Mad Men Wins Raves, Not Ratings

Newly svelte Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) gives a female co-worker a lesson on interoffice manners, while viewers learn nothing new of the whereabouts of her new baby. Meanwhile, Don's wife Betty (January Jones) is more than a little curious about the lifestyle led by an old roommate, who she learns is now working as a call girl.

Clearly, the women of Mad Men are starting to appreciate, and flex, their growing cultural clout.

The episode's humor flows from the arrival of a monstrous copy machine, a device so large it can't fit easily into any existing office space. That doesn't stop coworkers from turning the machine into the firm's de facto water cooler. The copy machine scenes add a welcome dose of levity to an often dour episode.

Still, it's easy to see why Mad Men inspires such slavish devotion. The series' period details are impeccable, and its overall production values, from the crisp cast to the wondrous sets, put most broadcast shows to shame. Factor in a refreshing cast of mostly unknowns who merge seamlessly into the era's trappings and you have the ideal antidote to Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

And there's precious little original material to compete with at this time of the year.

Yet the show can be a frustrating to process. Wasn't the first season's subplot regarding Don's true identity, and the subsequent war sequences, the kind of stuff you insert into a show's flagging fifth season?

And why does the new season start without coming to grips with why Betty returned to Don's side?

Mad Men's moral ambiguity starts with Don's character. Just watch him instruct his underlings on how to concoct an ad for a major airline. He doesn't want the conversation to start and stop with "sex sells." He'd rather envision the beaming face of a child waiting for her daddy to get off the plane.

But is that a rare attack of conscience, or an indication of the character's growing affection for his nuclear family?

Mad Men exists, in part, to remind and punish this country's past transgressions. These were not Happy Days by any stretch.

It rarely takes time to enjoy the era's pleasures, like being able to leave your front doors unlocked or the wholesomeness streaked through the culture. Don and Betty don't spend a minute worrying about the over sexualized images streaming from their television sets.

Perhaps that's why Mad Men has yet to connect with a larger audience. After all, cynicism can be the toughest sell of all.