This may not be the golden age of television, but perhaps it’s the titanium age: high quality in large quantities.
There are so many good shows now that the people who watch TV for a living are being forced to specialize. For instance, I would say “Battlestar Galactica” was a very good show; my ardor for the fantasy genre simply doesn’t burn hot enough to make it a great show in my eyes.
But if you’ve got an hour to kill, I could rank the top 20 late-night hosts of all time.
At any given time, though, there usually is one program that sweeps through the critical community so powerfully that resistance is futile. There is such a show on TV now. And for the first time in a decade, that show is not on HBO.
“Mad Men” begins its third season Sunday on AMC, and those of us who love great TV — even those of us with plenty to watch this summer — have been counting the days.
Much like the critics’ previous long-term crush, “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” pushes hard on a multitude of pressure points in the body politic, creating that satisfying feeling that reminds us why we seek solace in popular entertainment.
In 1999, as the walls of the dot-com bubble began to strain, “The Sopranos” exploited our growing suspicion that the American dream was only available to the few. Here was a show about a corporation built on shady Internet startups and the control of industries ranging from construction to crack, where competition was not only frowned on but rubbed out.
“The Sopranos” also hit a cultural bull’s-eye, a hilarious, single-camera comedy at a time when viewers had tired of sitcom predictability. And it tapped the audience’s knowledge of the mob genre, making “The Sopranos” one of the most referential shows to date. Both creative trends, borrowed from cinema, would prove hugely influential in reshaping the landscape of television drama.
“Mad Men” comes along at a time when our collective suspicion has reached new levels, and it’s become Wal-Mart-fashionable to question everything you’re told, whether it’s the premise for foreign war or the need for health-care reform.
It’s also a time of tremendous upheaval in the media industry, as consumers learn to play hide and seek with traditional advertising methods and cause chaos behind the scenes at the companies built on them.
It is, in short, the perfect time for a revisionist account of American persuasion, told through the eyes of a deeply flawed yet oddly sympathetic figure who understands primal needs and has mastered the black art of pretending to satisfy them.
That man is Don Draper, as sold to us by Jon Hamm. He is, his new bosses remind us, the face of Sterling Cooper, the old-school Madison Avenue agency which, in the mythology of “Mad Men,” has taught choosy smokers to choose Luckies and insecure husbands to preserve family memories on Kodak slides.
Sterling Cooper also urged the undecided to select Dick Nixon as the voice of a new generation — one of the more obvious clues dropped into the first two seasons that Don and company don’t have a clue as to what changes are in store for the country — or them.
(Kind of like the way Tony Soprano didn’t see the end of a way of life coming, either ... but let’s not get started again comparing those two shows. Suffice it to say that one of the first to tell “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner he had a helluva script there was Weiner’s boss at the time: “Sopranos” creator David Chase.)
One of those shocks to the system already happened at the end of last season, when Sterling Cooper voted to be taken over by a British agency. That action will result in someone’s head getting lopped off in Sunday’s premiere, touching off an in-house battle to succeed him.
Don missed the merger vote because he was off sowing his wild oats. But now he has returned home, and wife Betty (January Jones) has taken him back into their family, which is about to increase by one with her surprise pregnancy. If you thought that might cause Don to give his wandering eye a rest for, oh, 12 hours or so, you would be mistaken.
There’s been lots of online speculation about what will happen when JFK dies or the Beatles arrive in the fictional world of “Mad Men.” In interviews, Weiner has suggested the answer will be: Not that much.
If the show’s depiction of election night 1960 is any precedent, recall that several Sterling Cooper minions barely paid attention to the Kennedy-Nixon vote drama. They were too busy getting drunk and hitting on each other.
And yet, that same episode featured one of the show’s most dramatic developments, as Don’s dark secret was discovered by a jealous rival at the firm, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).
“Mad Men,” in other words, is not a 1960s Hertz ad where characters fly into a car speeding down the fast lane of history. The show pursues the more intriguing alternative strategy of shaking up the characters’ little worlds at work and home. When Betty tries aborting her child by taking a rough ride on a horse, you wonder if that’s always how women dealt with unwanted pregnancies pre-Roe or if it took a million women like Betty to bring about Roe.
And while there is the underlying assumption that the squares at Sterling Cooper won’t know what hit them when the seminal Sixties events unfold, I wouldn’t be so sure. In fact, it’s safe to assume that some Eisenhower-era types here will learn to be groovy, just as they did in the 1960s America that “Mad Men” tries so strenuously to replicate. That is one of my anticipations for the third season—that some characters will start to let their hair down.
Honestly, though, the cast is so superb, the dramas of each episode so exquisitely told, that if I were Matt Weiner I would slow down the clock as much as possible. We’re in no hurry here to get to the moon landing. The endless possibilities for “Mad Men” are a product both of its large, appealing ensemble and the X-factor of history.
That’s one way in which it is not like “The Sopranos,” a show that revolved around one man whose incapacity for change finally exhausted the show’s creative potential. I’m not sure “Mad Men” will be as creatively influential as HBO’s signature series was; period dramas are not exactly popping up all over TV.
If I were to handicap its legacy, I would say it could be twofold: “Mad Men” has shown that you cannot overload an audience’s craving for information (check AMC’s hugely detailed website and the scores of fan blogs if you don’t believe me).
And, last but not least, “Mad Men” proves it is possible to shock 21st-century TV watchers without dropping a single frontal bra cup or F-bomb.
WHO’S WHO IN THE MADIVERSE
The characters who inhabit the world of “Mad Men,” and what’s in store for them in the season three premiere Sunday on AMC.
—Don Draper: The adman will have a vision that gives more detail behind his mysterious upbringing. He’ll also have to assure an old client that the takeover of Sterling Cooper won’t change a thing in their relationship. (The ‘60s are another matter.) And Don will show again why he’s TV’s successor to Tony Soprano as the Great Philanderer.
Played by: Jon Hamm
—Betty Draper: Expecting a third child, and eager for a happy home to bring the baby into, she has welcomed back Don despite his infidelity. Everything seems like old times. She’s pretty good at keeping her emotions in check, until she needs to take her frustrations out on the neighbor’s pigeons.
Played by: January Jones
—Peggy Olson: The fastest-rising woman in Sterling Cooper history isn’t going to let a corporate takeover stall her career growth. How will she deal with Pete’s confession that he loves her more than his wife?
Played by: Elisabeth Moss
—Pete Campbell: The British invasion of Sterling Cooper could be a huge boost to his career, or a huge road bump. It’s all in how he plays his cards — and given his history, that doesn’t bode well.
Played by: Vincent Kartheiser
—Joan Holloway: The queen bee of the secretaries, Joan is convinced she’s not long for the company. But when a rude young British executive begins taking liberties around the office, she can’t help reacting as only Joan can.
Played by: Christina Hendricks
—Roger Sterling: The son of the founder is still drinking hard and womanizing, having left his wife for Don’s young former secretary. How much longer until the new owners of Sterling Cooper give him the heave-ho?
Played by: Roger Sterling
—Sal Romano: Being a closeted gay man in 1963 is a bit redundant — at least among ambitious career men, acting straight was part of the bargain. But that resolve was sorely tested last season and will be again in Sunday’s premiere.
Played by: Bryan Batt
—Bert Cooper: Already regretting the merger that brought on what he calls “British rule,” the firm’s co-founder continues to bring a salty, old-soul perspective to the world of “Mad Men.”
Played by: Robert Morse Sunday