AMC's “Mad Men” begins its second season Sunday night as the proud owner of 16 Emmy nominations, including a historic, first-ever-for-basic-cable best drama nod, shared with FX's "Damages." (Male lead Jon Hamm and recurring player Robert Morse, classed as a "guest star," are the other big-ticket nominees.) It has already won a Peabody Award and a couple of Golden Globes. It was the most prestigious show of 2007 in the sense that -- like "The Sopranos" years earlier -- it was the one to mention if you wanted to sound smart about your TV watching.
It is worth the noise. Set in the world of advertising (and its suburban adjunct) at the dawn of the '60s, it was not quite like anything else on television when it appeared, with its exceedingly measured tone, its unexpected setting and the thematic interests of creator Matthew Weiner (a "Sopranos" vet), who seems to see grand things in the smallest human affairs. (CBS' "Swingtown," another show about sexual mores and identity crises in a bygone age, strikes me as having been cast in its mold -- unsuccessfully -- though that may be only coincidence.)
If the new season doesn't start with a bang, it's just the natural breathing space before things get complicated again around the offices of Sterling Cooper, where the big news is the arrival of a Xerox machine.
Genius creative director Don Draper (Hamm) has survived the discovery that he is not who he says he is -- the secret remains all but secret -- and is for the time being without a mistress or love object other than his own missus. (There is a nice feint when we first see him, taking off his shirt as if for an afternoon tryst -- but he is only at his doctor's, learning that he has all the normal afflictions of a smoking, drinking, both-ends-of-the-candle-burning midcentury Manhattan business executive.) Wife Betty (January Jones), the world's most naive former fashion model, is over what amounted to a small nervous breakdown, back in control of her portion of her husband's world.
Unknowingly pregnant secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) has gone off somewhere during the break (ostensibly a "fat farm") and returned with no baby in sight. Senior partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) has come back from his heart attack and is smoking again but no longer adulterously involved with office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks). Junior account manager Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, who's almost 30 but barely looks 20), the unwitting father of Peggy's child, having failed in his attempt to extort Draper's love and approval, appears resigned to his place in the company and cautiously happy in his marriage. All this will change, of course.
The way people acted half a century ago, though of historical or sociological interest, is in itself not enough to build a series on. What 1961 gives Weiner (born 1965) is a moment of change, when identities are in play, old modes are crumbling and new opportunities arising, although few of the characters can see that yet -- and it's no surprise that the female characters are the more complex and interesting (and smarter than they're given credit for).
Although obviously heavily researched for period accuracy, with people and places dressed to a fare-thee-well, "Mad Men" is far from naturalistic -- it is less a re-creation than a dream of the time, filtered through old magazines, John Cheever stories and the movies, and (except as a pretext for discussing human desires) it is only sort of about the advertising industry, the mechanics of which are only glancingly touched on and which, as seen here, are not completely convincing. Some of the campaign ideas aren't much better than what Darrin Stephens came up with on “Bewitched.” (You would need to hire an actual agency to get that right.)
The actors seem to have been cast in part for their resemblance to other actors from that time -- Hamm is tall, dark and handsome in the Rock Hudson-James Garner mold, Jones is lithe and blond like Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint, and Hendricks has a body in the Monroe mode; in those days would have been described as "pneumatic," as in "filled with air." She is usually dressed in red, to match her hair, or in complementary green, which makes her look, in a way, like Christmas, a metaphor for expectation and possibility.
There is little in the way of "action" -- it is possibly the slowest, most deliberative show on television, which is one of the things that makes it so lovely and mysterious. Apart from the occasional heart attack or unsuspected pregnancy, the drama all comes out of decisions -- moral, practical, impulsive -- that determine what sort of life one will have, what sort of person one will become. I don't know whether this is what Weiner is actually driving at, but it's where he's going.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-D,S (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for dialogue and sex)