At first blush, the roster of spoiler no-no’s from exec producer Matthew Weiner accompanying the two-hour “Mad Men” premiere appeared so daunting that about all one could safely say is, “It’s in color.” After some thought, though, it gives away little to reveal the sixth-season opener provides a rather ambitious meditation on nothing less than death and fear of mortality, juxtaposed against the shifting social mores of the 1960s and Vietnam war. Weaned in “The Sopranos” school of drama, Weiner tends to begin seasons slowly, disgorging plot as he goes. Even so, there’s tantalizing material in this latest campaign.
It’s already been reported the show lensed in Hawaii, which provides the crucial introduction to the festivities, as ad man extraordinaire Don Draper (Jon Hamm, never better) and his latest trophy wife Megan (Jessica Pare) gaze out over a pristine beach at Diamond Head. Add extreme tanning to the list of things likely to kill Don (because we now know better) as he puffs away on cigarettes while basting in the sand.
It wouldn’t be “Mad Men,” though, without trouble in paradise, and the homecoming brings the usual assortment of client problems — for both Don and former employee Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) — as well as domestic headaches, all exacerbated by the social changes the country is undergoing as it moves further into the ’60s. (Weiner — who wrote the premiere, directed by Scott Hornbacher — is always miserly about time frame, leaving such clues as references to sporting events to help pinpoint the date.)
At its best, “Mad Men” can cover a lot of dramatic ground — watching Don’s daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) continue her journey into surly baby-boomer-hood, seeing ex-wife Betty (January Jones) struggle to evolve emotionally and in her second marriage, then pivoting to provide a laugh-out-loud moment courtesy of Roger (John Slattery), Don’s longtime partner, who is outwardly, anyway, more apt to slough off life’s absurdities, but every bit the cultural dinosaur Don is.
Without giving anything away, the guest cast is unusually strong, offering the prospect of fertile subplots going forward, while some of the regulars don’t figure prominently at first — again, pretty par for the course.
Even when the writing feels a trifle off (as some of Betty’s exchanges do in the opener), “Mad Men” is invariably interesting, precisely because of the mirror it holds up to the present through the prism of the past.
Weiner has said he knows how the show ends, which might explain why he had the great beyond in mind when charting what amounts to the anchor leg of its journey. Whatever the motivation, “Mad Men” has seldom shied away from tackling life’s messier aspects, and while its leading characters look good in pretty much anything, death becomes them, too.
(Series; AMC, Sun. April 7, 9 p.m.)
Cast: Jon Hamm, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Robert Morse, Kiernan Shipka, Jessica Pare, Christopher Stanley, Jay R. Ferguson, Ben Feldman, Mason Vale Cotton.
Filmed in Los Angeles and Hawaii by Weiner Bros. in association with Lionsgate. Executive producers, Matthew Weiner, Scott Hornbacher, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton, Janet Leahy; supervising producer, Semi Chellas; producers, Jon Hamm, Erin Levy, Blake McCormick; camera, Christopher Manley; production designer, Dan Bishop; editor, Tom Wilson; music, David Carbonara; casting, Laura Schiff, Carrie Audino. 120 MIN.