Thursday, July 31, 2008

“Mad Men” Returns and Lives Up to Its Hype

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

The new season of “Mad Men” (AMC, new episodes premiere Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern) bowed on Thursday by striking the exact right notes. Literally. The debut opens with Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again,” signifying that it was time to revisit the advertising execs of the Sterling Cooper agency, “like we did last summer.” The jaunty, fun-loving pop song may have matched my happiness at the return of this exceptionally well-crafted show, but it stood in stark contrast to the angst being felt by nearly everyone on the program.

At the end of the critically acclaimed first season, things for the main characters were decidedly up in the air. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was distraught, having come home to an empty house, after imagining on the train ride home that he would sweep his wife Betty (January Jones) into his arms and accompany her and their two kids to the Jersey Shore to see her family. His secretary, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), shortly after being promoted to junior copywriter, went into labor, which is only odd because she didn’t know she was pregnant. The last we saw of her, her newborn baby was lying in her arms, but all she could do was turn her head away.

The season premiere answers virtually none of the cliffhanger questions from last season, instead jumping viewers ahead to Valentine’s Day 1962 (from 1960), with only clues as to what happened in-between.

Don, who was already complicated and introspective, is even more so now, struggling with the reality of getting older. He goes for an insurance physical, lies about how much he drinks and smokes, but is still told by the doctor that he cannot keep up his current pace. He experiences pre-Viagra-era erectile dysfunction with Betty. His boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), all but forces him to interview two kids in their mid-20s for creative jobs, and one of them shows up for the meeting in a turtleneck rather than a jacket and tie, a capital crime in the world of “Mad Men.” After blowing off a meeting to sit in a bar and eat lunch alone, Don becomes interested in a book of Frank O’Hara poetry, “Meditations in an Emergency,” being read by someone at the bar. He ends up with a copy of his own, which he reads and then mysteriously mails to someone in the episode’s final scene. Who is the recipient? With none of Don’s mistresses from last season appearing in the second season debut, we have no idea.

Peggy, meanwhile, is trying to keep up with the boys, finding that being the only woman on the agency team isn’t easy. The men send her to ask Don’s new secretary about his whereabouts, and they meet later without telling her (and ignore her questions as to why). Peggy finds an outlet for her anger when she reduces Don’s secretary to tears, all for handling her question incorrectly. And what of Peggy’s baby? We don’t know. The only reference to the event is the conjecture of the guys (in Peggy’s absence, of course) as to how she lost so much weight so fast. One theory is that Don got her pregnant, but the prevailing opinion is that she attended a “fat farm.”

Nobody else is much happier. Betty has become colder and harder in the intervening years, possibly realizing that the stone wall that Don maintains around his feelings will most likely never be breached. Don and Betty have a housekeeper now, allowing Betty to disconnect from her kids and engage in horse riding. She seems to be lying regularly (she tells her friend that she didn’t watch a White House tour conducted by Jackie Kennedy on television, even though she did, and she also claims to have known immediately that her old roommate was a call girl when she and Don ran into her at the Savoy Hotel, even though Don had to tell her after she was gone). It’s as if she is choosing to be dishonest with others rather than with herself. Betty becomes so obsessed with the her old roommate’s profession that she stands at the brink of offering sex to a tow truck mechanic that rescues her on a dark road, in exchange for a new fan belt.

Meanwhile, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), who bounced back from last year’s promotion snub to bring in the Clearasil account, is taking heat from his wife about her not being pregnant yet. Roger can’t stem his obsession with his former fling, office manger and resident bombshell Joan (Christina Hendricks), who is now dating a doctor, but was more interested in the Jackie Kennedy telecast than his amorous advances. Closeted Salvatore (Bryan Batt) is uncomfortably playing house with a woman, and none of the Sterling Cooper staff members are happy about the threat posed by the younger generation of ad men, all, presumably, waiting to take their jobs.

I understand that the cold description of these events can seem dry, even downright boring, but the show is anything but. Presented with a single sponsor and only one commercial break, the extended season debut flew by, jumping from one memorable scene to another. “Mad Men” can be complicated dark, quiet, ponderous and nuanced, but it also manages to consistently entertain, with the ability to be exceptionally funny and thriller-tense at times. The show is driven by subtle character moments, not large plot points, and yet manages to keep its audience riveted. It relies on stellar writing and powerful performances to get the job done.

The season premiere offered more than a few classic “Mad Men” moments. Joan’s obsession with finding the right place for the office’s first copy machine was a constant source of laughs, ending with its placement in Peggy’s already cramped office. Sharp lines abound, like when Paul (Michael Gladis), upon seeing the copier, tells a group of secretaries, “Happy Valentine’s, girls.” Don’s encounter with two foul-mouthed, loud men, acting boorish in the presence of a woman in an elevator, had me on the edge of my seat.

And the show’s legendary attention to period detail, from the clothing to the décor of the homes and offices, continues to amaze. If there is a better looking program on television, I haven’t seen it.

The centerpiece scene of the debut episode was the Jackie Kennedy television tour, which artfully bound together the story lines into one arc. When Betty says about the First Lady, “It looks like they’re playing house,” you can’t help but think that she could be talking about herself. With everything changing for the “Mad Men” characters, it has to be especially threatening to have such a young president, especially considering that Sterling Cooper worked for Nixon. No wonder Don was so resistant to interviewing the young creatives. After all, as he notes, young people don’t know anything.

“Mad Men” slipped onto the air barely noticed last summer. But after mass critical acclaim, abundant media exposure (including an Entertainment Weekly cover in June), and 16 Emmy nominations, the show’s return to the air was a hotly anticipated event, drawing double the audience from last season. With increased expectations comes increased pressure. But if the season premiere of “Mad Men” is any indication, the creative team behind the show is ready, willing and able to meet the challenge and live up to the program’s notices.

It’s common for critical darlings that get major coverage from the entertainment media to have to cope with a subsequent backlash. At the rate “Mad Men” is going, that negative reaction will be postponed indefinitely. It will be hard for anyone to say anything bad about this entertaining and exceptionally well-crafted hour of television.