Has Mad Men's Creator Gone Mad?

AMC's reputation-making critical smash had a first season so smart that few noticed the astounding stupidity of its second-season debut. I know most critics loved it, but I've got to dole out some tough love: the first episode was a wizened, etiolated calamity, like a tenth-generation copy of itself on that enormous new Xerox machine that epochally arrives at Sterling Cooper.

The storytelling is sparsely parsimonious, perilously dependent on the resonance of a few preciously fetishized details. As William Gass said of reading Proust, one wonders first if it will ever end, and then, in despair, if it will ever begin.

Much is made of the Xerox, for instance, but what really happens? It's too big to fit; later, admen discover they can Xerox their faces. Mad Men auteur Matthew Weiner gets so much credit for nailing the period details that critics won't discuss his stunning inability to make a scene propel a plot. He labors over vignettes that promise to be revelatory in some future episode but go nowhere now. Too many make a too-simple point. Early Xeroxes were big. Doctors were lackadaisical about suicidal booze-and-butts vice diets. People read Frank O'Hara and watched Jackie Kennedy's White House tour. Dames got treated like dirt.

Way too many scenes seem pointless, wandering. The airline ad meeting has none of the brilliance of the first season's Kodak Carousel meeting, which neatly wrapped up plot points, character insights, and grand themes in a blazing moment of emotional revelation all the more powerful for the portentous restraint that led up to them.

In the new season, everybody waits around. The ad guys wait for boss Don (Jon Hamm) to show up for a meeting. Wife Betty (January Jones) waits naked in a hotel bed for Don to perform his Valentine's Day duty. Betty wishes Don would just tell him what to do. Nobody in the second season has a clue what to do. We feel like Betty and the ad staff: can somebody around here please give us some direction?

Weiner starves us for significance and places all his bets on tiny events, like a mad haiku beatnik poet. In a fascinating AMC online chat, Weiner says his show draws on literature that makes "a great reference to the small moments in life that become huge after they pass." But he risks multiple moments that stubbornly stay small.

Granted, the second episode was a huge improvement. Weiner throws us lots of crumbs. We find out the fate of Peggy's baby. (But will Elizabeth Moss's stone face ever betray more emotion?) The plane crash gives the show a dramatic spine. Sleazy, Sammy Glickish junior adman Pete (Vincent Kartheizer) cracks the best gag about the Jamaica Bay crash (there were so many golfers aboard, "the water turned plaid"), then discovers his cruel dad was aboard.

What follows is what Weiner should be doing in every episode: shining a spotlight on character, moving the story forward. Pete clumsily reaches out to Don for paternal guidance; Don clumsily helps. Later, Don rebuffs him, driving paternally-deprived Pete to turn to Don's scheming rival, Duck (Mark Moses, one of many actors getting a deserved career break on the show). Utterly cynical, Duck talks Pete into pitching the airline that just killed his dad -- using blood betrayal to land the big account.

Now, that's interesting. Yet, scarily for fans, the second episode, so superior to the first, suffered a startling ratings plunge of about 30 percent. Maybe this can be taken as a consequence of the better-than-100-percent ratings gain the first episode scored over the previous season -- the season debut was so popular it had farther to fall.

And, after all, Mad Men remains enormously improved in ratings. It doesn't hurt that people at parties shower anyone who works at AMC with mad props for Mad Men, nor that four out of ten viewers make over $100,000 a year. The show's spell is so beguiling, I almost bought a BMW (the big Mad Men advertiser), and I'm one of the six in ten viewers who don't make $100,000.

I'm going to keep watching Mad Men. But I pray that Matthew Weiner gives us more shows like season two, episode two, and no more aimlessness displays like the season-opener. Sometimes I fear he's drunk on prestige and savors our frustration -- just as his old boss David Chase was. Chase blew all the goodwill The Sopranos built up on a horribly pointless last season. A master of the significant moment, he closed his show with an insignificant moment.

It boils down to this: do Chase and Weiner want to be in the dramatic persuasion business? Or do they just want to defy the audience and indulge their fetishes? At this point, frankly, I'm disappointed by Weiner's presentation.