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Review: 'Mad Men' returns in fine form for season 5
A lot has happened since last we saw Don and Peggy, but it's still one of TV's best dramas
When AMC sent TV critics a review copy of the two-hour "Mad Men" fifth season premiere (Sunday at 9 p.m.), they attached a note from series creator Matthew Weiner, who is both more paranoid about spoilers, and has a broader definition of what constitutes a spoiler, than any showrunner I've ever encountered. So it wasn't a surprise that the letter included a list of details from the premiere that Weiner asked us to not reveal, like "What year is it?" and "What happened with Don and Megan?" and "Did Joan have the baby?" The list is thorough enough that I think the only premiere details I imagine Weiner would be entirely comfortable with me revealing are that Roger Sterling says several funny things, Pete Campbell pouts over a perceived slight, and Harry Crane acts obnoxious — and only because those things happen in every episode of "Mad Men."
I think there's a point at which Weiner's spoiler phobia actually undersells the show he's making. While there are certainly "Mad Men" twists I'm glad I didn't know about in advance, the genius of the show resides much less in the "what" than the "how."
Last season, for instance, a paparazzo took pictures of Jon Hamm and Jessica Paré acting flirty in a hotel pool during filming of the season finale, and the photos were published even before Hamm's Don Draper and Paré's Megan Calvet were any kind of item on the show, let alone before he impulsively proposed marriage to her in the finale. I was irked to learn of the photos way ahead of time, which seemed to suggest a number of things that were coming later in the season. But seeing exactly how it played out — not just in terms of plot mechanics, but in the unnerving Stepford Don smile that Jon Hamm wore for a good chunk of that finale — was plenty satisfying even if some of the surprise factor was taken away.
"Mad Men" handles its secrets well, but the artistry of the series is so strong that it plays almost as well even if certain things come pre-spoiled. And by expending so much energy to guard those secrets, Weiner can create the false impression that they're the show's greatest strength, when instead it's the smaller moments between the characters as they struggle to connect with one another and to adapt to a terrifying, rapidly-changing world.
Still, I'll honor Weiner's request. And since I can't write about what's happening at the moment for the staff of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — or even when that moment is, or what's happened in between moments — let's instead take a look at what's happened in the real world since we last saw Don and Roger and Pete and Peggy and Joan and all the rest.
When Sunday rolls around, it will have been a little over 17 months — 525 days, if we're being exact — since AMC last aired an original episode of "Mad Men." Over that span, we've had two World Series champions, two Super Bowls, an earthquake in Japan, war in Syria and other uprisings in the Middle East, and approximately 150 different Republican presidential debates.
"Mad Men" last appeared on our televisions as the reigning Emmy winner for best drama, and won another of those trophies during the long hiatus. But even before it went away for a while, it was running neck-and-neck with AMC neighbor "Breaking Bad" for that title among many critics. During the hiatus, "Bad" had another incredible season, while FX's "Justified" took a major leap forward in quality, and Showtime's "Homeland" and HBO's "Game of Thrones" both had exceptional debut seasons.
At the same time, HBO has introduced a pair of other dramas — the Scorsese-directed "Boardwalk Empire" (whose first season overlapped with part of the "Mad Men" fourth) and the Hoffman/Nolte/Milch/Mann super team-up "Luck" — which were so talent-laden that one or both were supposed to break AMC's Emmy stranglehold and reassert the pay cabler's position as the place for quality TV. But while "Boardwalk" has been a moderate success (which I like a lot), all but one of its Emmy wins came in the technical categories, where "Luck" was low-rated but renewed, then canceled after several horses died during filming, and (though I also like it a lot) it doesn't seem any kind of Emmy favorite.
Meanwhile, the broadcast networks introduced a pair of dramas last fall — NBC's "The Playboy Club" and ABC's "Pan Am" — set in the "Mad Men" era. Neither was exactly a clone (though the writing for and styling of Eddie Cibrian's "Playboy" character was pretty Draper-esque), but the commercial and creative failures of each illustrated that doing a '60s drama requires a lot more than getting the clothes, hairstyles and topical references right.
When I interviewed Weiner in January, we talked about the potentially increased competition. He laughed and asked, " You think that I'm upset when there's good things on TV? I think it's good. I compete with everybody, but I think the more good stuff there is, the more TV people watch."
He did, however, lament that "Mad Men" is now an entrenched veteran — "I still want my special excuses: We're new! You don't understand us!" — before insisting, "We're always going to be an underdog. The show is very specific and it's very peculiar."
And as it returns on Sunday, it is still specific, and peculiar, and the same "Mad Men" it ever was. It is smart and funny in some moments, sad and ugly in others. It is meticulously, beautifully observed. It understands its characters intimately, and recognizes that its viewers understand them as well and don't need to be spoon-fed. (Many of the best moments in the premiere, as they've been for the life of the series, come from silence, or from what isn't being said.) It has a deep, versatile cast that it uses tremendously(*). It is great to look at, and listen to.
(*) The most baffling thing about "Mad Men" and the Emmys is that while it dominates many categories, no one has ever won an Emmy for acting on the show. And after Jon Hamm failed to win last time out — when perennial winner Bryan Cranston was ineligible, and when he had what seemed to be the award-baiting episode to end all award-baiting episodes in "The Suitcase" — I wonder if any actor from the show ever will win one. And this is why awards are silly, whether "Mad Men" is winning or losing them.
It is, after all this time, "Mad Men." And despite all the comings and goings on TV in the last 17 months, despite the great work being done on FX and HBO and Showtime, the premiere suggests that the only other show that belongs with it in the discussion for the best drama on television is the same one we were talking about last season. At the top level, there is "Breaking Bad," and there is also — finally, thankfully, exceptionally — "Mad Men," and then there is everything else.
NOTE: AMC did send out the premiere (which largely plays as one long episode, though there's one subplot in the second hour that has nothing to do with what's in the first) in advance, so I'll have my episode review up on Sunday at 11 p.m. (I also interviewed Weiner about the premiere, though he asked me to hold that for Monday morning.) After that, AMC isn't expected to send out additional episodes, so reviews for the remaining 11 episodes (the premiere counts as 2) will be going up sometime on Monday. Looking back at last year's reviews, most of them tended to post in the early-mid morning, but a couple of times I was able to get them up before the West Coast went to bed. We'll see how things go this time. You all told me last time you'd rather it be done right than done fast, so that's my goal.