New Era of Madness for “Mad Men”

Season Two exposed some secrets and lies. Now the world is set to change

By Jere Hester
|  Friday, Aug 14, 2009  |  Updated 6:16 AM CDT
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A scene from the third season of AMC's "Mad Men".

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It might not exactly rival “America Idol” in the ratings, but here’s a sign that “Mad Men” is becoming part of the popular culture: “Sesame Street” is planning a parody of the AMC drama about ad agency life in the early 1960s.

A safe prediction is that the most upsetting vice portrayed in the “Sesame Street” takeoff will be nothing worse than the conspicuous consumption of cookies – and not the endless drinking, smoking and illicit sex that fill a show set, so far, before the 1960s hit full decadence.

But there are no safe predictions for the third season of “Mad Men,” which kicks off Sunday amid fresh scars of exposed lies and secrets for the main characters, and the coming of unsettling times for the country.

For those still catching up on last season, we’re about to enter spoiler territory – so stop reading and hit the on-demand or the DVDs.

Season Two saw the show’s hyper-controlled characters become, to differing extents, unglued by events around them – Marilyn Monroe’s death, an infamous plane crash and, most notably, the Cuban Missile Crisis, where fear cleared a landscape of forced, if not complete, honesty. 

Don and Betty Draper reached marital détente amid news of a baby on the way, after Don disappeared to seek refuge in his past life as Dick Whitman and Betty slipped into a hotel storage room to seek revenge in a quickie with a stranger.

Ambitious adwoman Peggy Olson, an A-student in the Don Draper school of self-delusion and reinvention, finally told ruthless account executive Pete Campbell how she secretly bore his child and gave up the baby – not in a tearful confession, but as a means of asserting her power over an uncharacteristically vulnerable Campbell.

Closeted art director Sal Romano is chafing under a sham marriage as curvaceous office manager Joan Holloway is about to enter into one with her doctor fiancé, who raped her in the place where she thought she exerted control: the office.

Meanwhile, Sterling Cooper was bought out by a London firm (presaging, perhaps, another kind of British cultural invasion not far down the line).

With the balance of power changing in the world and in the office, the characters are headed into dangerous territory as the show stretches into 1963. We know what’s coming, at least for the country: the Kennedy assassination.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Hopes are understandably high for this critical favorite, which pulled off the rare feat of compiling a second season as strong as the first – living up to the hype and deserving its 16 Emmy nominations. Still, the highly stylized show doesn’t attract quite 2 million viewers.

The show is building slowly, much like the last TV drama to become part of the popular culture even before being embraced by a mass audience: “The Sopranos,” the former home of “Mad Men” creator and producer Matthew Weiner.

Season 2 ended with a mix of hope and foreboding as Betty told Don of her pregnancy. The baby would be a member of the first generation raised on “Sesame Street,” a place that is, thankfully, a long way from Madison Avenue.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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