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Mad Men

Created by Matthew Weiner

Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC

Mad Men is a show that thinks very highly of itself. Its creator and writer, Matthew Weiner, was a writer and executive producer of The Sopranos, and Mad Men totes a self-importance that could give some the impression that it’s powerful and innovative HBO drama, like The Sopranos or The Wire. It’s not, but judging by the hype its second season has gotten, a lot of people seem to be convinced it is.

While The Sopranos was piercing psychological exploration of crime and the American family, Mad Men is often content to be vaguely nostalgic, fixing almost all its energy on set pieces, costumes, and the glitzy consumerism of the early 1960s.

In its first season, Mad Men’s meditation on consumerism and excess usually amounted to little more than a straightforward display of the over-the-top lives of Manhattan advertising executives, except with the lines delivered very, very seriously. When the focus shifted to the advertising itself, the actors would discuss consumer culture with office banter that was rarely funny.

Once you look past the fact that the show rarely tackles its subject matter in an interesting way, it’s easy to appreciate that its characters are actually quite good. While its protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is generally content to be stone-faced and tortured, many of the characters surrounding Don — particularly his wife Betty (January Jones), secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and colleague Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) — are enigmatic and complex. Again, the problems facing the characters aren’t entirely original — Betty is a housewife lost in suburbia, Peggy is a woman trying to enter an entirely male-dominated profession, and Pete is a painfully weak man trying to be a cutthroat executive — but they have surprising depth.

The second season of Mad Men deals with the mortality of the ad-executives: the transformation of their industry and the fatal trajectory of their lifestyle. As everything in the characters’ lives begins to crumble, the show keeps getting better. It was thoroughly underwhelming at first, but the second season is certainly heading in the right direction.