Mad about the return of 'Mad Men'

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The set of AMC's terrific retro drama Mad Men is, put simply, a trip.

There's more than simple attention to detail. There's an affection for all the tiny, exacting touches that make the set and the show not just a journey backward but a layered tale about the country and our culture.

The living room of the Draper household, the home of advertising man Don Draper and his family, is Drexel Heritage circa 1960, as the producers describe it. With semi-dark wood, mild greens and abstract-but-bland art on the walls, it's slightly ornate, slightly modern and slightly sterile.

”It is what rich people had,“ Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner told TV critics as he showed us around the downtown Los Angeles production facilities recently. ”It's not too stylish, not all coordinated, and the kids weren't allowed in the room.“

All the details that go into this set are aimed at fleshing out the characters, not just fueling some lightweight wayback machine.

Best of all on the lot is what they call the White Room, a long, large production space where each character's clothes and style are deftly and intricately detailed.

That tells you loads about Mad Men, which returns for its second season at 10 p.m. Sunday, and it explains why this show drew 16 Emmy nominations and won three TV Critics Association awards in the past 10 days.

Mad Men, centered on the people and the mores of Madison Avenue 40-plus years ago, is not just a period piece, or a throwback drama. It's a literary, layered story of people living with, and pushing against, the rules of society and their own complicated natures. And it's as much about 2008 as it is the 1960s, if you care to look that deep.

It's also hypnotically entertaining because of all that dead-on detail, and because of the nimble writing and storytelling, the lineup of absorbing characters, the subtle and powerful acting and, of course, its atmospheric cool.

That why the return of Mad Men on Sunday is one of the highlight events of the TV summer. And despite the nuanced plot lines, it's a good access point for viewers who have not seen the show.

Season 2 opens on Valentine's Day 1962, 14 months after last season ended with Draper (Jon Hamm) facing increasing problems in his home life despite his family-oriented ad campaigns, and after Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) just gave birth.

Weiner said that a lot has happened in those months, and the people in Mad Men (and viewers, too) will spend a few episodes learning what occurred and answering for those events.

”Trust me,“ he told critics, ”and I'll give you information as you need it in the most entertaining fashion.“

He chose this short time leap because, as Weiner says, change is gradual, not sudden, and this move puts the group, and America, in a different cultural place.

”1962 was a peaceful, optimistic time, but the world was changing,“ he said. ”It's a time in American culture that's become idealized.“

Last season, we learned about Draper's secrets, and about what everyone hid from each other and themselves. This season, it turns darker as the consequences of those secrets and of people's choices take hold.

”From the first episode,“ Weiner said, ”you will immediately look back at last season and think that people, as grimy and gritty as a lot of last season was, do seem more innocent.“

And if last year was about the revelations of those characters, this season is more about how people deal with their choices and with themselves.

”It's about the contrast between who we are privately and who we wish we were.“

Mad Men came from seemingly nowhere last summer to be a small cultural phenomenon. With the start of its second season, Weiner and his team have shown that they are making one of TV's most enthralling shows.