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Craig Blankenhorn, AMC
Christina Hendricks talks to "Mad Men" executive producer/writer Matt Weiner.

LOS ANGELES — Enter the world of "Mad Men" and you're stepping into the past.

Whether you turn on the television when the second season begins (Sunday, 8, 9 and 11 p.m., AMC) or step onto the set in downtown Los Angeles, it feels as if you've gone through a time warp that carried you back to the early 1960s. The era is meticulously — almost obsessively — re-created in a show that's the absolute darling of the critics.

It won three of 11 Television Critics Association awards last week, including best new program, best drama and program of the year.

"Mad Men" follows the staff at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency — a top New York firm. (The title refers to what Madison Avenue ad men called themselves.) As we learned in the first season, despite the apparently straight-laced nature of the time and the characters, all is not what it seems.

You need look no further than creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who isn't even "who" he pretends to be, let alone "what" he pretends to be. And the series is populated with indelible characters, including agency chief Roger Sterling (John Slattery); incredibly creepy young upstart Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser); junior copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss); office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks); Don's troubled wife, Betty (January Jones); and closeted art director Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt).

Where all this came from — the show, the setting, the return to 1960 — even the show's creator/executive producer/writer can't quite say.

"I mean, the creative process is mysterious," said Matt Weiner. "I had an obsession. I've been asked that question, and I don't have a good answer for it."

He did, however, point to the early 1960 as "a golden age for the United States. ... There really was just this magnanimous spirit about the world, a cultural openness. I know it's seen as a repressed period, but it's really a culturally very open period. A lot of freedom and a lot of the ideas that we associate with the '60s were born in that period, and I was interested in those "environmentalism, attitudes toward materialism, Bohemianism, art, plays.

"And then a lot of it's personal. You know I just sort of identified with that and identified with sort of the dichotomy between the way we are on the outside and the way we're perceived."

He also used the word "obsessive" to describe his focus on making sure the look of the show is right. Everything you see, whether it's what the actors or wearing, where they live or wear, they work, is actually of the period of a re-creation.

My father didn't work in an advertising agency and I can't remember 1962, but walking into the Sterling Cooper offices brought back memories of my father's office in the 1960s. Everything from the desks to the phones to the wall decorations to the cigarette butts in the ashtrays looked amazingly accurate.

"It does help when you're dressed like we are and you're working on this set," Hamm said.

And a quick trip to an adjoining soundstage and the Draper house was like walking into Grandma and Grandpa's house, with more than a few items that could be found at Mom and Dad's, too.

"It's very important to me," Weiner said. "Maybe I'm too obsessive, but it's part of what we're doing here."

The second season doesn't pick up right where the first season left off. It's subtle, but the time line has jumped ahead about 14 months; it's now 1962.

"In the life of the series, if it continues, I would like to cover this period of people's lives," Weiner said.

"And that's a five-year plan and not a 10-year plan."

He was also aiming to keep up the show's "energy."

"I kind of thought — why don't we just go ahead and I can start the story fresh?" Weiner said. "And at the same time there will be all these events that happened in between that will provide an additional storytelling energy.

"You've heard me say that I don't think people change (but) the world was definitely in the process of changing. And this gave us a chance to sort of accentuate that."

First-season fans are not, however, going to get all the answers they want in the first couple of episodes. Yes, Peggy is back on the job. And, yes, she had her baby. But where that baby is and what exactly happened is unclear.

"Trust me," Weiner said. "I will give you the information as you need it in the most entertaining way."

Kartheiser said there's "a lot of trust among this cast" in Weiner and the writing staff because of how great it's been so far."

And, given the quality of Season 1, it makes it pretty easy to trust him in Season 2. (Well, that and seeing the first two episodes of the new season, where are great.)

"You sort of sign on in the beginning knowing what a good writer Matt is, and you hope for the best," Slattery said. "And then each week, these scripts just keep getting better and better. We are all texting each other, going, 'Do you believe that? Did you see that coming?' ... It's an unbelievable surprise every week.

"And I think that's what's also so good about the show is that it's so unpredictable. The characters go places you did not expect them to go that you don't see it coming."

You can't ask for much more.

If you watch

WHAT: The second season of "Mad Men"

WHEN: Begins Sunday at 8, 9 and 11 p.m.; repeats Monday at 9 a.m.; Thursday at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 3, at 8 a.m.


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