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AMC's 'Mad Men' sharply nails a passionate era

LOS ANGELES — Matthew Weiner doesn't need a time machine to travel back to a simpler age. He can just step onto one of the lovingly detailed sets of his hit '60s-era drama Mad Men — spaces packed with period china, ivory-carved tiepins and elaborate decanters filled with fake liquor — for instant transportation to the days when white men ruled the boardrooms and a pack-a-day habit was considered healthy.

Wedged inside the massive LA Center Studios complex downtown, Mad Men's stages are an elaborate tribute to creator/executive producer Weiner's almost obsessive attention to detail, re-creating the glory days of Madison Avenue's advertising culture with a specificity you can almost feel.

Sitting atop the secretaries' desks in the cavernous set for fictional advertising firm Sterling Cooper are authentic IBM Selectrics, complete with carbon paper. In the kitchen of main character Betty Draper, the walls are covered in warm wood paneling, decked with vintage matching cookie jars and a wall-mounted broiler/oven unit. The bedroom boasts a turquoise padded headboard, a framed needlepoint picture of a flower arrangement and a bottle of Soft Whisper perfume.

In a space like this, Weiner's cast seems less like actors than mediums, channeling the spirit of a long-gone era in a setting that seems lifted from a pile of old scrapbooks and department store catalogs.

"Somewhere in the middle of the first season, I came down here and we were shooting a party scene . . . I looked around and thought, 'This is why I'm doing this,' " said Weiner, leading journalists on a tour of his elaborate playground with the bubbly air of a proud papa. "I wanted to live in this. You come on this set and you get to live in it. It was amazing."

Weiner's enthusiasm is seriously paying off for AMC, the cable channel once known as a home for creaky black-and-white films and the oldsters who loved them. That all changed when Mad Men hit the screen last year. Its ambitious tale of New York advertising executive Don Draper earned a Golden Globe award for star Jon Hamm and a record 16 Emmy nominations.

So why is the show catching fire now?

"You write something as specific as Mad Men and it becomes universal," said John Slattery, who was nominated for an Emmy this month for his work as Draper's boss, Roger Sterling. "Everybody has lascivious thoughts about somebody they work with or is unhappy about something and wants something they are not going to get. That's what this show is about."

But success hasn't come without pressure. Because now, as the show prepares to debut its second season — days after earning the most Emmy nominations of any dramatic series and winning three awards from the Television Critics Association — they have to do it again.

"I drove around with the first script (from this season) in my car for a while because I was afraid to read it, thinking, 'What if the first 13 were just something Matt had thought over and worked on for so long they were perfect?' " Slattery said. " '(What if) now on a regular TV schedule, they can't come up with it?' Of course, they start out so amazingly well, you're right back in it."

As tonight's episode opens, the action has moved 14 months into the future, to 1962. The Drapers' life grows more comfortable as Don's star rises in his office. Betty hires a black nanny for their children and takes up riding lessons. No one has yet discovered Draper's secret — that he took the identity of a fellow soldier who was killed in the Korean War and built a new life.

The time jump allows the characters to progress. Former secretary Peggy Olson is more comfortable as the firm's first female ad copywriter, though no one in the office yet knows about the secret baby she had — fathered by a co-worker who doesn't know it, the chauvinistic bad boy Pete Campbell.

And the firm is pushing to harness "the thrill of young talent" by hiring 20-something copywriters, which the 36-year-old Draper resists with passion. "Young people don't know anything," Draper says, sounding 20 years older than he is. "Especially that they're young."

The year 1962 was an important one for Weiner, who enjoys showing how some of the country's biggest changes can resonate like tiny ripples in the lives of these folks, focused as they are on their own careers, families and changing status.

"It was before (President Kennedy's) assassination, after the Bay of Pigs, during what became known as Camelot, though nobody called it that until Kennedy was gone," said Weiner. "If you look at our national psychology, there's a lot of movies set in this period because it was perceived as idyllic by young people . . . Hairspray, Animal House, American Graffiti — these movies were all set in 1962."

But Weiner enjoys showing the dream curdling at its edges. So Draper, who has a history of cheating on his wife, has trouble connecting with Betty — despite her Grace Kelly perfect looks and accommodating attitude. Betty makes her own strides, discovering the power of her beauty and its effect on other men in her life.

Campbell emerges as a degraded carbon copy of Draper, handing his wife a box of Valentine's chocolates he bought on the way home from work. Draper treated Betty to a night in a swanky Manhattan hotel the same night, and Campbell eventually ate all the candies himself.

"He's a young man who wants what he thinks he deserves," said Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Campbell as a twisted rich kid, disowned by his family for choosing advertising instead of continuing the family business as a stockbroker. "And he's willing to throw a lot of people under the bus to get what he deserves. That's a scary thing."

Because the races were still seriously segregated then, you see few black people in this gleaming vision of New York. Instead, by showing the various ways women struggle to find their voices — from Betty flexing her power to Peggy asserting herself in the office — Weiner hopes to show the injustice of this male-dominated universe while hinting at a growing equality.

It's heady stuff for a show that averaged just more than 1-million viewers per episode last season — less than the 3-million viewers TNT's The Closer draws, and far less than the 10-million people a network TV hit might generate.

Still, Weiner, who once wrote for The Sopranos, isn't fretting over his small audience. He's determined to enjoy the high-quality sandbox AMC has given him to play in.

"If last year was about revelation, this year is about how . . . everybody, like Don Draper, has at least two selves and they are always in conflict with each other," he said. "It can make you unknowable to people, it can make you insecure or make you brave. But in the end, it's never comforting.

"That's a revolution, to me."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. Read his blog, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

Where the top characters are, and where they're going

Don Draper (Jon Hamm)

Where he was: Viewers learned last year smoothie Draper was really Dick Whitman, a small-town boy who escaped a bitter life by taking the identity of an officer killed at an insolated outpost in the Korean War.

Where he is now: Stressed and isolated, he's concerned about his high blood pressure, dissatisfied with his office and struggling to connect with his family. He seems to be searching for something even he can't identify.

Betty Draper (January Jones)

Where she was: Aware of how the reality of her marriage is far from its picture-perfect appearance, Betty saw a therapist until she discovered husband Don was getting regular briefings from him and was cheating on her.

Where she is now: Seemingly resigned to her husband's distance and long work hours, she's learning more about the realities of the world and enjoying her status as an upper middle class wife.

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)

Where she was: Promoted to copywriter from a secretarial job, her co-workers assumed she was gaining weight from overeating. Viewers learned she was pregnant from a one-night stand with office mate Pete Campbell.

Where she is now: Growing more comfortable in the male-dominated copywriting ranks, she has kept the office guessing. Rumors say she visited a fat farm.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser)

Where he was: Eager to earn Draper's respect and support, he even tried blackmailing the man after learning his secret — only to find the firm's management couldn't care less about the past of a successful executive.

Where he is now: Saddled with a wife who wants children too soon and a career that isn't headed where he wants, he must watch as former fling Peggy gets the mentoring from Draper that he craves.

.Review

Mad Men

The show returns for its second season at 10 tonight on AMC. Grade: A

AMC's 'Mad Men' sharply nails a passionate era 07/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2008 4:12pm]
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