TV Preview

TV Preview: Hank Stuever on the Return of AMC's 'Mad Men'

No time like the past? From left, Rich Sommer, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Bryan Batt and Christina Hendricks are faces in the show's early-'60s crowd.
No time like the past? From left, Rich Sommer, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Bryan Batt and Christina Hendricks are faces in the show's early-'60s crowd.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009

It's no great pleasure to stare for hours at a show that everyone is supposed to (nay, commanded to) adore and come away feeling depressed, underserved and unhip in every way except for a renewed appreciation of teak.

As "Mad Men" returns for a third season Sunday on AMC, the viewer is meant to take the show as an icy meditation on human cruelty, ambition and the emptiness of the sell -- but whose emptiness? Don Draper's, as conveyed by the studiously -- stud-ishly! -- morose Jon Hamm? Our own emptiness? Empty is ultimately the sole point. Never has a show soared to such critical altitude and niche devotion on the art of the cold stare, the unfinished sentence, the trailing plot point.

Some would call it minimalism or strong design. A viewer can only imagine that the scripts for "Mad Men" are padded out with directions that read something like:

Joan, seething, now stares into the middle distance, past the vintage Xerox machine. . . .

Sal fondles the lighter in his fingers and stares ahead in the cathode-ray glow of the TV as it emits canned laughter. . . .

Betty, gripping steering wheel, sits perfectly still without blinking. . . .

Don contemplates the amber hues against the ice in his tumbler. . . .

Fans are only too happy to read "Mad Men's" every gesture, biding time between the show's leaps from one supposed bombshell to another, in every other episode or so. (Don Draper is not really Don Draper!, etc.) They are helpless in the strong, starchy arms of "Mad Men's" effusive sense of cool and the earnestness of its creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writers and actors.

Everything "Mad Men" claims to be about -- from the deception of advertising and the idea that nothing and no one are really as they seem; to the moments just before postmodern American culture exploded; to the imbalances of gender, sexuality and sometimes race, then and now -- it comes by in such a subtle way that at times it has been quite irresistible.

But also disappointing. Boring, somehow. Heretical as it may seem to say, "Mad Men" is the truest example of style over substance. It is shackled by its attention to subtle detail and early-1960s clothing, objects and furniture. (In my house, we call the show "drag for straight people." Now everyone's in on the act, changing their Facebook profile pictures in recent weeks to customized "Mad Men" caricatures, supplied by AMC, stylizing you, you and you with horn-rimmed glasses, sack suits and skinny ties; or bouffant hair and a pencil skirt.)

"Mad Men" promises to eventually sprawl across the social tumult of the Kennedy era and into the Me Decade. Weiner's overarching mission -- to show us our vacuous 21st-century present by metaphorically plumbing our vacuous 20th-century past -- has become the show's burden as well. "Mad Men" has importance sickness, and its idea of levity is to inject moments of utter callousness. Even so: You simply have to watch! The pressure to partake is strange, a byproduct of media fragmentation and vested nichedom these days; no one ever just says "you might like this show" anymore.

In Sunday's opener, some time has gone by. It's now 1963-ish. (The first season began in 1960-ish; last year it was 1962. Weiner and company prefer to leave us guessing until history intervenes with a fixed point, such as the Cuban missile crisis in Season 2.) We might reasonably expect the Kennedy assassination before this season's end, and I wonder what Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) will think of the Beatles.

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