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Mad Menning

Gosh! How dare our TV critic diss Mad Men!

Jon Hamm as Don Draper.
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Published 8/26/2009

My friends, aware of my avocation, have been coming from all corners this month urging me to "Mad Men Myself" and create my swingin' '60s avatar alongside the cast of AMC's celebrated ad agency drama, as can be accomplished on the show's website. Reluctantly, I built my computerized doppelganger feature by feature, and while I could almost hear the Sterling Cooper staff thinking, "My, even the janitor dresses well around here!" (people of color aren't exactly running rampant on Madison Avenue in that era, or on this show), I gotta admit I enjoyed the variety of options — coffee mug or martini glass? — and my stylish chapeau. It was fun.

(You can have fun, too: Go to tinyurl.com/mawhvl and see how you might look as an overstressed, oversexed, underpaid and unappreciated New York advertising executive 40 years ago.

You have to wonder how much fun Matthew Weiner is having these days. Weiner is creator, executive producer and most weeks the screenwriter of Mad Men (10 p.m. Sundays, AMC), TV's most acclaimed series of the moment. The vision is almost entirely his, taking a gut-wrenching seven years to travel from his head to a soundstage. Up until its third-season premiere last week, Mad Men was almost certainly the best show on TV you weren't watching.

Three Golden Globes, six Emmy Awards — including one for Best Drama — and 16 Emmy nominations this year tends to draw a crowd, however, even to a Sunday night series on a basic cable movie channel. This season opener was the highest-rated episode in Mad Men history, pulling an estimated 2.8 million viewers, 4 million when re-airings are factored in. (That's a fraction of the audience that watched Jon and Kate self-destruct, but you know how we Americans love "reality.")

Suddenly, the project Weiner dubbed "our little show" during his Emmy acceptance speech last year has exploded into a cultural phenomenon. AMC displayed the premiere episode on the giant screen in Times Square. More than 500,000 people have Mad Men-ned themselves on the website. The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live have saluted the series in parodies. Bartenders are even reporting a resurgence in Old Fashioneds, the retro-bourbon cocktails preferred by the show's square-jawed leading man, agency creative director-lothario-sociopath Don Draper (Jon Hamm).

So, there's not much pressure on Weiner now, right? With more eyes and ears than ever before focused on his every image and syllable, what did he present to the public as his most important season commenced?

A nearly incomprehensible opening flashback sequence, with stillborn babies, scalded milk and threats of penises boiled in hog fat. An influx of British accents. (Sterling Cooper was taken over by a British-based conglomerate late last season, a fact not completely explained in the episode.) A top executive receives his pink slip and goes ballistic. Two men, weaselly brown-noser Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and blithely upbeat Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), are promoted to the same position unbeknownst to each other and set up to battle for domination. Draper flies to Baltimore on business and — surprise! — succumbs to the seductions of a stewardess. (They weren't "flight attendants" then.) And his traveling companion, art director Sal Romano (Bryan Batt) enters into a homosexual fling with the hotel bellboy; we are spared the graphic visuals only because the hotel catches fire.

This feels like a bit, perhaps just a smidgeon, of "jumping the shark" here. Pulling out the Big Gay Encounter for the start of the new season could be a hint of desperation, or simply how the storyline falls in Weiner's mind. Nonetheless, so far this season is like finally landing your Carnegie Hall debut and discovering your violin is out of tune. AMC aired a daylong marathon of episodes from season two right before the new installments, and I hope they do again. By watching previous Mad Men shows in sequence, one can truly appreciate the crackling dialogue, intricate characters and shadowy, conflicted relationships that earned the series its boatload of awards in the first place.

I do so love the show's evocative opening-credits animation, and there may indeed be a method to Weiner's Mad Men-ness. Surely his work thus far merits him second, third, even fourth chances. This season reportedly will be set in 1963; it'll be interesting to see how he handles the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles' invasion and other cultural milestones of the period. But, comparatively speaking, the first new episodes of Mad Men have been a disappointment.

AMC recently unveiled a new branding slogan, "Story Matters Here," largely based on the critical success of their original series Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Weiner must keep that catchphrase top of mind, before we are left with little more than the guilty pleasure of watching secretary-pool goddess Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) sashay in and out of scenes.

Jim McFarlin goes against in-house sentiment often. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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