Before the drama Mad Men could return for its third season, AMC and creator Matthew Weiner had to resolve a conflict over fittingly for a series set on Madison Avenue advertising. The network wanted to add two minutes of ads; Weiner didn’t want to cut the show. The eventual compromise each episode will run an hour and two minutes preserves the show’s generous run time, 48 minutes or so sans commercials, compared with 42-ish for most network dramas. And what does Mad Men need the extra time for?
Nothing. I don’t mean that as an insult. Mad Men is an exquisitely written and acted show. It re-creates its early-’60s settings with painstaking detail and creates its characters’ inner lives with piercing insight. But as quotable and sexy as Mad Men is, what distinguishes it from most TV dramas, even the best, is its empty spaces. The silent pause in the front seat of a car as a man drives with his wife; the look a newlywed gives her husband, wondering what she might have gotten herself into. TV has a high metabolism today, jumping and cutting to cram ever more story into less space. Mad Men’s willingness to let moments play out seems as much a period flourish as its fedoras and highballs. Read more about spoiler alerts on TIME’s TV blog. Season 3 picks up several months after Season 2 ended, in spring 1963. Don Draper , an ad executive who changed his identity to hide his poor background, has returned to his wife Betty , who’s taken him back after a string of infidelities. Yet in the first episode, when he’s away from Betty and sees another chance to adopt a new persona, he slips into it like an old pair of loafers. Don isn’t a heel, entirely; Hamm plays him as charming, philosophical, in some ways rigidly honorable. But he has a deep belief, rooted in his beginnings as an unwanted child, that life is unfair, truth is relative, identity is malleable, and people are, ultimately, alone. This makes him a bad husband and an excellent adman. When his firm does a public-image campaign for the company about to raze New York City landmark Penn Station, he lays out a pitch that could be his personal creed. “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation,” he advises. What distinguishes America, he says, is its ability to erase the past: “Change is neither good or bad. It simply is.” Change is afoot at his ad agency, Sterling Cooper. A British firm has bought it out, cutting head count by a third and playing the remaining employees against one another. One of the new overlords, financial officer Lane Pryce , holds the newly tightened purse strings with a chilly distance from the staff and from the American illusion-weaving that the ad business is built on. Discussing client London Fog , he dryly notes, “There is no London fog. Never was. It was the coal dust from the industrial era. Charles Dickens and whatnot.” While the first episode focuses on Don’s conflicts, the next two show off Mad Men’s deep bench of supporting characters: Peggy , a copywriter trying to find fulfillment in a business still largely about selling male fantasy; comely secretary Joan a male fantasy incarnate talking herself into happiness as the wife of a doctor who date-raped her last season; Roger , engineering a self-reinvention of his own with a second wife barely older than his scotch. The spectacular third episode weaves their stories together in a funny and touching fugue of character moments. Mad Men is about the gulf between image and reality, in advertising, in its characters’ lives and in 1963 America. But Weiner steers clear of more obvious period cues, opting for obscure markers like Pepsi’s introduction of Patio Diet Cola. The episodes are filled with the ghosts of a dirtier, more raw America, from Don’s Depression childhood to a bartender who remembers New Mexico when it was a territory. Even the sets have memory; the prop masters take care to mix in furnishings from the ’40s and ’50s because no one lives in a home with all-new period dÃ©cor. Mad Men’s history is more real for being less obvious. It isn’t so much a story about 1963 as it is a palimpsest of the years of history that preceded it, all of which shape the future and private lives. It all makes for a rich, captivating series to look at. And listen to. Even, or especially, when it’s not saying anything at all. Read an interview with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.
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