AMC’s Mad Men (Sundays, 10 p.m.) returns for its third season on August 16, and TV critics everywhere are salivating in anticipation. The show about advertising executives in the 1960s, nominated for 16 awards at this year’s Emmys, has gone from a cult hit to the most acclaimed show on television. So is it worth the hype? You’re damn right it is, and here are the top four reasons why:
The best acting ensemble on TV
Mad Men’s top stars—most notably Jon Hamm as Don Draper, the ace ad man with the mysterious past; January Jones as Don’s deeply unhappy wife Betty; Elisabeth Moss as proto-feminist Peggy Olson; and John Slattery as Roger Sterling, Don’s philandering boss—have received the most praise from critics and awards-givers (Hamm, Moss and Slattery are all nominated for Emmys this year; Hamm and Jones were both nominated for Golden Globes a few months ago), and that recognition is well deserved. But one of Mad Men’s greatest strengths is how deep its talent runs. Even small roles are beautifully enacted by talented recurring players and guest stars. The show often finds underappreciated character actors (like Patrick Fischler, who had an arc as self-loathing comedian Jimmy Barrett in last year’s second season) and allows them to showcase what they’re really capable of.
A deep, complex and fully realized fictional world
Although Mad Men takes place in the real world—New York City of the 1960s—creator Matthew Weiner and his crew have built up a setting every bit as intricate and detailed as any whole-cloth invention on a sci-fi show like Lost or Battlestar Galactica. Just because he’s dealing with historical facts and period clothes and interior design doesn’t make Weiner any less meticulous when it comes to fleshing out every little detail of the show’s setting. It’s easy to rely on simple shorthand to convey a historical period to viewers, but Mad Men never skimps on its sharp detail or takes anything for granted. For those of us who didn’t live through these years, the show gives us an immediate, immersive sense of what life was like on Madison Avenue in 1962. And for those who did, my guess is the transportive effect is just as strong.
A serious examination of how people shape their identities
Summer shows are typically light genre fare—think pretty much anything on USA or TNT—or disposable reality shows, but Mad Men is as thematically rich as it is entertaining. The show’s characters are constantly struggling to define who they are, whether it’s through throwing themselves into their work, embracing the social change of their era or merely trying to connect with the people closest to them. In Don’s case, that struggle is embodied in the literal appropriation of someone else’s identity, but while his transformation is the most radical, it’s emblematic of the internal conflicts that the other characters deal with just as frequently.
More style than Project Runway
The multilayered stories and complex characters are great, sure, but sometimes you just want to look at pretty pictures, and Mad Men has plenty of that, too. The aforementioned meticulous attention to detail means that the wardrobe is filled with impeccably tailored suits and beautifully designed dresses; these characters are working in one of the hottest industries in the world’s most exciting city, after all. Not for nothing do the show’s stars regularly get glamour spreads in glossy magazines; Hamm and Christina Hendricks (who plays viper-like office manager Joan Holloway), in particular, have become popular sex symbols. The show’s direction does as much to highlight beauty as it does to enhance the storytelling; it all adds up to a show that offers the full package, whatever the season.