How different are things when "Mad Men" (9 p.m. E.T. Sunday, AMC) finally returns for its fifth season?
Pretty different. In the season premiere, it's the year 2025 and Don and the gang -- who have taken anti-aging drugs discovered on Venus -- finally open an interstellar ad agency on the moon. All the characters you love are still around, but will you still enjoy the show the same way when you find out that Roger and Joan have been turned into lizard people by evil space robots led by Ted Chaough?
Forgive my lapse into completely fictional "Mad Men" spoilers. Rest assured, there are no space lizards or rocket ships in "A Little Kiss," the first new "Mad Men" episode in more than 500 days. But it's hard to resist the urge to tweak creator Matthew Weiner's insistence on absolutely no spoilers ever -- and to him, every single thing you could say about the show is a spoiler (as he said in not one, but two admonitory notes sent to the media before the season premiere). I expect hired thugs to break into my house for telling you that the following words will be uttered in the Season 5 premiere: "baked beans."
Please don't break my hand bones, AMC goons! I need them to write!
But to be slightly more serious, the obsession with what is and what isn't a spoiler, I think, obscures what's essential and valuable about "Mad Men." The details honestly aren't that big of a deal. Sure, it'll be mildly interesting to find out what year it is when Don, Roger, Joan, Pete and Peggy return, and there are little mysteries the show will undoubtedly have fun unfolding, but making such a big deal of minor factoids gives them more weight than they typically deserve. And anyway, at its best, "Mad Men" excavates much deeper emotional terrain.
Since 2007, as Don Draper has evolved from Teflon-hardened ad executive into a more vulnerable and chastened man, the show has explored knotty, almost unanswerable questions about our ability to know our own hearts and to sustain meaningful contentment. Can we actually find a way out of our usual self-absorption to find true connections with others? Can we change how we live our lives, or at least find ways to productively co-exist with the flaws and foibles we can't alter? How much energy should we devote to ambition and professional competition, and how much should we rely on those in our personal lives to supply soul-enriching sustenance? When is enough really enough?
All those questions, which "Mad Men" typically examines with a deft combination of sly humor and romantic yearning, amount to much more than a hill of baked beans, I'd say. If Season 5 is going to live up to the show's tremendous fourth season, it'll have to find new ways to explore those questions in episodes that supply equal parts dry wit, cleverly constructed tension and copious servings of whiskey.
But here goes: I'll try to give you a spoiler-free idea of what to expect from the season premiere, without mentioning that Betty (January Jones) is now a remorseless cyborg killer. (Whoops!)
Quite simply, "A Little Kiss" is a valentine to fans. If you like office intrigue, if you like Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in quipster mode, if you enjoy pitch-perfect mid-'60s clothes and decor, if you like to see Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) work her way into and out of awkward situations, if you enjoy Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) being deliciously restrained or if you get a kick out of Joan (Christina Hendricks) brilliantly putting other people in their place, you'll love the two-hour premiere.
It's loaded with the kinds of moments and conversations that illuminate the characters in small but telling ways, and it show us where they are in their lives without giving away everything that's happened since we last saw them. Nothing much of major import happens, but the premiere moves along with the kind of smooth confidence you expect from the show at this point. There are rivalries, there is jockeying for position, and there is a long set piece in which many agendas and emotional currents collide in entertaining and complicated ways. It's "Mad Men" -- what else did you expect?
All in all, this season premiere allows fans to marinate in the world of the characters for two hours. Isn't it enough that they're just back, damn it? It certainly was for me. "A Little Kiss" isn't an epic, all-time great episode of "Mad Men"; it's a light and enjoyable scene-setter. There are no jaw-droppers; there are no existential crises. These two hours serve as an appetizer, if you will. They're a nicely calibrated prelude to the main courses to come.
And after a year and a half without Don Draper, I'll drink to that!
Check out my interviews with Weiner here, here and here, and my interviews with Jon Hamm is here and here. Don't forget to come back here Sunday night for my detailed post-premiere review of "A Little Kiss." And be sure to check out the latest Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast, which comes out the evening of Thurs., March 22. Ryan McGee and I will talk about the return of "Mad Men," the debut of "Bent" and the season finale of "The Walking Dead."
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan