finds him cold and open-mouthed on the floor.

Yikes. Even though he was a primo asshole in jeans and a tight Paul Smith shirt (nice touch), Stu was a human being, and as Arthur Miller said, attention must be paid. Eventually, Conner goes in, lies on the floor in the now-bleached-out spot where his boss was found, and then steals his really expensive desk chair.

Ba-bum.

The two episodes I previewed were very smart and intricately written, and the only tone problems I felt came in post-production, with too-cutesy music and on-screen character titles.

Mason and Conner exchange clever, rat-a-tat-tat patter and finish each other’s sentences, but some of the most enjoyable riffs come from the cranky, rumpled group creative director Tony Mink, brilliantly played by Griffin Dunne. At one point, he takes Mason for a walk to tell him about his promotion. (He’s getting the dead guy’s job, which means he’ll be Conner’s boss. Conner’s a better presenter but doesn’t seem to have Mason’s passion for the business.) On their way to Starbucks, Mink goes on about his back problems, explaining how the spine’s cartilage is supposed to cushion the bones. “Having Stu Hoffman in my group was like living without cartilage in your back for seven years,” he tells Mason.

Another show-stealer is Monica Potter (from Boston Legal), who plays Sarah Krajicek-Hunter, an award-winning copywriter who came aboard to be Stu’s partner and is the one who discovers him dead. Given the mess she walks into at Rothman, she hoofs it to DDB and asks for her old job back. This sets up another great bit of dialogue. Her old creative director tells her there is no job. “You’re high-maintenance, abrasive, arrogant and you always think guys are hitting on you,” he says.

“That’s not true,” she replies.

“Oh, and I forgot, argumentative,” he adds. “You’re a good writer, but there are lots of good writers in this city. I’m going to hire one I don’t hate.”

Gulp.

Sarah is certainly flawed, but you also see her talent and a kernel of goodness, even if it’s constantly blocked by her anxiety and need to control. That said, she works in a mostly male environment, and while things have changed since the Mad Men days, women are still sadly underrepresented. (The account manager seems to be the only black guy at the agency, which also unfortunately rings true.)

While some things haven’t changed since the writers left nine years ago, there’s precious little in the first two episodes about digital, though one plot point does involve a texting campaign. (“Do thumbthing” is the tagline.) There’s also a great bit about a British twit who presents hugely clichéd work with the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose name he pronounces as if he’s discovered penicillin.

All in all, it’s very knowing show about the struggles and conflicts of working in advertising: professional/personal, art/business. As Mason puts it, it’s about whether “it’s possible to do this job without being an asshole.”

I found it surprisingly good — I’d give it two thumbs up. And in this age of Mad Men worship, that’s thumbthing.