The last time was 1988, after NBC cancelled Crime Story, arguably the greatest TV show Michael Mann ever produced. Oh, sure, Miami Vice had the hit theme song and brooding Edward Olmos to counterbalance pastel South Florida, but Crime Story was Del Shannon re-rocking ďRunawayĒ amid the glossy noir of 60ís Chicago. Mann hired an actual ex-cop and an actual ex-jewel thief for the cast, and when he needed a cliffhanger to end its first season, he blew up his characters in an atomic bomb test in the Nevada desert and dared the viewer not to believe they survived.
Actually, back then, you could still pick up Channel 13 out of thin air, so that had nothing to do with truncating the cable service, and besides, just a couple of months later Yo! MTV Raps premiered. (Show of hands! Who among you knew before reading this that it was co-created by the late director Ted Demme?)
Twenty years later, televisionís wasteland has been paved over to build more strip malls. The Wire and The Shield are done, Rescue Me isnít far behind and I can watch 30 Rock on Hulu if I must. Even the infomercials that used to brighten the middles of nights have lost their luster, now that Billy Mays is no longer around to polish them up.
It would seem the perfect time to pull the plug on the moribund cable box, save for one definitive sign of brain activity: The new season of Mad Men starts Sunday.
One of the most useless cable channels, AMC, has somehow provided a haven for two exemplary original series; the middle-class meth fantasy Breaking Bad , and the saga that does for advertising what Six Feet Under did for undertaking, Mad Men.
Because I do much less meth than advertising, I am drawn to Mad Men and the stylish hucksters with which series creator Matthew Weiner populates his realm. I know these people, mad men and women alike.
If you missed the first two seasons, thereís still time to rent some disks and catch up, but donít be surprised if you find yourself revisiting the tale at a more leisurely pace later on, for Weiner and his fellow scribes have crafted a world that invites your scrutiny and rewards it with a gratifying attention to nuance and detail.
It is the world of Sterling Cooper, a Manhattan agency in the highest strata of advertising as the decade of the 60ís begins. Sterling Cooper services only top tier clients ó Lucky Strike, Heineken, Goodyear ó and the man who works the magic holding these firms in thrall is Don Draper, creative director and agency partner.
Draper lives near Ossining with his wife, Betty, and their two children in a manner that could be described as quite well-to-do. He has a dog, a couple of girlfriends on the side and also a secret identity, having stolen the name of his commanding officer after that unfortunate was blown up while both were serving in the Korean War.
His associates at Sterling Cooper are just as vividly imagined. Thereís Pete Campbell, a silver spoon-fed account executive who fathered a child out of wedlock in the secretarial pool. Salvatore Romano, a staff artist, seems to be happily married but is in fact a closeted gay man.
Then there are the mad women, including Betty Draper, a former model who longs to be free of societal strictures; Joan Holloway, the office manager who is quite free of same; and Peggy Olson, the shy secretary who worked her way up to copy writer despite having borne Pete Campbellís child.
All very soap opera-sounding, but thatís because itís been reduced to these few sentences. Allowed to play out over an arc of 26 episodes, so far, and placed firmly in the context of a nation undergoing a cultural sea change, Mad Men becomes as heavy and heady as any novel by Dickens.
Before there was rock, ad men were rock stars. As depicted in the TV series, these bon vivants smoked and drank to excess and treated women like chattel. In the process, however, they changed forever, for better or worse, the way America looked and sounded and behaved.
Without an ad industry to stimulate the desires of citizens with disposable income, it is unlikely the country would have evolved into the service-based economy currently teetering on the edge of financial abyss. Ironically, having created the perfect consumer machine, ad men now find themselves in less demand just when their special kind of persuasion could help clients jump-start their businesses. (At least one ad man I know says itís because, when cash-strapped companies examine their ledger sheets in search of expenses to cut, ďadvertisingĒ is inconveniently close to the top of the page.)
Beginning its third season on AMC, the tale of Mad Men will enter the year 1963, the true end of the 50ís. It will be an important year for Sterling Cooper, an agency that, despite Draperís acumen, still approaches its trade in an old-fashioned way, as yet unreconciled to the new cool way of advertising produced for clients like Volkswagen and Coca-Cola by real-life agencies like Doyle Dane Bernbach and Leo Burnett.
We donít know exactly what will happen to these characters, but we do know that the Drapersí marriage will be strained further by Bettyís surprise pregnancy and that Peggy getting her own office could lead to trouble (though not as readily as will Joan Holloway marrying the doctor who date-raped her).
We also know that since Iím still on the cable, Iíll find something else edifying to view, like Infomania on Current or Lee Ermey blowing stuff up on the History Channelís Lock and Load . Iíd speculate further, but I just noticed an infomercial coming on entitled Is Colon Detox Hype? I think I know the answer, but I may have to watch the whole thing just to be sure...
The new season of Mad Men premieres on Sunday, Aug 16, at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. CST). Visit the showís official website at www.amctv.com
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com