Trying to maintain order

TELEVISION CRITIC

It's easy to read a lot into "Mad Men" (see accompanying piece). The languid pace, the mouth-watering attention to detail, the archetypal characters and well-crafted dialogue conspire to create the air of a TV classic begging to be deconstructed.

Is it a personal journey in which our hero, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), scours the cityscapes and deserts in search of meaning? Or is he the lens through which creator Matthew Weiner offers his interpretation of the socio-political shifts of the 1960s?

This year, "Mad Men" opens with a thrown gauntlet and a wink. "Who is Don Draper?" intones a suspiciously professorial male voice, as if Weiner were both acknowledging and mocking the iconic status of his show. Cleverly, it turns out to be the slightly cheesy question of an Ad Age reporter trying to get a few inches out of the man behind a new television commercial blurring the line between story and advertisement.

Don refuses to play ball. He shuts down the interview with a "the work speaks for itself" attitude that nowadays even Robert De Niro has been forced to abandon and we see almost instantly where we're going. Will Don be willing to sell himself with the same alacrity he brings to pitching Lucky Strikes?

For Don, of course, it's not just a question of personal modesty or professional integrity. Creating personal narrative is what he does best, but taking it public is another question -- a little digging and his whole sordid past could be revealed. His life now has more compartments than, to borrow a bit of luggage from the period, a woman's train case -- there's work, his still-stormy relationship with ex-wife Betty (January Jones), his biweekly dip into single parenthood, his attempt to start "dating" again and his sex life. None of which, he is careful to ensure, overlap.

More interesting are the shifting dynamics at the office. Women, well, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks), are slightly more ascendant while advertisements, and the people who create them, are becoming just as valuable as the goods and services they promote. Don, who has seemingly justified all the deceit in his life with a simple desire to achieve a modest version of the American Dream -- wife, kids, nice house in the suburbs -- now faces the possibility of using his dubious gifts to achieve real power.

It's a slow-moving episode for all that, and though "Mad Men" continues to be one of the most beautiful and smartly written shows in the room, there's a troubling heartlessness about it -- John Slattery's Roger Sterling is the only character one can imagine existing beyond the confines of the scene. For all its moments of poetry and insight, "Mad Men" too often feels less like a drama and more like the staging of a really good master's thesis. Which is something the folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would iron out in two seconds flat.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Mad Men'

Where: AMC

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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