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Winds of change are blowing for AMC's 'Mad Men'

As "Mad Men" returns, its button-down world might seem unchanged.

Men still smoke in public, cheat in private, and tell lies in both places. Women still tolerate.

Nothing changes -- except that, in a way, everything does.

The show's first season ended in late 1960, after a Madison Avenue firm had unsuccessfully backed Richard Nixon. The new season starts 14 months later.

"The world was definitely changing," said Matthew Weiner, the show's creator. "This gave us a chance to sort of accentuate that."

Don Draper, now a partner in the firm, is still smart and deceitful. "I do have an affinity for him," said Jon Hamm, who plays him. "He's a flawed human being. ...He's so bad, but we like the guy." His wife Betty is still aware of his deceit, sort of.

"I think she is in a state of denial," said January Jones, who plays her. "The most important thing to her is her marriage and her family and making them appear perfect."

They are far from perfect, but she can't tell anyone.

"Betty has a husband and a therapist and a best friend," Jones said. "None of them are people she can speak honestly with."

The women in Don's office have varying approaches. Joan Holloway, the head secretary, uses sex appeal; Peggy Olson, a junior copywriter, uses brains.

And the men• The worst might be the scheming Pete Campbell. "I think we're all kind of Pete," said Vincent Kartheiser, who plays him. "I don't think it's a great stretch -- at least, not for me."

At first, "Mad Men" might seem like a fairly one-dimensional satire of a departed era. There is, however, much more.

Weiner says he chose the 14-month jump on purpose. Viewers, for instance, don't know what happened after Peggy hid her pregnancy and her childbirth. "There will be all these events that happened in between that will provide an additional storytelling energy."

Now it's 1962, a time of calm prosperity. Manhattan -- both Wall Street and Madison Avenue -- is the center of the universe. The world is changing in small ways that will soon explode. "A lot of the ideas that we associate with the '60s were born in that period," Weiner said.

He created this show fresh from HBO's "The Sopranos," so he knows all about meticulously creating a milieu. "The props are amazing," Jones said. "When you get a dry-cleaning receipt, the prices are right."

Now "Mad Men" has been paid the ultimate compliment: "I wish it were on HBO," said Richard Plepler, the channel's co-president.

Others have echoed that. In its first season, "Mad Men" won a Peabody Award and two Golden Globes -- for best actor (Hamm) and best drama series.

"None of us had any idea it would be so good or so well-received," Jones said. "We get to be on the best show on television."

Hamm is particularly surprised to be the central character. The show had considered better-known actors, but stuck with him.

Both Jones and Hamm have been at the edge of fame. Jones, 30, dated Ashton Kutcher for three of his early Hollywood years; Hamm, 37, has been with Jennifer Westfeldt for 10 years, well before writing and starring in "Kissing Jessica Stein" made her an art-house favorite.

"It wasn't one of those romances arranged by your publicist," Hamm said. "We were both unknown. ...We met at a party; it was a slow burn."

In short, it's the kind of depth Don and Betty wish they had.

The actors playing them have mid-American roots. Hamm is from St. Louis; Jones is from a tiny South Dakota town, where her dad was a gym teacher and coach.

She went on to be a model and an actress, then was hired to play Betty in the final scene of the "Mad Men" pilot.

"At first, I didn't know if she was going to be back."

Betty's back, big-time. There are things to learn, denials to dump, lives to change.

Additional Information:

Details

What: Season premiere of 'Mad Men'

When: 10 p.m. tonight

Where: AMC

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