The workday has begun at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, yet the offices are unusually quiet. It's early May on the downtown Los Angeles soundstage that houses the Mad Men sets, and right now there are no clattering typewriters, ringing phones, or hushed voices sharing juicy gossip. Save for lighter moments in between takes like when actor Jon Hamm grins naughtily as he tosses his fedora across the room at show creator Matthew Weiner, and misses the atmosphere is dead serious. As cameras begin rolling, a dozen or so Sterling Cooper employees, including the ambitious junior exec Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), are huddled around a secretary's desk, hanging on to every word coming from her transistor radio. They listen to the breaking news: A plane departing from New York's Idlewild Airport has crashed in Long Island. Nearly a hundred people are dead. When bosses Don Draper (Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) join the stunned staffers, Don immediately orders his team to halt production on their new campaign for Mohawk Airlines. ''The rest of you,'' he commands, all stern composure, ''stop crying and figure out how we're going to hit the ground running in three weeks with new work.''
There's a brief moment of silence, but then the sharp-dressed and sharper-tongued admen just can't help themselves. ''We might want to avoid the phrase 'hit the ground running,''' snickers Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis). Counters Pete: ''Apparently, some of the passengers were on their way to a golf tournament. The minute the plane hit, the bay turned plaid.'' The office erupts in laughter.
Wildly inappropriate chatter in the workplace? It's just another day on the job for the characters of Mad Men, AMC's critically beloved series set during the 1960s golden age of Madison Avenue. The show depicts the boardroom and bedroom exploits of a group of ad execs, Brylcreemed alpha males who chain-smoke and scotch-swill their way through business hours. They dream up sly slogans for tobacco companies, proposition their secretaries, and slip out during lunch to rendezvous with their mistresses. Meanwhile, at home, their lonely wives strive for June Cleaver domestic perfection. When the show premiered last summer, reviewers drooled over its stylish look is it time to bring back fedoras and conical bras? and praised its dark, often devastating examinations of office politics, suburban alienation, and America's evolving transformation from the staid '50s to the psychedelic '60s. Comparisons to The Sopranos were inevitable, as creator Weiner was also a writer and exec producer on HBO's Mafia masterpiece. The first season won a Golden Globe for best drama, while the 37-year-old Hamm took home a best-actor Globe for his work as the dashing Draper. ''We knew some people were watching and liked it,'' says Hamm, sitting in the lunch tent, where he's enjoying a manly, Don Draper-ish meal of rib-eye steak, broccoli, and macaroni and cheese. (No scotch, sorry.) ''But to get the actual validation of 'We think you're the best' is amazing and totally unexpected.''
NEXT PAGE: ''It was nice to fly under the radar [in the beginning], but I want to reach a huge audience. It's AMC's job to find those people. And they're finding them.''