With the return of AMC's "Mad Men" (10 tonight), there's finally summer TV that viewers don't have to be embarrassed to watch.
When it premiered last summer, the untested "Mad Men" stood out as a series that might fill the void of smart, adult TV vacated by "The Sopranos." A year later, there's no question "Mad Men" is the "Sopranos" sophisticated heir, an oasis in an otherwise bleak summer landscape littered with reruns and reality shows.
Set in the early 1960s at the Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper, "Mad Men" follows ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to the boardroom and the bedroom. At work, Don is an in-control team leader. At home with wife Betty (January Jones), he's restless and prone to straying. Don also has a secret past that was exposed to his Sterling Cooper boss near the end of season one.
Starring: Jon Hamm
In "Mad Men's" second-season premiere, there's no evidence of a sophomore slump. Almost two years have passed since the end of season one -- Thanksgiving 1960 -- as "Mad Men" picks up on Valentine's Day 1962. By skipping ahead, writer/creator Matthew Weiner is able to move the characters forward in their lives without having to put too fine a point on the events of season one.
The weight gain of junior copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), the result of an unplanned pregnancy, is referenced but never directly addressed. Peggy also seems older and, if not wiser, at least more self-assured as she chastises Don's assistant for her tone.
Child-like schemer Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) continues to evince immaturity, giving his wife a heart-shaped box of chocolates and then immediately demanding, "Come on, open it. I want one."
The state of other relationships -- between Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks); between Harry (Rich Sommer) and his wife -- are also addressed in natural ways that don't feel forced.
For fans of season one, this sopho more premiere offers many little tidbits of character detail. To mention them all here would spoil the fun, but Weiner has definitely set the table with fine china and provides a full meal.
For some viewers, the characters' emotional complexity may be daunting. So much of "Mad Men" is about what happens beneath the surface, what's thought and felt but not stated. More than on any other TV series, "Mad Men" relies on its talented cast to communicate the unspoken, to get across the emotions and thoughts that roil just beneath the surface. I'll admit, there are times when I know I'm supposed to intuit something but I'm not completely sure what it is. And that's OK. "Mad Men" builds its characters as it builds its stories. Something that isn't clear at first almost always comes into focus a few episodes later.
Tonight's premiere is titled "For Those Who Think Young," a riff on the old Pepsi spot that premiered during the "Mad Men" era. Don gets pressure to hire younger staffers to work on a coffee account. If nothing else, "Mad Men" reminds us that TV's current obsession with courting the young is not an altogether new concept.
"No one under 25 drinks coffee anymore," complains head of accounts Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) in an intentionally amusing bit of dialogue for our Starbucks-fueled modern times. "Just Pepsi. They pour it on their Frosted Flakes."
"Mad Men's" attention to detail -- sure to look even better now that Comcast has added AMC-HD (Channel 227 in the city and some suburbs) -- remains steadfast. Weiner even gets his TV schedule right: Characters are shown watching first lady Jackie Kennedy giving a tour of the White House, a TV special that aired on Valentine's Day 1962.
Weiner's insistence on accuracy isn't just an obsessive devotion to historical detail. This authenticity extends to the characters, their reactions, their choices and the ways in which they relate to one another. It's a "Mad Men" hallmark that sets the show head and shoulders above its prime-time peers.