'Mad Men' madder still, and better than ever

The Baltimore Sun

Advertising executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is having health concerns and a sudden problem in bed. His strikingly beautiful wife, Betty Draper (January Jones), meanwhile, is feeling feminist Betty Friedan's "nameless aching discontent" worse than ever in their suburban Connecticut life, and has taken up horseback riding and flirting with strangers to try and fill the void.

Copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) has a most unwelcome office mate, as well as a host of problems in her new role as unwed mother. And senior partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is back on the job full time - scheming, smoking, drinking and seemingly none the wiser for his brush with death last year during an all-night sex romp at the office.

Welcome back to the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, circa 1962, and the start of Season 2 of AMC's Mad Men, the richest, wisest and sexiest drama on television.

As hard as it might be to imagine after last year's dazzling debut, this period piece about life in a mid-sized Madison Avenue ad agency during the early 1960s returns tonight looking and feeling even stronger, smarter and more focused than it was. At least in the first two episodes made available for preview, Mad Men has become one of those rarest of rare TV productions, capable of instantly transporting viewers to another place and time - leaving you at the end of the hour feeling as if you are waking from a reverie as the final credits roll.

For baby boomers, perhaps, it is not so much a shift in consciousness to a dreamlike state as a deeply informed journey back into shared memories of the America of their youth and adolescence. Either way, it makes for a transcendent TV experience.

Tonight's season opener is set on Valentine's Day, a clever conceit for bringing viewers up to date on the status of several of the romantic and/or sexual relationships in the Sterling Cooper universe.

The final image with which viewers were left at the end of last season was Draper returning to an empty home on Thanksgiving eve. Betty had taken the kids and gone to her parents - but was it for the holiday, or possibly for good?

The irony: Earlier in the day, Draper had made a brilliant "Time of Your Life" presentation to executives from a company that makes cameras and other photographic equipment. Think Kodak.

He wowed the potential clients using pictures from his own family enjoying happier times - a sunny and moving montage of images that gave lie to the truth of his troubled family situation.

Draper's pitch was another perfectly sculpted metaphor in this brilliant meditation on how the image makers of Madison Avenue have gone about the business of shaping a nation's consciousness in the last half-century until we can hardly think straight. Mad Men shows the role the advertising industry and media have played in creating and selling a worldview that says happiness is found in driving gas-guzzling SUVs, living in McMansions, paying $600 for a pair of shoes and eating super-sized meals.

Physically, the Drapers, a magazine-like perfect-looking couple, are together as Season 2 starts, but emotionally, they seem at times to be galaxies apart. That is one of the most impressive aspects of Baltimore-born creator Matt Weiner's sensibility: He has a novelist's sensitivity to the private, intellectual and fantasy lives of his characters and he is masterful in charting the spaces that don't overlap in couples' relationships and using them to forge dramatic tension.

And while Season 2 opens with Don, the good-looking, hard-drinking, chain-smoking ad man still the focal point of the drama, one of the most pleasant surprises is the extra screen time and space for his wife. On a practical level, Weiner would be a fool not to try and further showcase January Jones.

The word "iconic" has been misused and overused until it seems to have lost most of its meaning. But besides her impressive acting talent, Jones is one of the few truly iconic presences on American TV. It is not that her image is so widely known - it definitely isn't. It is rather that her onscreen image instantly conjures a mainstream cultural notion of feminine beauty from an era defined by the luminous, blond, good looks of actress Grace Kelly.

To Weiner's great credit, he goes far beyond simply exploiting the iconic power of Jones' figure and face. As a writer, he takes viewers inside Betty Draper's psyche and, in so doing, serves up one of the most informed feminist critiques that TV has ever offered. Viewers who might never have read Friedan's landmark book The Feminine Mystique will understand - and feel - the urgent need for change that brought on the Women's Movement in 1960s America thanks to this character.

And Weiner doesn't stop with Betty Draper. He and his staff of producers and writers, which includes another Baltimore native, Robin Veith, looks at the life of women in 1960s America through myriad points of view.

One of the most powerful story lines is that of Olson. As a new assistant to Draper, she was the viewer's point of entry in the series pilot. In the pilot, we met her on the morning of her first day on the job and literally walked through the front doors of Sterling Cooper with her.

Intelligence and ambition won Olson a junior copy writing position last season, but as Season 2 opens, everyone is still trying to "put her in her place" - including such women as office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks).

Played with a dark determination by Moss (The West Wing), Olson is a case study in the steep price women once had to pay for a professional career.

But forget the sociology. As the opening of this piece indicates, Season 2 of Mad Men is loaded with sex, style and even a healthy dose of soap-opera intrigue. It's a pleasure - one of the few on television that can be consumed utterly without guilt and then argued about for hours as to what it all means.



Sun TV critic David Zurawik discusses Season 2 of Mad Men at baltimoresun.com/zurawik


Mad Men airs at 10 tonight on AMC.

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