Mad Men

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Airdate: 10-11 p.m. Sunday, July 27 (AMC)

As has often been said, what a difference a year makes.

When it debuted as AMC's first original weekly drama series July 19, 2007, "Mad Men" could not have started out further from the TV industry's consciousness. Its premiere was pretty much a spectacular non-event. But as the weeks piled up, word began to filter out that this little period hour set in the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, brutally sexist New York advertising world circa 1960 was pretty damn good.

The ratings remained tragically low, but the buzz seemed to grow exponentially, even after the 13-week season wrapped. Now, of course, the show faces a divergent but equally daunting challenge: avoiding a sophomore swoon and meet the soaring expectations of critics and Madheads (a term I just coined) alike -- stoked by 16 Emmy nominations and Golden Globe wins for top drama and lead actor Jon Hamm in its rookie season.

And oh yeah, "Mad Men" also earned honors as program of the year, outstanding new program and the year's best drama from the Television Critics Assn. on Saturday night. Wherever the radar may happen to be, this show no longer is operating below it. Indeed, it appears to have become the radar itself.

Into this snake pit of lofty prospects arrives 'Mad Men's" second-season launch Sunday, galvanized by a reported $25 million promo campaign (AMC maintains that figure is way off, though it wouldn't say in which direction). From screening the first two episodes, what's already clear is that creator-showrunner-writer-chief neurotic Matthew Weiner isn't stumbling from the gate working feverishly to match the hype but has instead subtly raised his game.

Where we might think his crafting the hot show of the moment might inspire a push into broader territory, Weiner is, in a brilliant creative strategy, pulling back instead to evoke a richer, more mysterious character tapestry. In other words, far from devolving into soapy Madison Avenue pablum, "Mad Men" is painstakingly building its way to genuine greatness.

Things pick up in the opener more than a year after the Season 1 cliffhanger left us wondering what would become of secretary-turned-junior copywriter Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and the son she bore with the unctuous -- and very married -- Pete Campbell (bravura work from Vincent Kartheiser). It's now 1962, and the complex, introspective creative director at Sterling Cooper, Don Draper (played by thinking-man's hunk Hamm), is more isolated and conflicted than ever. Both he and his terminally blond but surprisingly deep wife Betty (January Jones) are restless for ... something. Partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is now recovered from his late-season heart episode, but lusty redhead secretary Joan (Christina Hendricks) remains the same ol' barracuda. As for Peggy, we're given only vague hints of what's become of her kid. But that's OK.

There was one scene in the second episode involving Don and Pete that literally took my breath away with its raw honesty. Yet "Mad Men" is packed with similar moments, where the incisive dialogue -- in tandem with its bold, evocative look -- leave the audience feeling the pain, the distance, the frustration and the occasional elation of those flawed souls to whom we grow attached. The genius of Weiner and his crew is that they consistently tantalize with the promise of more, yet never to the point of leaving viewers feeling cheated or unfulfilled.

As his alter ego silently knocks back scotch after scotch, Hamm conveys more with a quietly desperate expression than most actors could with 10 pages of dialogue. I'm hopelessly hooked on this show and the people who populate it, undoubtedly more than I have any series since "The Sopranos." Wise and quirky and colorful and surprisingly contemporary, "Mad Men" is every bit as inspired as you've heard. And getting better all the time.

Now, if only someone would actually watch the thing.

Production: Lionsgate Television.
Cast: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, Robert Morse, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Maggie Siff, Anne Dudek, Bryan Batt
Creator/executive producer/writer: Matthew Weiner.
Directors: Tim Hunter, Andrew Bernstein.
Co-executive producer: Scott Hornbacher.
Supervising producers/writers: Lisa Albert, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton.
Co-producers: Dwayne Shattuck, Blake McCormick.
Associate producer: Marcy Patterson.
Consulting producer: David Isaacs.
Staff writer: Robin Veith.
Director of photography: Christopher Manley.
Production designers: Christopher Brown, Dan Bishop.
Costume designer: Katherine Jane Bryant.
Supervising editor: Malcolm Jamieson.
Composer: David Carbonara.
Music supervisor: Alexandra Patsavas.
Casting: Laura Schiff, Carrie Audino.

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