Mad Men (AMC, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) is not just about marketing, it’s also a triumph of it. You can set the matter of the show’s near-excellence—its patient pacing and self-possessed performances, its yards of assertive style—on the Saarinen side table while considering the issue: The series, with its 16 Emmy nominations and 32 tons of media love, returns for its sophomore season preceded by a buzz promising down-to-The Wire thrills. How did this snazzy little chamber piece—set among the artful deceivers at an ad agency in the early 1960s—achieve its aura of sliced-bread perfection?
It helps that the product has certain features you needn’t be an ad wiz to exploit. In its very premise, Mad Men hits the nation’s idea of itself right in the sweet spot where the American Dream meets the eternal hustle. It’s a story about salesmanship and ambition—with a hero, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who long ago jettisoned a disgraceful upbringing, the better to chart a course for a grand office in Manhattan—that takes your Gatsbys and Kanes as playbooks. Roasting this chestnut of theme, the show insists upon a seriousness that it sometimes even earns. It can resemble a tragic (or at least melodramatic) version of The Office from some angles, just as Hamm can—when facing the camera straight on and making a hyperbolically flat expression—look oddly similar to Steve Carell.
Don does his self-alienated brooding in an office that’s a paragon of swank. Clean lines, weightless planes, impersonal beauty: There’s a whole book to be written about the glass boxes of the New York skyline and the way they relate to characters’ thrust for power on film. The author would want to make stops at How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Network, and Michael Clayton, and she’d have to make room for Mad Men and its set design, which often seems to be testing the temperature at which modernist cool begins to feel inhumanely frigid. The show excites the eyes in a way that both tugs at the soul and sets off the chic-meter of magazine art directors, and I’m including the bravura animated opening sequence where an ad exec, pictured in Saul Bass silhouette, feels his world literally dissolve and goes plunging past Mies van der Rohe-style towers lit up with all the signal imagery of the biz at midcentury: girls in stockings, liquor in tumblers, families in bliss.
Those images are awfully seductive: Who doesn’t love advertising? Those images are disgustingly seductive: Who doesn’t moan about the evils of advertising? Mad Men benefits from the public’s complicated relationship with the sales pitch. Further, it cannot hurt the show’s fortunes that its romance of the ad business focuses on male-dominated groups sharing a particular outlook: They are craftsmen working collaboratively; they devote their creative energies to emotional manipulation; they essentially get paid to lie. In other words, the show has a very special resonance in Hollywood. Nor does it hurt the insider prestige of Mad Men that it’s something of an auteur project, thoroughly controlled by creator Matthew Weiner.
As the second season picks up, the questions that might worry the show’s fans all concern a different sort of control: Will Mad Men’s patient pace further decelerate, as it sometimes risks, to the point of self-important stateliness? Will its tone degenerate, as it sometimes threatens to, from mannered to affected? In the matter of intentional anachronisms, where’s the line between “ah, clever” and “oh, please”? On the basis of this season’s first two episodes, the last question’s the easiest to answer: There are far better ways to use Joan Holloway—the red-headed office manager who wields her considerable bust as both a shield and a battering ram—than to have her stand around worrying about where to put a Xerox machine the size of a compact car, and the gratuitous mention of the Irving Stone novel The Agony and the Ecstasy only provokes one of those emotions.
The tempo, thus far, is notably deliberate; the show’s got mortality on its mind. Don Draper begins the season in his physician’s office, complaining of stress, flunking his blood-pressure test, and getting told that “boys our age”—Don is 36—need to take their health seriously. Doc gives Don pills for the hypertension and, for the terminal malaise, both a scrip for Phenobarbital and the advice to buy a boat. Skipping out on a meeting, Don goes to ponder all this over a lunch at a bar—steak, eggs, and what looks like whiskey.
The guy a few stools down is reading a book of poems, Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in a Emergency. Don asks the cat if the book’s any good and is irked to hear, “I don’t think you’d like it.” He’s annoyed to know that he looks square, deaf to O’Hara’s neon bebop. I, meanwhile, was growing anxious at the sight of a very fine middlebrow TV show reaching for cultcha and threatening to topple all manner of pretentious geegaws from the high shelf. It happens that the episode wraps up the matter decently enough, with Don, in voice-over, quoting from “Mayakovsky”: “Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again,/ and interesting, and modern,” which, floating out of context, evokes Don’s mood snappily enough. Fair ball. While waiting to see how this potential disaster would resolve itself, I looked up the title poem. It offers a line about the feeling that so much advertising preys on, and it offers it with a poignant wryness that Mad Men aspires to and, at its best, achieves. “I am the least difficult of men,” O’Hara writes. “All I want is boundless love.”