July 25, 2008

‘Mad Men’ Will Persuade You to Stay Tuned

By Robert Bianco

For TV's most enticing trip to the past, the future is now.

Returning Sunday for a second season, Mad Men is riding a wave of publicity and praise, from Emmy nominations to Television Critics Association awards. With luck, that wave will wash a few more viewers over to AMC, where they'll discover the chilling brilliance of Matthew Weiner's creation: a show that reflects the present in a smoky '60s mirror.

Welcome aboard the bandwagon, but take note: You don't so much follow Mad Men as sink into it. Returning once again to the polished, slicked-back constraints of a New York advertising agency on the cusp of a massive cultural shift, the first two episodes are more focused on character, tone and atmosphere than in advancing the mechanics of the plot. It's like life itself: There are days when nothing seems to happen, and yet much is happening.

And at the center of it all is Jon Hamm's seductively intense Don Draper, a genius of persuasion who has persuaded all around him to accept a personal history invented out of whole cloth. He's quite literally the all-American self-made man, and as changing mores swirl around him, he's growing dissatisfied with the product.

The show opens with a jump in time to Valentine's Day 1962, as Jackie Kennedy gives a televised White House tour that -- like so much in this show -- is less lovely and sanguine than appearances would first reveal. There is no Camelot here, and none of the characters' lives have turned out quite as they had hoped.

The beauty and joy of Mad Men is the way it immerses us in a shimmering view of the early '60s, a seemingly well-ordered world fueled by cigarettes and alcohol, where men and women wear their clothes and hair like suits of armor, and look darn good doing so. We know it's a facade, of course, and one that is about to shatter under an assault of drugs, sex, race, rock 'n' roll and Vietnam. The genius of the writing and the acting is the way it reveals what we may have missed at the time: The cracks are already there.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the portrayal and performances of the show's main female characters. There's Don's wife, Betty (January Jones, stunningly beautiful in a Valentine's dress), who traded modeling for marriage and has begun to question the bargain she made. There's Joan (Christina Hendricks), the steely, sexy secretary driven by the realization that her position is perilous. And there's Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), so determined to rise from secretary to one of the ad boys that she's hiding a baby from everyone -- including, it seems, from herself.

Catch Mad Men now, and you have the happy experience of jumping into a show at the height of its powers and confidence. Terrifically acted and gorgeously produced, this is a show that's both funny and frightening, that can simultaneously make you miss the '60s and feel blessed that they're gone. If it were an ad for scripted TV, it would persuade you to invest.

If this is the future of TV, the future's looking good.

Mad Men

AMC, Sunday, 10 ET/PT

**** out of four (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>