This is where the revisionism should begin.
AMC's period drama "Mad Men" has rolled into its second season atop a wave of critical hosannas, a Peabody award, 16 Emmy nominations, plus a massive advertising blitz, designed either to convert the masses or else send them running for cover.
Nonviewers -- which is to say virtually everyone, given the series' relatively tiny first-year viewership -- should be skeptical. It's easy to conclude that no television drama could be worth that much attention. That there has to be something to the rumblings you've heard about the show's glacial pace. Or about the murky feel of its booze-and-cigarette-fueled world and that virtually all of its characters are deeply, perhaps overwhelmingly, flawed.
My advice: Ignore the buzz, one way or another, and watch "Mad Men" for yourself. That's the only way you'll be able to gauge the relative ratio of sizzle to steak. Along the way you'll be watching one of the two or three best shows on American TV, a character-focused drama that sees clearly into American culture at large, particularly when it comes to the relationship between the gaudy lies that animate our days and the darker truths that keep us awake at night.
The first "Mad Men" season, broadcast on AMC last summer, took place in New York City in mid-1960, as the United States moved tentatively from the cozy if outwardly staid Eisenhower era toward the dynamic, if culturally anarchic, '60s. Central character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was a brilliant, charming advertising executive whose sleek packaging -- the corner office, the lovely wife and children, the perpetual company of booze, cigarettes and the ladies -- hid a much darker internal life. He was, literally, not the man he seemed to be.
Meanwhile, the rest of Draper's milieu took form. His colleagues at the midsized-but-growing Sterling, Cooper advertising agency were divided between jaded veterans (particularly his womanizing boss, Roger Sterling, portrayed by John Slattery), and younger hard-chargers such as the needy if snaky account executive Pete Campbell (Vince Kartheiser). All were defined by their self-enhancing ambitions and self-destructive appetites, and by a kind of free-floating hostility that took form most vividly in the snickering misogyny they displayed toward the women in their lives.
Not that the women were pushovers. Draper's seemingly docile wife Betty (January Jones) harbored depths both uncomfortable and wily. Sterling, Cooper's secretarial force was headed by the sexually aggressive Joan (Christina Hendricks), whose newest charge, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), soon proved to be as talented as the men who attempted to prey on her -- and perhaps even more ambitious.
Once in motion the "Mad Men" world spun into an orbit that revealed as much about the culture at large as it did about its characters. For in their secrets and appetites, and in their professional obligation to plumb the former in attempts to help their clients reap the benefit of the latter, they described larger, unifying forces. Particularly when it came to the self-destructive habits -- the smoking, the drinking, the prejudices and hatreds -- that defined American life as it hurtled into the modern era.
You could write a doctoral thesis on the show's Freudian analysis of modern consumer culture. But "Mad Men" always emphasized the internal contradictions and compulsions that propelled its characters into the world around them. As with the self-invented Draper, they all lived variations of that archetypal American story, splayed somewhere between the designs of the past and the untrammeled horizons of the future.
The show's second season, which began July 27, took a big step into that future by pushing the action into the early weeks of 1962. Now past the threshold of the '60s, the narrative has shifted from history to the world that lies ahead. Just 36, Draper is being made to feel like a relic, both by his doctor -- who scolds him for his indulgences and prescribes blood pressure medication -- and by Sterling, Cooper partners, who are determined to bring in younger, fresher writers.
It's even more striking to see the subtle shift in sexual politics. As the world around them edges toward the women's liberation movement, the "Mad Men" women are awakening to a new sense of themselves. At Sterling, Cooper the newly elevated Peggy, now a junior copywriter, wields her authority with the same cold-eyed intensity her male colleagues display. And when Betty Draper happens on an old roommate and discovers her working happily as an upscale escort, she is less scandalized than thrilled. What she sees, for a change, is a woman who is actually empowered by her sexuality. It's also compelling to see that when Betty takes this new awareness with her into a romantic liaison with Don, he is rendered nearly powerless.
What emerges everywhere are people who feel not just out of place but also out of time and out of sync with one another:
"Tell me what you want me to do," Betty says to her husband during an awkward bedroom moment.
"What do you want me to say?" Draper later asks a friend, hoping to end an awkward conversation.
"I'll say whatever you think I should say," he says to Betty later that same night.
And when Pete Campbell confronts a family tragedy, he finds himself at a near-complete loss. "What am I supposed to do?" he asks Draper. "Am I going to cry?"
"Don't worry about what you might be feeling," Draper reassures him. "Go home and be with your family. That's what people do."
As ever, the secret to "Mad Men" can be found in its quietest moments. It's in the silence between the lines and the thoughts the characters can't quite put into words. It's in the emptiness that guides their actions and puts them at the forefront of a consumer society whose most basic impulse is to fill itself, endlessly, with the things it needs the least.
"Don't worry about what you might be feeling" is Draper's fundamental philosophy. It's also the guiding principle behind a society and its appetites, which he both reflects and drives in the ads he creates.
Causes Peter Carlin Supports
All the good ones?