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“Mad Men” is TV’s most popular paradox

The hugely popular “Mad Men” is a paradox in every way.

Despite the title, its most passionate audience seems to be women. They’re the ones most thoroughly hooked by its tales of ’60s women finding themselves and teetering on the verge of massively overthrowing the phony domestic pieties of a culture that is lying to itself.

Its “hero” is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the biggest liar of all – a brilliant advertising man whom we frequently see struck by creative lightning but so crippled by self-loathing in his deepest parts that he is almost as unhappy as the terrorist we follow on Showtime’s “Homeland.”

Don’s real name is Dick Whitman, and, in his honor, they should probably have called the show “Existential Man.”

He’s a walking, talking, chain-smoking, booze-soaked embodiment of bad faith – a man so perfectly handsome and mysterious that men always want to be his friend or colleague and women are eager to fall into his bed. But his disgust with himself is so immense that he can’t even go to the funeral of a business partner’s wealthy nonagenearian mother without getting so sloshed that he upchucks into the stand containing the fireplace brush and poker (the kind of perfectly off-center detail that so many people find thrilling about the show).

Its era used to be the ’60s – not the omnidirectional rebellious late ’60s with fatuous claims to “revolution” everywhere (mostly the word “revolutionary” was good at selling new brands of soft drink or bathroom cleanser). But you can never quite pin down the details to get the show into focus.

At least I can’t. And it’s always been my biggest problem with the show. I can’t watch the bloody thing without coming up with questions for the writers and production designers. It was the era in which I came to full cultural consciousness and the way Matthew Weiner and his writers keep presenting it never quite seems in accurate focus to me.

I’m told by a passionate (male) fan the episode began with New Year’s Eve 1967-68. Lyndon Johnson is still president. There are horrific news stories about American soldiers wearing the ears of dead Viet Cong as a necklace.

Sunday’s season premiere of the show began with Don Draper reading the Signet Paperback edition of Dante’s “Inferno” on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii – the 1954 John Ciardi translation, in other words. That’s as stunningly exact a detail as Don’s later vomiting all over a fireplace poker. And it’s quite true that Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s “Inferno” was a paperback best-seller for Draper’s kind of reader. But in 1967-68? I don’t think so. It was already out of fashion. (Ciardi would complete his “Divine Comedy” translation in 1970.)

There were references to Haight-Ashbury hippies. But then “the summer of love” was 1967. And that was, for pity’s sake, a cover story on Time magazine.

It was ground zero for what, it seems to me, everyone in the business of consumer manipulation would have to know was an emerging mammoth supergroup – youth – coming insanely into its own as an economic force. It seems to me an advertising man hip enough to read “Inferno” on a beach in Honolulu is already going to be aware of seismic shivers from a whole new class of money spenders in America and a whole new way of spending it.

If that’s where we are chronologically, then, you can’t just show “Mad Men’s” emergent prefeminist Peggy working on a Koss headphones ad and call it a day. These people – these advertising people – have got to be feeling excited about American youth as a massive and sudden new target to be approached in a new way.

But no. Instead, all we saw on Sunday night was Betty dodging hippies on St. Mark’s Place in Greenwich Village, looking for her stepdaughter the violinist who didn’t get into Juilliard. (Too “old for a violinist” she tells Betty heartbreakingly and all too briefly.)

Lord knows they try to get details right on “Mad Men.” But it never feels exactly right to me. It always feels historically smudged, unreadable.

But let’s admit that a TV show centered around Existential Self-Loathing as mysterious and acute as Don Draper’s is nothing if not interesting on TV – not to mention unprecedented.

Let’s admit that Jon Hamm and John Slattery as his corporate partner, Roger, are truly inspired casting. Both of them look like male models. But they’re both very wry actors in their way.

Hamm may be the only actor in 21st century Hollywood who knows how to light a cigarette on camera – the exact microsecond to suck in the smoke, the exact facial expression to have while doing it. If, for instance, you watch January Jones, as Betty on the show, as she lights a cigarette, she’s doing it all wrong. It’s no longer an indication of existential torment but rather one of social awkwardness, which isn’t exactly right for her character at all.

Considering that a souvenir cigarette lighter was Don Draper’s most important prop in the episode, that’s nothing if not a pertinent detail.

But as compelling as they all are in their way, the people of “Mad Men” just don’t get me in the way the people do on my favorite Sunday night TV shows, “The Good Wife” on CBS and, on Showtime, “House of Lies” and “Californication.”

On “The Good Wife,” we’re pulling for a broken family to mend and move to the Illinois governor’s mansion. On “House of Lies,” we’re watching TV’s most brazenly repellent corporate anti-heroes manipulate wealthy clients with nary a second of self-loathing. On “Californication,” we’re seeing the next step in self-hatred – as a kind of writerly machismo, a Romanticism based on how flamboyantly a writer can throw his life away while others are watching. (And, of course, taking note of his exploits so that those others can turn them into stories. In that way, writers whose work on the page fails can still succeed wildly if their peers turn their doings into legends for popular peer entertainment.)

I always admire “Mad Men” a little whenever I see it, but I find myself completely unable to root for anyone or stay with the show. Even Peggy, on Sunday, in her responsible new job, is threatening to become a heedless and unreasonable boss to underlings and not a genuine gender heroine at all. Odd as it is to say, I’ve always found Joan (Christina Hendricks) the most interesting character on “Mad Men,” i.e., a former secretary whose exterior is guaranteed to stop men in their tracks but whose ambitious interior doesn’t begin to resemble anything men expect. She was barely present on Sunday.

Don Draper is a kind of updated Rochester from “Jane Eyre” – a mysteriously tormented man with a great profile and all the superficial sophistication in the world awaiting some final twist of fate.

What the season premiere of “Mad Men” really was on Sunday was an eveninglong festival for advertisers to trot out their most watchable TV ads, everything from Lincoln showing us gorgeous old Continentals and Chrysler (weirdly) flashing Iggy Pop at us to Julia Roberts doing voice-overs for Nationwide Insurance and Robert Downey Jr. doing them for Nissan Sentra.

Big upcoming movies advertised during the show were “Oblivion,” “Iron Man 3,” “The Place Beyond the Pines” (opening locally on Friday; see Thursday’s Gusto) and “World War Z.”

Heidi Klum gave us a parody of “The Graduate” to sell franchise burgers.

It was the real 21st century advertising business, then, celebrating a smudged portrait of itself from a half century ago.

How weird is that? On Sunday evening’s “Mad Men,” it was the commercials that were completely authentic.