09/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mad Men Returns: The '60s Advertising Drama Is A Time Tunnel To the Present

Meet Don Draper, the protagonist/anti-hero of Mad Men.

The much acclaimed, if not so much watched, Mad Men makes a welcome return for its third season Sunday night. I've found the series, now the flagship show on AMC, a channel once best known as a reliable source for late night viewings of Commando, to be very compelling from the beginning, if not exactly action-packed.

There are a number of ways to view Mad Men. For my own part, I can take it as a period piece, a sort of time capsule of the early '60s, at once relatively close yet far enough away to be intriguing for its unfamiliarity. Or as an evocation of style, with the sort of glamour and cool associated with JFK and the early Bond films, in this case a New York variant including chain smoking, constant drinking, and sexual play continually tinged with sexual harassment.

It's a character study, as well, for the surface glitter of the persuader class and those who attend them masks confusion and lack of identity. That could also make it a cautionary tale, albeit one set during the height of the post-war expansion of American affluence.

Which makes it, in turn, a meditation on the American Dream, then and now. Not entirely unlike The Sopranos, on which Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner served as an Emmy-winning writer and producer. Well, except for the fact that Mad Men protagonist/anti-hero Don Draper is a charismatic and enigmatic New York ad man, not a perpetually depressed, poetically crude New Jersey mob boss.

Mad Men takes place in a fascinating transitional period which coincides with JFK's America. It's the time which reaches from a period of conformity, the late '50s, to a period of chaos, the late '60s.

The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.

Mad Men is about advertising, which means it's about the American Dream, in a period in which the American Dream was being assembled and yet already starting to change.

Advertising is a fascinating industry, an intriguing window into our society and ourselves. It's how we are sold, and how we sell ourselves, on things. It both reflects and mutates life's fundamentals.

Mad Men examines what is real, what is artifice, and whether there is any real difference in modernized society.

As Don Draper puts it: "Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness. It's the smell of a new car. It's freedom, from fear. It's a billboard that screams the reassurance that, whatever you're doing, it's okay."

Goldfinger's "Into Miami" track captures the swanky materialism and sensuality that Mad Men is headed toward.

Don Draper is the Connery Bond as ad exec, charismatic, confident to the point of arrogance, commanding. But that's only on the first couple of layers. Beneath, he is in turmoil, literally a man not himself. He is really, or rather, he really was, Dick Whitman, product of an abusive and impoverished background who joined the Army to get away from it all, only to find himself in the crucible of the Korean War. Where he seized the main chance, a quirk of fate, a combat accident he inadvertently helped cause that allowed him to assume the identity of Don Draper, a well-educated officer near the end of his tour.

In the series pilot, which Matthew Weiner, a former comedy writer clearly very taken with the period and his themes, used as his writing sample for years before being hired by Sopranos creator David Chase, the 1960 Dick Whitman/Don Draper struggles to help a tobacco company keep selling cigarettes in the face of new, damning health evidence. Later, he tells the wealthy, attractive, and female owner of an oldline Jewish department store, whom he earlier insulted for her "forwardness" in challenging him, only to decide to apologize in order to win her business, his philosophy of love: "What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons," says Draper. "You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one."

Small wonder that his solution to the cigarette maker's dilemma is a slogan that sounds good and means absolutely nothing.

Yet, for all that nihilistic bravado, Draper does have a code, and is as admirable as he is appalling.

Deception and confusion lie just beneath the glamour of Mad Men.

His ad agency, Sterling Cooper, isn't his, but it might as well be. Without him as creative director, it would be lost. Sterling Coo, as it's affectionately called by its fun-loving crew (except for Mr. Cooper, naturally) is introduced as an older Madison Avenue agency, owned by a small group of partners, not a conglomerate, already struggling with newfangled ways but entranced with the growing materialism and sensuality of early '60s America.

You can see it's falling out of phase with the shape of things to come when the dapper and witty legacy senior partner Roger Sterling delivers this gem to Draper about the 1960 presidential race: "Consider the product. He's young, handsome, Navy hero. Honestly, it shouldn't be too difficult to convince America that Dick Nixon is a winner."

Yet by the end of the first season, which includes some sardonically amusing efforts by the Sterling Coo crew to help Nixon, they've gotten more used to the idea of adapting to the more open-minded new generation swank of Kennedy as the coming thing, and in season two are very much into it.

By the end of the first season, after which Mad Men won Emmy and Golden Globe awards as the best dramatic series, the characters are all well-established, the artifice and deep deceptions of their lives mirroring the business they are in.

In season two, the women came more to the fore, just beginning to break through the glass ceiling of helperdom in some cases, and just beginning to rattle gilded cages in others.

