What a relief to have this TV show for grown-ups back on the tube. In a summer inundated by reality competition series and scripted castoffs on broadcast networks, "Mad Men" is a cable salve that heals all wounds.
Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of other cable series out there worth watching -- FX's "Rescue Me" and Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" among them -- but "Mad Men" exists on another level. Smart, mysterious and alluring, "Mad Men" remains a smooth concoction of period charm and psychological character drama.
In tonight's third season premiere (10 p.m., AMC), less than nine months have passed since last fall's season finale in which Betty Draper (January Jones) told her husband, Don (Jon Hamm), that she's pregnant. Betty thinks she'll give birth to a girl. Babies are on Don's mind, too, as he has visions of his own birth while warming milk on the kitchen stove.
The heat is also on at Sterling Cooper, the Manhattan advertising agency where Don is an executive. Last season the agency was purchased by a British company, and, holding up a mirror to modern times, heads have rolled. The big difference: Back then they were called "firings" rather than "layoffs."
Starring: Jon Hamm.
Brit Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) is a new presence at the agency, running the show alongside Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery). Pryce is a wily hatchet man who also sows seeds of discontent. His "secretary," in the British sense, reminds secretarial pool overseer Joan (Christina Hendricks) that he should not be considered on par with the ladies under her command.
"I am Mr. Pryce's right arm, not his typist," John Hooker (Ryan Cartwright) says. Behind his back, Hooker is nicknamed "Moneypenny."
In addition to buying the company, the Brits disillusion old Bertram when they laugh at the brand name of Sterling Cooper client London Fog.
"There is no London fog," Pryce snips. "It was coal dust from the industrial era."
After some hierarchical changes inside the agency, Don and Salvatore (Bryan Batt) travel by plane to Baltimore to meet with the head of London Fog. While there, Don shows how comfortable he is making up stories about his life.
All the other series regulars -- Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), Ken (Aaron Staton), Harry (Rich Sommer) and Paul (Michael Gladis) -- appear in the first episode of the new season to varying degrees. Secrets -- professional and personal -- continue to play a pivotal role in "Mad Men."
As is often the case on "Mad Men," issues from last season -- Don and Betty's estrangement; Pete learning he impregnated Peggy -- are not immediately brought up or dealt with. As in life, issues linger, but because it has been months since the events of the season finale, there's no logical reason to expect the characters to discuss those issues on the day we happen to re-visit them. That would be too TV-convenient, something "Mad Men" studiously avoids.
And that's what sets "Mad Men" apart. The characters behave like real people. They make the same mistakes over and over. For some of the characters, their emotional foibles and frailties undo them as insecurities spring to the surface. For others, an easy-going nature protects them from potentially bumpy, ego-bruising workplace politics.
The characters of "Mad Men" are all too recognizably human. It's one of the many reasons fans look forward to this show's return.
Contact TV editor Rob Owen at email@example.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. First Published August 16, 2009 4:00 AM