DAVE DAVIES, host:
One of the most widely acclaimed shows on television, AMC's "Mad Men," returns on Sunday for its third season. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this preview.
DAVID BIANCULLI: There was plenty of suspense in the cliffhanger that ended AMC's "Mad Men" at the end of season two. Sterling Cooper had been bought by a British firm. And John Hamm's Don Draper had walked away unhappy with the company's newly appointed president and unsure if he would return after the weekend. When Don got home, his wife dropped the bomb that she was pregnant. And speaking of bombs, all of this took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation. But if that's not enough suspense for you, series creator Matthew Weiner always manages to generate more.
He doesn't begin a new season precisely where the old one left off. So as a new year of "Mad Men" begins, there's always the question, is it a new year? If we left off in 1962 during the missile crisis, where will we pick up? He wouldn't leapfrog over the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination, would he? The answer comes very early in Sunday's premiere episode. So it's not exactly a state secret. "Mad Men" never says what year it is or what month in the first episode. But since Don's wife is still pregnant, we know it's less than nine months later. So, by inference, we're still in that small '60s window known as the Age of Camelot, after James Bond, before the JFK assassination.
And predictably, the new British owners have their own agendas. One is to call a meeting to fire Bert, the head of accounts. Another is to dispatch Don, played by Jon Hamm, to Baltimore, to charm an old client who has a British connection of his own.
(Soundbite of TV series "Mad Men")
Mr. JARED PRYCE (Actor): I apologize to Baltimore. It has to be done.
Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): Hmm. Sales call, no more I can do here.
Mr. PRYCE: Its not a sales call, you're the face of our business.
Mr. ROBERT MORSE (Actor): They need someone they can trust. London Fog, how ludicrous.
Mr. HAMM: Really, I have one.
Mr. PRYCE: So do I.
Mr. MORSE: No, of course, it's just the name. There's no fog in London. There is no London fog.
Mr. PRYCE: Are you sure about that?
Mr. MORSE: Quite. Never was. It was the coal dust from the industrial era. Charles Dickens and whatnot...
(Soundbite of IVR)
Mr. HAMM: We need you to have a seat, Bert.
Mr. MICHAEL GASTON (Actor): Okay.
BIANCULLI: A lot of this episode has to do with the seismic shift of the corporate takeover. Of course, this mirrors perfectly how unsettled we're all feeling in this new millennium. And by now, we know all the employees at Sterling Cooper well enough to be fascinated by how they react. Roger, Pete, Peggy they all angle for ways to protect or expand their turf. And even Joan, the Va-va-voom secretary played by Christina Hendricks, holds her own in this pre-Beatles British invasion. While Bert, who's just been fired, throws a temper tantrum behind closed doors, Joan stands outside and gets into a verbal duel with the British boss' new secretary, a man whom the other secretaries, citing the James Bond character, disparagingly refer to as Moneypenny.
(Soundbite of TV series "Mad Men")
Ms. CHRISTINA HENDRICKS (Actor): I assume you can continue to handle this beautifully when I dispense psychotherapy to the girls in the pool.
Mr. RYAN CARTWRIGHT (Actor): You Americans don't know how to handle your emotions. It's unbecoming.
Ms. HENDRICKS: His wife is sick and if you would talk to his girl she would have informed him.
Mr. CARTWRIGHT: So, he would had a longer (unintelligible).
Ms. HENDRICKS: And if you had talked to me I wouldve been waiting with his coat and his (unintelligible).
Mr. CARTWRIGHT: More on topic, decorum, I'd like to speak with you about the way I'm being addressed.
Ms. HENDRICKS: Could you be more specific?
Mr. CARTWRIGHT: The switchboard. Im not John. Im Mr. Hooker.
Ms. HENDRICKS: Thats the way they've been taught to address the secretaries.
Mr. CARTWRIGHT: Yes, well, as I've explained, in Great Britain
Ms. HENDRICKS: A truck is a lorry, and an elevator is a lift. Ive got it, Mr. Hoooker. Despite your title, you are not a secretary.
Mr. CARTWRIGHT: Im Mr. Price's right arm. I'm not his typist.
Ms. HENDRICKS: Of course.
BIANCULLI: I love how politely defiant Joan is in that scene. And let's admit it, how attractive. Lots of people, starting with Hamm's Don Draper, are ridiculously handsome or beautiful in this 1960's drama. But Christina Hendricks and her well-rounded curves may make Joan the most retrosexual "Mad Men" character of all, as well as one of the most complex. The characters, even more than the setting, are what make this show so captivating. No matter which character is onscreen, you could follow that character for the rest of the hour without complaint. Not many drama series are written that well and cast that deeply to make you emotionally invested in almost everyone.
"The Wire," "Homicide: Life on the Street," "The Sopranos," "The Shield," "Damages" - it's not a very long list but it is an impressive one. And "Mad Men" belongs right up there with them. It's one of the finest TV dramas ever made. And the new season begins just as strongly as last season ended.
DAVIES: David Bianculli writes for tvworthwatching.com and teaches television and film at Rowan University.
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DAVIES: You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Terry Gross is back on Monday. I'm Dave Davies.
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