An 18-month layoff has doubtless stoked anticipation for “Mad Men” among its loyal constituents, and the four-peat Emmy winner returns with its first two-hour launch. Once again, though, series creator Matthew Weiner resists rushing into anything, easing into a reset of where players currently stand in a manner — especially given the protracted absence — that should leave all but the most ardent fans trying to putty-in the gaps. Each time-lapse introduces more wrinkles in the show’s world, but the premiere offers a sketchy road map of what’s to come, and won’t expand “Men’s” footprint beyond its solid arthouse niche.
Granted, that niche has been enough to make “Men” a valuable commodity to AMC, mostly because of the patina of quality it adds to the channel. Nevertheless, in terms of blending artistic appeal with commercial success, the series has been overshadowed by the network’s gaudy track record with subsequent dramas.
When we last saw ad-man extraordinaire Don Draper (Jon Hamm), he had impulsively proposed to his young secretary, Megan (Jessica Pare). Without revealing what’s happened in the interim, suffice to say Don’s personal orbit has never been for the faint of heart, a situation that seems unlikely to change going forward.
As for the rest of ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, shifts within the power structure have strained certain relationships. This yields some very amusing moments — many of them involving hard-tippling agency lion Roger Sterling (John Slattery) — but also a few clunkier subplots, which initially, don’t add much to the serialized narrative.
Perhaps the most fertile new thread relates to the show advancing further into the mid-1960s, with racial unrest in cities and the burgeoning civil rights movement becoming significant enough to impact even the rarefied enclave of Madison Avenue. Indeed, one of “Mad Men’s” most resonant aspects has been its ability to present the pre-counterculture revolution without nostalgia, at a time when conservatives look determined to both romanticize the past and, not incidentally, re-litigate the ’60s.
Yet Weiner (who wrote the premiere, which was directed by Jennifer Getzinger) doles out such material with an eye-dropper, which feels organic, but can also be a trifle frustrating in terms of pacing.
Of course, the extended layoff was related in part to much-publicized renewal negotiations, buying the show three more seasons and a fixed end date. Although anyone who has come this far will yearn to see where the road leads, Weiner’s uncompromising vision — which has served the show so well creatively speaking — has also made it difficult to widen its appeal, despite its treasure trove of well-deserved accolades.
Because it’s watched by all the right people, more ink has been spilled regarding the show than the ratings would dictate, and its place in TV history is secure. That said, the series is the near-antithesis of its subject matter in one key respect: Advertising is all about first impressions and snap judgments. With “Mad Men,” you can never really judge the efficacy of its latest campaign until the season’s over.