Jon Hamm in Mad Men courtesy AMC
You could get vertigo tonight, scaling the heights of the finale of Mad Men on AMC, and then plumbing the depths of the tone-deaf misfire that is Viva Laughlin, premiering on CBS in the plum slot after CSI before moving to Sundays. There, only those with the most morbid curiosity to watch a show's slow yet hopefully quick death are likely to follow (unless every critic I know is totally off the mark).

First, a salute to the best and most fascinating new show to arrive on TV this year (and I'm even including my quirky new treasure Pushing Daisies in that equation). Mad Men, so hypnotic in its look and style as it recreates a classic movie-worthy image of 1960 Manhattan, is a period piece that says volumes about today, or about any era in which salary and status is tied to self-worth and where people construct a false reality to sell themselves on the American dream.

Don Draper (instant star Jon Hamm) would seem to have it all. Besides the movie-star looks, he enjoys upward mobility in his swank ad-exec job, a serenely beautiful Barbie-meets-Grace Kelly wife in the suburbs (January Jones, another discovery), two adorable tykes, all the creature comforts. Everything but happiness, which he can only find in the arms of other, more exotic creatures: a bohemian mistress who hangs with Greenwich Village beatniks, and a Jewish department-store heiress, both of whom he begs to run away with him at various times. (Both wisely refuse.)

In the most moving sequence in tonight's stunning finale, Don sells his client (Kodak, and its new slide projector with the removable wheel) on the notion of nostalgia: an irony, when you consider how rigidly he has compartmentalized his own unhappy past and childhood, reinventing his identity and denying his roots by adopting another man's name following a war tragedy in Korea. For Don, nostalgia is "the pain from an old wound, a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone." The new life he has created with his neglected wife Betty is the stuff of perfect Kodak snapshots, but just underneath lies an aching discontent, and by the end of this hour, set on the eve of the Thanksgiving holidays, even Betty can no longer ignore the truth. "Doesn't this all mean anything?" she wonders, as Don replies, "No one knows why people do what they do."

Tonight's melancholy hour lacks some of the punch of last week's jaw-dropping episode, in which we learned the backstory of Don's wartime identity switch and then were treated to the comeuppance of ghoulishly ambitious upstart Peter (Vincent Kartheiser), thwarted in his attempt to expose his boss' secrets. "Who cares?" barked boss man Bertram Cooper (the excellent Robert Morse). "A man is whatever room he is in. And right now, Donald Draper is in this room." Did I hoot out loud during that scene? You bet I did.

Peter's frustrations are juxtaposed this week with the rising workplace fortunes of his former office conquest Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), who also isn't shy about revealing her ambitious side and reveling in her newfound power. Just like a man, you might say, considering the rampant sexism on display in these smoke-filled offices. A heads-up: Peggy's story takes an unexpected twist that will have fans buzzing afterward, and probably not in a good way. It's as jarring in its out-of-left-field resolution as the Landry-Tyra murder subplot on Friday Night Lights. Not enough to ruin the impact of the episode or of the series, but you may well wonder why they chose to go there, and so quickly.

Still, all in all: Bravo, AMC. Who knew you had it in you? I now feel I'm going to go mad waiting nearly a year for the second season next summer.

One of the reasons so many critics have sung Mad Men's praises is because it looks and feels like nothing else in the often formulaic grind of contemporary TV. By those standards, you'd think we'd be forming a chorus to extol the virtues of CBS' riskiest fall venture: Viva Laughlin, a hybrid of family drama, murder mystery and musical, based on a justifiably acclaimed 2004 BBC production.

Sadly, it's crickets you're hearing come from our computer keyboards as we wonder in stunned silence what went wrong in the translation to American prime time. My memory of watching the six-hour Viva Blackpool when it aired on BBC America was of a brash, bold, sexy experiment in style that owed a lot to the visionary Dennis Potter ( Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective). The musical sequences, in which characters sang over the tracks of pop standards, informed and flowed out of the action, and were executed with reckless abandon.

The CBS version plays more like nervous, bad karaoke. Hampered by bad casting (most notably gruff Lloyd Owen as the unsympathetic lead, and Melanie Griffith ridiculous as an aging-kewpie siren), this show appears terrified of being mistaken for a musical - or for the infamous Cop Rock (a show that in retrospect wasn't really as bad as history makes out, though it was undeniably a grand folly). It's not like musical TV has to be an oxymoron. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's musical episode is one of the best hours ever produced. Just last season, Scrubs hit its musical episode out of the park. But Laughlin is so timid in its use of the most obvious music, these scenes tend to just sputter out, making you wonder why they bothered in the first place. It almost makes you want to shout, like the stage mother in the musical classic Gypsy: "Sing out, Louise!"

The one major exception is a set piece introducing executive producer Hugh Jackman (who will appear only sporadically) as the main character's business rival, a casino mogul who struts through his neon empire to the strains of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," flanked by showgirls. The scene and Jackman's smug performance are far from a wow, but it's as good as it gets.

A failure as a musical, Laughlin is equally a bust as drama. The rest of the pilot is a snail-paced snooze, setting up the dark-horse story of Ripley Holden (Owen), who cashes in the small fortune made from his convenience-story chain to bankroll a casino in the Vegas-wannabe backwater of Laughlin, Nevada. Complications ensue when his major investor (and Griffith's husband) backs out, exposing financial intrigues that lead to murder. This makes it sound more interesting than it actually is, because we also spend way too much time at Holden's boring home, where his teenage daughter is dating her college professor - dad does not approve, big surprise - while his son (the terrible Carter Jenkins from the awful Surface) chafes from neglect. The only appealing characters in this scenario are Holden's wife, played with warmth and great beauty by Madchen Amick, and a boyishly handsome detective played by Eric Winter, who (shades of Damian Lewis on Life) has an unusual oral fixation - licorice here instead of fruit - and is prone to spouting off-kilter aphorisms like, "The heart is a very tricky organ. Not only does it beat, but it falls sometimes in the wrong direction." (This show knows something about falling in the wrong direction, I'll give it that.)

Notably, neither of these characters gets a song in the first episode. I imagine that will change before long, but will anyone be around to hear them? I'll force myself to catch the second episode on Sunday, but I know already that I'd rather be back in Blackpool.