'Mad Men': low ratings, high profile
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - In the sometimes claustrophobic world of television criticism, the men and women of AMC's "Mad Men" are the newest rock stars.
And, hey, we've seen rock stars. Only last year, Sting played for the Television Critics Association at a PBS event. On his lute. While some might still be scratching their heads over what a relatively low-rated cable show was doing on the cover of Entertainment Weekly last month, the reporters in a Beverly Hilton ballroom with cast members Wednesday were treating them how the cast of "The Sopranos" used to be treated in their occasional visits to TCA - as people involved in a special kind of television.
Which they are.
In the show's first season, Matthew Weiner, a former writer on "The Sopranos," created an almost pitch-perfect version of early '60s America that centered on the advertising industry and used it to tell stories that, while sometimes far-fetched, managed to ring true.
His characters, led by up-and-coming executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm), all had secrets, each revealed in Weiner's own time. Over 13 episodes - now available on DVD! - a lot of us got attached.
Season 2, which begins on Valentine's Day 1962, a little more than a year past the point that Season 1 left off, premieres July 27. And from the first two episodes, I'd say Weiner hasn't lost his way.
In contrast to their buttoned-up appearance on a show where the costumes also tell stories, the men Wednesday were in open collars, the women a little more pulled together, the way actresses usually are at these events.
Robert Morse, whose presence on the show is an ongoing wink to his own '60s past - he was the young guy in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," and now, as he says, "I'm the Rudy Vallee part" - looked the most relaxed of all, while Hamm and co-star Vincent Kartheiser, who plays "Mad Men's" own ambitious youngster, Pete, let their hair fall across their foreheads in a studied way that shrieked "No, I'm not that guy you saw on TV!"
Hamm, movie-star handsome in a way that movie stars hardly ever are anymore, claims not slicking back his hair keeps him from getting recognized all that much, but it's more likely that most viewers aren't yet used to looking to AMC - whose original shows used to be more along the lines of "Remember WENN" and "The Lot" - for HBO-level drama.
Hamm seems to get that, too.
"There's 400 channels. They all have original programming. They're all trying to clamor for anybody's attention," he said after the session. "It took me two seasons to get into 'The Sopranos.' It took me five seasons to get into 'The Wire.' ... I've watched all of 'Damages' on my phone. These are all wonderful television shows that went under my radar, for whatever reason, when they came out. So people will hear about it however they hear about it, and ratings and numbers and all of that stuff is - it's such a different game now."
That said, "Hopefully more people will watch, because I want more people to see the story ... I find it a tremendously interesting story, and I think more people would enjoy it."
"Generation Kill" (9 p.m. EDT Sunday, HBO), the latest project from David Simon and Ed Burns, producers of "The Wire" and "The Corner," isn't a Baltimore story. It's not even a Simon and Burns story. But the seven-part miniseries, based on a book and Rolling Stone magazine series by Evan Wright, does play to some of the team's strengths: telling complicated stories from the ground up, employing multiple characters whom viewers may at first have a little trouble telling apart, and gradually making them memorable while offering a total immersion into a 21st-century culture - in this case, the U.S. military - that many of us will never experience firsthand.
Much of "Generation Kill's" dialogue comes from Wright, who's also a co-writer on the miniseries, which focuses on his experiences as a journalist embedded with the Marines' First Reconnaissance Battalion during the first seven weeks of the 2003 Iraq invasion, and it's spoken by actors portraying real people. Since it's on HBO, not PBS - which was sticking its neck out on "The War" when it allowed a very few instances of profanity - Wright's subjects, like Simon and Burns' former ones, have permission to speak freely.
FX a few seasons ago came to ratings grief with the Steven Bochco series "Over There," a look at the Iraq war filmed near L.A. that was thought by some to hit a little too close to home.
"Kill," filmed in southern Africa, is about a very specific group of Marines. In the three episodes I've seen, it feels like an all-too-real re-creation of what it must have been like for Wright, dropped into the lead Humvee of Bravo Second Platoon on the leading edge of the invasion, to try to figure out who's who and what's what. I'm still not entirely sure where this one is going. But with Simon and Burns driving, I'm willing to go along for the ride.