In a bygone decade when I was young, I stumbled across a dusty, yellowed volume of Playboy magazine jokes from the 1960s, one of them lodging in my mind like a catchy advertising jingle: "A mistress is something between a mister and a mattress."
That antiquated one-liner almost perfectly captures the workplace environment of AMC's hit drama "Mad Men," a domain of sneaky wordplay, sexual permissiveness and casual objectification of females. Nobody at 1960s ad agency Sterling Cooper would bat an eye at a woman being called "something," not the cutthroat copywriters, the alcohol-soaked account executives nor even, probably, their besieged secretaries.
The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recently anointed "Mad Men's" freshman season as effectively the best serious show on television, giving it 16 Emmy nominations, the most of any drama this year. "Mad Men" and the FX legal drama "Damages" also set a milestone as the first shows on basic cable to be nominated for Best Drama.
"Mad Men's" second season debuted on July 27, riding a wave of deserved acclaim and hype worthy of Sterling Cooper. AMC's impeccable promotion could backfire and turn "Mad Men" from TV's most underappreciated show to its most overrated. It's not a groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting narrative like HBO's "The Wire" or Sci Fi's "Battlestar Galactica," which were virtually ignored by the Emmys. Nevertheless, "Mad Men's" success rests less on disciplined salesmanship than cunning craftsmanship that creates swanky surfaces and reveals the time bombs hidden beneath.
The series' basic premise won't surprise anyone. Creator Matthew Weiner recalls, with equal parts nostalgia, sympathy and revulsion, the dynamics of work and family life in the early '60s, a golden age of Lucky Strikes, vodka gimlets and porterhouse steaks, before health concerns and political correctness. The image-crafting "mad men" of Madison Avenue's ad agencies attempt to sell ideals of conformity, status and fulfillment, while their personal lives are choked with unexpressed resentment and frustration.
If the setting and conflicts seem obvious, "Mad Men's" two central characters have proved to be unexpectedly enigmatic. The more we learn, the less we know about Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Sterling Cooper's creative director, and Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), his former secretary turned junior copywriter. Draper could be the hero of his own magazine ads as a square-jawed, alpha male executive. He's earned the perfect job, built the perfect home and won the perfect wife, former model Betty (January Jones), but Draper finds his life unbearable. The only thing he seems to believe in is the power of advertising, and in the second season premiere, he argues for its artistic power: "You are the product. You, feeling something, that's what sells."
The first season revealed that Draper literally isn't who he appears to be, as he's haunted by a secret, impoverished childhood and a war-time identity switch. Hamm fully deserves his Emmy nomination – the actor burrows into Draper so we don't have to. His performance isn't sentimental or even particularly likable, yet we recognize Draper's fear and uncertainty behind his false front. Incidentally, it's a pleasure to see a contemporary show in which the main character's existential dilemma doesn't play out in Jungian dream scenes ("The Sopranos") or conversations with dead people ("Six Feet Under," and seemingly every other show).
Peggy's evolution has held even more surprises. Initially a wide-eyed naïf thrown into the typing pool, Peggy suffered the early wounds of the company's casual harassment, despite the tutelage of the office's queen bee, Joan Holloway (swivel-hipped Christina Hendricks). The more Peggy succeeds in the boy's club, the less connected she becomes with her femininity (and even a pregnancy). Moss conveys Peggy's increasing confidence among men and harshness among women, and takes her from the show's more vulnerable character to, I'm betting, its most potentially ruthless.
She increasingly seems like a soulmate for Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a Machiavellian account executive frantically trying to live up to the expectations of others. Kartheiser gives the show's most weirdly memorable performance. With his youthful demeanor, slicked-back hair and glassy eyes, he comes across like an evil ventriloquist dummy of himself. Campbell's vicious instincts prove so ineffectual that the corporate system seems as arbitrary for men as it is rigged against women.
The first season used the 1960 presidential campaign to indicate the twilight of 1950s lifestyle. Draper even said that he identified with Nixon as a "self-made man," which makes you wonder about Draper's self-image and moral destiny. It's a striking coincidence that "Mad Men," which debuted a year ago, offers such frequent parallels to the JFK comparisons in the present-day presidential race. The second season begins in early 1962 and anticipates the coming decade's cultural shocks. So far, Sterling Cooper faces invasion on two fronts: by a leviathan copy machine, for a little obvious humor, and by a youthful creative team, hinting that the generation gap's about to split wide open.
The new season's premiere episode proved a little too obvious, as the characters watched Jacqueline Kennedy's televised White House tour, and planted seeds for conflicts that will probably erupt later, such as Betty's marital restlessness. Apart from its moments of hedonistic humor and reckless parenting, "Mad Men" sets a tone of a slow simmer rather than a rapid boil, and DVD proves a better medium for its deliberate pace and scenes of unnerving quiet.
"Mad Men" rivals "Entourage" in its portrayal of men taking pleasure without thought of consequences, but I suspect that present-day audiences, even males, will watch it with relief that the times have passed, instead of envy. I know my lungs and liver couldn't keep up with the smoking and drinking. Modern-day men and women might not be any happier, but at least we seem to have more tools to figure out what we want. From a safe distance of a few decades later, we can appreciate how swell the lives in "Mad Men" look.