Much like the first season, “Mad Men’s” second campaign begins at an almost tranquil pace — one that explains the intoxicating spell the AMC series has cast over a discerning few, and why the program will likely struggle to significantly expand its commercial appeal despite critical accolades. Such considerations aside, the two episodes previewed are exquisitely rendered, continuing to probe the much-idealized pre-Vietnam era without the nostalgic tint of rose-colored glasses.
No spoilers here beyond a point that advance publicity has already revealed — namely, that a vague span of time has elapsed since last season’s poignant ending. So the presidential race is over and Jacqueline Kennedy is providing a grainy black-and-white tour of the White House that everyone watches — ah, but for those bygone days of three networks, and maybe five channels.
As for the characters at boutique ad agency Sterling Cooper, poor Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) has lost the weight she rather suddenly padded on in season one, but series creator Matthew Weiner seems content to let the audience feel its way regarding where things stand — including the central relationship between the agency’s creative guru, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), and his one-time model wife Betty (January Jones), whose Ken-and-Barbie exterior conceals a strained emotional distance. Indeed, Weiner appears to have internalized a lesson from his “The Sopranos” days, assiduously doling out information at his own pace and trusting the audience to tag along.
Once again, the series shines in its attention to detail and nifty touches, replete with small moments of quiet desperation as well as Rat Pack cool. The unsettling arrival of a Xerox machine, for example, causes a minor stir as to where the massive beast is going to be situated in the office. There’s also an inherent tension between Don and the new head of accounts, Herman (Mark Moses), though as partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) amusingly notes, as “talent,” Draper must be handled with childlike care.
Credit the cast — particularly Hamm and Jones — with rendering these characters in such absorbing detail. The ebb and flow of the couple’s interaction explore the shifting definition of American masculinity — a tension Hamm conveys almost effortlessly, the very picture of a man bottling up his emotions.
As with any great series, “Mad Men” is becoming richer as these plot strands grow, establishing an engrossing serialized life beyond the hip, reverberating cultural references that demonstrate the smoking-drinking-closeted ’60s aren’t necessarily “good ol’ days” to be mourned, despite the cheery Norman Rockwell image that cultural conservatives proffer.
In terms of media scrutiny — coming off its Golden Globe win and 16 Emmy nominations — “Mad Men” could hardly be hotter, including an embarrassingly breathless New York Times Sunday profile. The real question now is whether this well-deserved adulation brings anyone new to AMC’s party, as opposed to simply reminding those swilling martinis from the outset how smart they were in the first place.