What to do with the summer rolling in and no big new shows except Twelfth Night to see till fall? I got hold of Mad Men Season Two [Lionsgate] the other day, just as the kids went off to summer camp. We watched the first four episodes (about three hours-worth) that night, and the next day was rainy so. . . . Thirteen episodes in all, on four discs, and it flies by pretty fast. It helps, of course if you watched Season One last year; this is a tapestry of interwoven plots and storylines, the sort of things with enigmatic hints in episodes 3 and 4 which bear fruit in episode 19. If you haven't seen Season One, get that first. I expect that most of you will quickly be back for more.
Why is "Mad Men," which picked up six Emmys in its first season, so good? Start with the writing and overall direction, from Matthew Weiner. Continue with the cast, who we'll get back to in a second, and move on to the neverending flow of detail in the sets and props and costume. And dialogue as well. For someone who grew up in this period, I felt like I was back home again. Everything is familiar, a cascade of items and senses heretofore relegated to the recesses of the subconscious; Mr. Weiner and associates bring it back, they bring it all back. Season Two takes place in 1962, when I was nine years old; they are wearing the same clothes, playing with the same toys, driving the cars and shopping in the stores; I mean, the kitchen cabinets in Don Draper's kitchen in Westchester are the very same ones that we had out on Long Island. The jingles on the radio are instantly remembered, and the ad campaigns that the Mad [Madison Avenue] Men are creating are for products that I remember. (We nine-year-olds of 1962 were members of the first generation which grew up in front of the television set: the Mad Men's prime targets.) What did they do, go out and manufacture all these long obsolete items? Not just major items, but clothing, toys, packaging for food products. Or is there some super-secret overstuffed warehouse someplace?
But nostalgic art decoration alone does not make for ten hours of riveting viewing. The creators of "Mad Men" have conjured a heightened world with no less than 14 or so fully-realized characters wrapped up in any number of story lines. What's more, Weiner has sprinkled his scenario with secrets and potential secrets, some of which apparently won't be developed until Season Three (or later). As a result, there is an air of danger hanging over almost every scene in every episode; those of us who have been following the thing are always on the watch for something to start to crack. Which makes it all the more engrossing. Think August: Osage County translated to Coast of Utopia length.
The major actors are little-known, or at least were when they started filming the series in 2007. One of the six top-billed actors, Elisabeth Moss, has already joined the ranks of Broadway stars, courtesy of last season's Speed-the-Plow. One imagines that others of the group will follow suit, and why not? (Among the leads is John Slattery, who is already known in town for his performances in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, the Roundabout revival of Betrayal, and Rabbit Hole.) Jon Hamm plays the central character, the mysterious Don Draper; other valuable participants include Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis, Rich Sommer, and Aaron Staton. Making an impression among the visiting characters that support various story lines is Colin Hanks, the adult son of one of Hollywood's most respected big-ticket stars. Young Mr. Hanks offered strong support as a male nurse (to Jane Fonda) in 33 Variations on Broadway last season; he is even better here, in three episodes (so far), as a Brooklyn priest trying to bring Elisabeth Moss back to the church. Most welcome, for me anyway, is Bobby Morse. Mr. Weiner quite obviously has the 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying rooted in his imagination; the Sterling Cooper ad agency, at heart, seems to be tangentially related to dear old World Wide Wickets. Mr. Morse flits in and out of the series — he appears in seven of the Season Two episodes — and brings with him the essence of J.B. Biggley, along with what seem to be some leftover accoutrements from Rudy Vallee's wardrobe trunk. Morse is, as always, a delight and a treasure; I wonder what younger audiences make of him, though. Let it be added that whereas Season Two took place in 1962, Weiner — who clearly has musical comedy in his heart — slipped in a few references to that year's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. What show will he send his Mad Men admen to in Season Three, I wonder? Is Oliver! too family-oriented? Little Me? Tovarich? Too esoteric, I suppose. I guess we'll see when Season Three is released on DVD next July. Or, watch it episode-by-episode when it starts on Sunday Aug. 16 on AMC.
Let it be noted that character man Karl Malden died on July 1 at the age of 97. His Broadway debut in 1937, in the small role of the Barker in Golden Boy (under the name Mladen Sekulovich), served to launch his career; another featured player, with a somewhat larger role, was the young Elia Kazan. Kazan turned director, casting Malden in the role of George Deever (the son of the framed partner) in Arthur Miller's All My Sons and as Mitch, the suitor of Blanche DuBois, in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. The latter role, recreated on film, won Malden an Oscar. Not long thereafter, Kazan gave Malden the role of Father Barry in "On the Waterfront." Malden had a lifetime-worth of stage, screen and TV credits, but you need only watch "Streetcar" or "Waterfront" on film to get an unparalleled lesson in first-rate dramatic acting.
(Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)