Though Don Draper's journey is the central arc of the series, the female characters otherwise usually outshine their male counterparts. Aside from Weiner, the writing staff is mostly women. Which is unusual in Hollywood. So of course Mad Men is probably the best-written show on television, garnering four of the five current Emmy nominations for dramatic writing. Lost got the other one.

Last season ended with the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the temporary resolution of relationships, and the sale of Sterling Cooper to a big British outfit. In season three we find ourselves in 1963, with the brief spring of Camelot approaching its sudden end, and business, personal, and social change accelerating.

Throughout it all, the American Dream is being constructed and sold, as relentlessly as Madison Avenue mad men can sell it, mutating all the while. Just as it is today.

Each episode of this show can be written about as a feature film can be, so after each episode airs, I'll give my take on it.

These are most of the players in the Sterling Cooper crew, at least the ones we've come to know so far. (The arriving Brits, including an officious executive secretary known behind his back as "Moneypenny," are just becoming known.) They're played by a terrific cast of mostly lesser-known actors, reminding of how big the talent pool really is.

Mad Men's first season was a great success on the awards circuit.

** Don Draper: He could end up as a master of the universe. Or he could swim out to sea and never come back. And he could be equally satisfied with either outcome, though he might have a twinge about the kids. He's played brilliantly by Jon Hamm, who out of character appears to be a floppy-haired, 38-going-on-25 Obama enthusiast.

** Betty Draper: Think Grace Kelly, stuck out in Westchester County. She embraced the dream package of 1950s womanhood, marrying a handsome provider, having two kids with a third on the way, entertaining for her husband's career and becoming deeply dissatisfied with her life. She's played by January Jones, whose astonishing good looks manage to distract at first from the subtlety of her performance.

** Peggy Olson: Draper proves to be her unexpected mentor, elevating her from his secretary to become Sterling Cooper's first female ad writer. The show sets you up to root for her. At times wholly admirable, at other times distressingly affectless, she is nearly as much an enigma as is Draper, for she has an even stronger sense of denial than he does. She's memorably played by Elizabeth Moss, best known before as Zoey Bartlett, President Martin Sheen's spirited daughter on The West Wing.

** Joan Holloway: The queen bee of the female support staff, Joan might just be the smartest person there. But she's hamstrung by her much vaunted -- and much flaunted -- sexuality, as she learns to her chagrin when she proves to be a creative natural in a pinch, but is tossed aside without a second thought in favor of a clearly inferior male. Christina Hendricks brings great beauty, verve, and sensitivity to a finely etched performance.

** Pete Campbell: From an old New York family, Pete is set up as the office weasel. Except, irritating as he can be, he's right more often than not. And, among the men, he seems to get the business better than anyone except Draper. Vincent Kartheiser makes what could be a hissable character surprisingly appealing with nuance.

** Sal Romano: The art director of Sterling Cooper is gay. Who could see that coming? But it's the early '60s, so he has to pretend to be straight, going so far as to drag a pretty young wife to Manhattan from the old neighborhood back in Baltimore (along with dear old mom). Bryan Batt brings a sophisticated performance to the table, especially when he feigns great enthusiasm for hetero hijinx.

** Ken Cosgrove, Harry Crane, and Paul Kinsey. Played by Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, and Michael Gladis, "the guys" are unusually well-fleshed out secondary characters, junior executives who function as a sort of office Greek chorus but also have key plot points turn on their action. Or inaction.

The characters on Mad Men don't always get along.

** Roger Sterling: Okay, I will admit it. This guy is probably my favorite character. I smile every time he comes onscreen. The sardonically witty senior partner and son of the agency's founder is a great sparring partner and drinking buddy for Draper. Played by John Slattery, who I loved in Charlie Wilson's War as the CIA bureaucrat boss of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Gust Avrakotos, he has a smart-sounding line for everything. Such lines are all the more amusing when he is, in hindsight, so wrong. His decision to throw over his wife in favor of Draper's 20-year old secretary -- a woman who, not coincidentally, also looks far more modern than the others -- triggers a chain of events leading to the sale of the agency to a large British firm, with potential chaos in its wake. Slattery, incidentally, plays the father of Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark in Iron Man II.

** Bert Cooper: The rather eccentric senior partner of the agency, a staunch Republican, shows his ability to adjust to change, noting that business will get most of what it needs from JFK, buying a Rothko and amusingly setting his juniors up to give their reactions, and famously allowing as how he doesn't care in the least that Don Draper isn't actually Don Draper. Played by Robert Morse, who of course starred in the '60s classic, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Bertram Cooper is the splash of Worcestershire sauce on the steak tartare that is Mad Men.