Currently nominated for 16 Emmys and the winner of last year's award for outstanding drama series, "Mad Men" -- which begins its third season Sunday night on AMC -- isn't basic cable's first prestige show.
There is "Rescue Me," for instance, which recently finished its fifth season. But it has come to stand for the good work that can be done there. And like "Rescue Me," it is more intense for having to be a little circumspect about things that premium cable delights in making explicit -- a strategy that appropriately reflects its themes and the more conservative time in which it's set.
The new season opens with a pair of naked feet in the light of an open refrigerator; they belong to Don Draper (Jon Hamm), our deeply flawed but physically immaculate ad-man hero, warming milk in the middle of the night for his equally splendid pregnant wife (January Jones).
As when "Lost" returns, we begin the new run of "Mad Men" wondering exactly when we are. The progress of Betty Draper's pregnancy, announced at last season's end, argues for late spring 1963, but there are no overt historical references to nail it down, and the episode feels, by "Mad Men" standards, relatively timeless, a little dreamy. As Don heats the milk for his sleepless wife, he sees visions of his own complicated genesis.
Shows such as this are sometimes called "cinematic" because there is thought given to how they look, and this is very much something to be looked at. And yet it is not like the movies at all; its language is a television language, couched in the luxury of having 13 hours to tell a story -- a story that is just a volume in a longer story, now entering its 27th hour.
That nothing much seems to be happening -- and happening slowly at that, to the frustration of some viewers -- means that small moments play large; it's television as Japanese tea ceremony. Characters are built gradually through action, not declaration, and that action might stray far from what is eventually revealed as the main point. There are those who find this all precious beyond belief -- with an average of only 1.8 million viewers an episode last season, this is a series that would not survive at all on broadcast television -- but I find it quite beautiful more often than not.
Apart from potential friction between lean and hungry account executive Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and published author-account executive Ken (Aaron Staton), and a crucial moment for gay-man-in-denial Sal (Bryan Batt), it is impossible even broadly to divine what creator Matthew Weiner has in mind for his characters this season. (He has said that things will be more "chaotic," but I imagine it will be a stately sort of chaos when it comes.) Copywriter Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) complains about the help; office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks) pulls off a small coup. But much of the cast is in a state of repose.
The year 2009 makes itself felt, in that a third of the staff at Sterling Cooper is being laid off, the company having been merged into a more successful British firm, whose presence is represented by financial officer Lane Pryce (the great Jared Harris, lately of "Fringe") and his officious secretary (Ryan Cartwright), who wants it understood that he is not a secretary in the American sense.
As to Don Draper, he begins this season, as he began the last, at a point of comparative domestic tranquillity. This is sure to be misleading. Sporting Hamm's good looks:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=y1-ESoGECIegsw PwurmZBw&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&ct=title&resnum=7 -- he's like a man in one of his own advertisements -- he embodies the fantasy male of the early 1960s, such as we understand it from afar: the Connery Bond, catnip to women, cruel when he wants to be, a survivor.
But he is also a mess, a well-tailored empty suit. Among other things, this is a show about the anxious men and the end of male privilege -- Pryce's secretary laments the "gynocracy" that rules the office from below, acknowledging in a way what many have observed of the show itself, that its female characters are the stronger and more interesting. It's through women that Don, whose life is and is not a lie, occasionally attempts to define himself -- the beatnik artist, the Jewish heiress, the jet-set gamin -- while his family goes in and out of focus.
This is a moral drama, a show about deciding who you are and who you want to be, of character as the sum of small choices.
There are no heroes or villains here, only people working out or being carried toward their individual destinies. And in who we root for and in what we root for them to choose, we also define ourselves.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and sex)