Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Past perfect: Review of the new season of "Mad Men"

For a show set in the 1960's, the AMC drama "Mad Men" is amazingly contemporary. Sure the clothes and decor and social code portrayed onscreen are much different than those we employ today. But certain core things never change. For all its style and period detail "Mad Men" is, at its heart, about identity. It's about finding who you are and what shapes you, whether that's work or marriage or assuming the identity of a dead man you fought with in Korea. Whatever works for you.
The new season of "Mad Men," which starts Sunday at 10 p.m., is particularly relevant. I can't get into too many details -- the press release that came with my preview screener actually included the sentence "Don't be a spoilsport!" (in all caps, natch), and I'd hate to disobey.
But I will say that, when we rejoin Don Draper and the gang at Manhattan ad agency Sterling Cooper, they're in the midst of layoffs. It's painfully timely and accurate, as is the general upheaval going on at Sterling Cooper. Last season's takeover by the British has a number of repercussions, of which the layoffs are only one.
That's this show's real gift: it painstakingly recreates a long-gone period of time in a way that those who weren't alive then (or who were too young to remember it) can relate to. We might not be able to relate to concepts like drinking during the workday, but we can relate to fearing for our jobs.
We can also relate to being unsure of our place in the world. In the premiere, most of the characters -- including Don, his wife Betty (January Jones), and underlings Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) -- are, as always, looking for satisfaction, meaning and happiness. Without spoiling anything, let me just say that a few characters briefly do find satisfaction in the premiere, only to cruelly have it taken away from them.
When these things happen, "Mad Men" manages to make us both wince in pain and laugh in recognition. No matter what world these characters live in, some things are universal. "Mad Men" recognizes that, which is its true triumph.
The new season of "Mad Men" premieres 10 p.m. Sunday on AMC.

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