I wonder if people who have never seen an episode of Mad Men have started to feel a little like folks who never watched The Wire. Everybody around them is talking about the authenticity of the show and the complexity of the characters, how it really nails this and gets that just right. At a certain point, the uninitiated can only take so much slobbering before they decide Well, screw it, now I’m never going to watch that stupid show because I’m sick of everyone oozing over it and I don’t want to feel late to the party and the show is probably overrated and do I even get the AMC channel? (And hats off to the network, which must feel like the nerdy girl at the dance who suddenly finds herself wearing the homecoming crown. They’re putting the marketing big guns behind their critical darling in a way HBO never seemed willing to do.)
As somebody who had never seen the show until a few short weeks ago, when I plowed through my DVD of season 1 over a few itchy, intoxicating nights, I understand the hesitation. But try to walk away from the watercooler, and ignore all your friends on Facebook with their little Mad Men fan badges. In a summer where it seems like the only shows worth getting excited over are on Bravo, here is a chance to savor a crackly scripted drama that gives off the impression that it doesn’t really need or care about the audience at home. The energy and wit and callousness of a world like Sterling Cooper is so powerful that you just may find yourself left with that childlike feeling that once you turn off the tube and lumber off to bed, Roger and Don will still be going, motioning to the bartender for another round.
And so, in the glorious tradition of The Wire, the premiere of Mad Men‘s second season didn’t throw out a rope to newcomers lured in by the hype. Catch up, people: We’ve skipped ahead to 1962, and Peggy doesn’t have a gummy toddler stashed in her stapler drawer. The action opens to the sounds of the twist — ”like we did last summer!” — on a tight shot of the finest ass in television. Joan, jersey knit hugging her enviable junk, is staring down the new Xerox machine with narrowed cat eyes. Duck may have given her girls candies for Valentine’s Day, but once Joan decides on the proper place for this hulking beast, they may find themselves yesterday’s news. Joan, the canniest of all the characters, knows it, too.
Everywhere this evening, power was shifting. Don, our hero, our rogue, looked so tired, and there was a sluggish pouchiness to him when he was up there in his undershirt on the doctor’s table. Doc rapped his knuckles good and warned him that mortality smacks hard-living people like him in the gut when they least expect it. Thirty-six years old, and Don is already being told he’s over the hill. By his doctor, by his bosses (who, he says, want him to ”dangle a Pepsi out the window and see if I can hook a stroller”), even by the guy at the end of the bar. Don, looking increasingly out of step in his crisp suit, asked how the man was enjoying Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency. ”I don’t think you’d like it,” he’s told with a sniff. Crueler still, Betty busted out a surprisingly hot little black number on Valentine’s night, and Don wiggled around on top of her a little before rolling off with a sigh. (Women and gay men everywhere let out a similar dejected puff of air.) ”We drank too much, I don’t even know where I am,” said an unconvinced Betty, nicely summing up her global ennui, and then promptly commandeered the room-service order.
NEXT: Where is Peggy’s baby?