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Alec Goetz: With ‘Mad Men,’ TV’s best is back

Published: Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 22:07

Good news ladies and gentlemen: after a bombshell of a season finale and an agonizing, 17-month wait, “Mad Men” is back. Even better: it’s every bit the masterpiece you remembered.

The next chapter of anti-hero ad-man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and friends’ journey through the cultural upheaval of 1960s America picks up less than a year after it left off: in the summer of 1966. Nine months is a small jump in time when you consider that the show has been off the air for nearly three times that length, but the relatively brief leap forward allows this first episode to tidy up many of the questions that fans may have had after last season’s bombshell finale and establish the new status quo within the first 20 minutes of the episode.

It’s Memorial Day and Don’s 40th birthday is fast approaching. He and his new wife Megan (Jessica Paré) are just past the honeymoon stage in their marriage and living in her apartment as she is planning a surprise party for him. Elsewhere in the “Mad Men” universe Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and wife Trudy (Alison Brie) have a new baby and a new house, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is just wrapping up her maternity leave and the civil rights movement has reached a new level of intensity, but otherwise, not much has changed in the world of advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

The main plot of the two-hour premiere — which somehow never feels long despite the show’s reputation for glacial pacing — centers around Don and Megan’s story, but the multiple sub-plots that snake through the runtime lend the show its characteristic thematic density and ensure that nearly every character in the cast makes an appearance in some way.

The one notable exception is Betty Draper (January Jones), who is not only totally absent from the episode but is only acknowledged to exist in passing during its first five minutes. Betty’s purpose given her growing distance from Don’s world has been a topic of heated discussion among fans since last season, but if past “Mad Men” experience and the notoriously vague post-credits sizzle reel for next week’s episode are any indication then fans haven’t seen the last of the show’s resident repressed housefrau.

The main theme of Sunday’s offering — titled “A Little Kiss” — is the growing cultural divide between Don’s generation and that of his new bride, who is half his age. Season four left fans with much speculation over what the show would do with Megan’s character, but if this season’s premiere is any indication of things to come then she will be a welcome addition to an already unbeatable ensemble.

Megan’s sexy-silly performance of a French novelty song for Don at his surprise party, the episode’s key scene, sets her up as someone who embodies the spontaneity and tumultuousness of the 60s in ways unlike any other character on the show to-date.

One of “Mad Men’s” greatest and most ignored strengths is its off-kilter sense of humor.

Sunday’s premiere episode happened to be one of the show’s more light-hearted offerings, and writer-show runner Matthew Weiner works in plenty of laughs between the tension and brooding. One particularly funny scene is an encounter between Sterling and borderline-oblivious jerk Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) that capitalizes on their status as the show’s resident funny people.

The finale is not without its weaknesses. Roger Sterling comes across as far more petty and childish than he has in past seasons and a subplot involving Lane and a missing wallet doesn’t go much of anywhere, but then again neither did Don’s chance encounter with Conrad Hilton in season three, at first.

Overall, the first episode of “Mad Men” was exactly what fans of the show have come to expect: literary drama that’s as complex and cool as one of Don’s Old Fashioneds.

 

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