The second season of “Mad Men” only sporadically matched the brilliance of the first, which makes the third-season opening pitch by this Emmy-winning AMC drama particularly gratifying. Despite series creator Matthew Weiner’s “The Sopranos”-like approach of telling the stories he wants at the pace that suits him, the first hour hits the ground running a little bit faster, creating interesting plot lines for several of the returning characters while adding a compelling new presence.
Said presence, without divulging too much, is Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), the slightly imperious Brit whose company has acquired Sterling Cooper and is going about putting its imprint on the fictional firm. The repercussions of those moves seem destined to trigger some high-stakes chess within the agency, augmenting the not-always-so-blissful domesticity of ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his model-pretty wife Betty (January Jones).
Don’s shadowy past remains fertile territory, but Weiner, director Phil Abraham and his uniformly splendid cast conjure up a delicious assortment of moments — sexy, surprising and even, once or twice, pretty explosively funny. The early 1960s setting also continues to invite all sorts of nifty flourishes and references, from the advertising guys puffing away aboard an airplane to a woman comparing Don to “Ty Power.” That’s short for Tyrone, kids, and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, look him up.
Sounding more like his late dad Richard as he gets older (which is high praise indeed), Harris is also a formidable addition as Pryce, whose arrival introduces a new layer to Sterling Cooper’s intramural jockeying for power. And as is so often the case with “Mad Men,” the fallout from a corporate takeover — with all that entails — seems especially relevant to our modern times.
Foremost, the series operates on a number of levels, beginning with its effortless, nostalgic cool and subtle re-litigation of the culture wars — revealing how the pre-Vietnam era wasn’t always so grand for women and minorities. Those tiers smartly coexist with big-business shenanigans and sudsy family drama — an intoxicating stew for demanding viewers, but one likely forever destined to blunt the show’s broad mainstream appeal.
So the take-away from this review should hopefully resemble one of the show’s signature ad campaigns — conveying a general feeling about the program but, beyond the broadest of strokes, really telling you nothing at all. You know, sort of like a relationship with Don Draper.