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Mad Men (Finally) Returns: Worth the Wait?

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Mad Men is back, finally, after the biggest series hiatus since The Sopranos. Was it worth the wait?

Naturally, there are spoilers ahead. I confess to a certain diffidence about it all, all two hours of it. Which is not to say it's not quite good. It's just that more is going on this year in what we laughingly call the real world than in 2010. And not much has happened in the Mad Men universe since Season 4 ended nearly a year and a half ago.

Only about half as much time has passed in the Mad Men universe as has passed for us, and not much has happened that was not otherwise obvious.

Incidentally, The Mad Men File, containing all my pieces on the show from 2009 on, is available here.

Wisely, as Season 5 begins with its cinematic two-hour premiere, the show is only up to around Memorial Day 1966.

Part of the brilliance of Matthew Weiner's conception of the show is that it has shown us a world we haven't really seen otherwise. Yes, it's set in the '60s, but the bulk of it has been about the early '60s. Which for most is terra incognita, aside from hazy images of JFK, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement, Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and the early days of the Beatles.

The massively over-exposed part of the '60s, which gave rise to culture wars which still exist in this country, not to mention a baby boomer cultural dominance which has become more than a little dull even as it has persisted for decades, is still yet to come.

That's been a very good thing for Mad Men, not least because the late '60s, in addition to being very contentious, is also very cliched. And if there is one thing Mad Men is good at it, it's avoiding cliche. But when the entire milieu is shot through with cliche, that is much harder to pull off.

Fortunately, Woodstock is still a long ways off. And the Summer of Love is, too (along with San Francisco), though it's just over a year away in the Mad Men universe.

But the rumblings of change -- in this case racial change and generational change -- are getting much louder.

And the drumbeat of dissatisfaction despite success, a constant in the show, is louder than ever.

So what's happened in terms of plot?

Er, well, not much. (Having watched an early season of 24 recently, it strikes me that more happened in one or two episodes of that show than in most Mad Men seasons.) In fact, there are absolutely no surprises in Mad Men's return, unless you had convinced yourself that seemed about to happen would not actually happen.

All that has happened since we last saw this crew was what was on track to happen. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has survived, but is not yet fully flush.

Don Draper married his much younger secretary, Megan, the prospect of which seemed so shocking to so many when he announced their engagement during the Season 4 finale lo these many moons ago.

Joan Harris had her baby -- courtesy of her old lover Roger Sterling and not her "Dr. Blockhead" husband who is off in Vietnam -- and is anxious to get back to work.

Pete Campbell is the agency's whiz at drumming up new business, just as he seemed to be becoming at the end of the season not so immediately past.

Harry Crane is as fatuous as ever, and as funny.

The aforementioned Roger Sterling is coasting, not having found a role since the loss of Lucky Strike but unwilling to try or to give up his perks, including his increasingly bitter marriage to his much younger trophy wife.

Lane Pryce is back with his family, repressions firmly in place but his imagination still soaring.

Peggy Olsen is semi-stuck at her upper middle level creative post. She, incidentally, is the age of California Governor Jerry Brown, who back then was not running anything so it's no surprise that she isn't, either. Elisabeth Moss continues to play this character to a tee, suggesting her upward mobility even as her latest pitch falls flat.

Don Draper is, well, still Don Draper. He is The Man at the agency, not the crack-up case that many imagined him to be through much of the season. But he's turning 40, back when 50 wasn't the new 35 (actor Jon Hamm is 41), and the atrocious way he's taken care of himself physically is adding up in the face that looks back at him in the mirror.

Don's delicious 40th birthday party, a surprise party thrown by his new wife, is the centerpiece/showpiece of the episode, capped by his 15 years younger spouse's sinuous rendition of a French pop song, so sinuous that it embarrasses Don even as it delights and in some cases scandalizes the crowd. It's a bright, Pop-inflected modern mid-60s moment and environment, and another wonderful set and set of costumes for a show with an absolutely great design aesthetic. It never ceases to delight how a show produced in Los Angeles can so consistently and evoke the New York of a bygone era still somehow very much with us.

Megan Calvet Draper, so recently Don's secretary, is Don's wife. And no longer a secretary. She has a job on the creative side now, with Peggy as her supervisor. She knows that Don is Dick Whitman and doesn't really care, even joking about it, unlike Don's much icier ex-wife.

Betty Draper Francis is neither seen nor heard, an apparent effect of January Jones's real-life pregnancy.

No longer so little Sally Draper, now a tweener, shuttles between Betty and Henry Francis's suburban home during the week and her dad and Megan's swanky Manhattan apartment on the weekend. It's not clear what's up with her yet, but she still likes her new step-mom, whom she regarded as the most awesome babysitter ever back in the Tomorrowland episode which ended Season 4, something which undoubtedly figured in Don's snap decision to marry Megan.

In this season opener, which sets up the season to come with our characters in much the same place they were at the end of Season 4, we see racial change having a much bigger impact. In fact, we begin and end with race. With a real life incident in which some nobs at Young and Rubicam throw water balloons down on black protesters looking to begin integrating Madison Avenue and close with a prank SCDP ad proclaiming itself an equal opportunity employer (as if!) leading to a flood of black job applicants.

Fortunately, we are well beyond the politics of race ourselves 46 years after this episode of Mad Men. And that, unfortunately, is a little joke. We have our first black president of the United States, but as I discussed here last week on the Huffington Post in "The Real Game Change," taking off on the hit HBO movie, much of the country is discombobulated by it. And that was before the shooting in Florida brought black and white issues even more directly to the fore.

We see also that generational change is even more in the wind at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Pete Campbell has clearly come to the fore and Peggy Olsen is en route.

Their emergence mirrors changes about to happen in the country in 1966. What was called the youth culture and the counter-culture is emerging, and is about to be given a massive boost by the fateful escalations in Vietnam.

Then there is the dissatisfaction with success, a perpetual theme of Mad Men from the beginning of the show in its early 1960 setting.

These characters, winners in a New York City then at its absolute peak as a global capital, really aren't very happy.

Their mission is to stir up wants in an increasingly affluent post-World War II consumer society. Of course, desire is based, at least in the beginning, on what one does not have. And it is the role of advertising to constantly stir up desire, frequently for the unnecessary.

So it is ironic, but somehow right, that these characters whose job it is to stir up and feed off of dissatisfaction should themselves be perpetually dissatisfied.

So, is Mad Men as captivating to me as it was back in 2010? So far, no. But it seems on course. Which is good because it gets tougher from here on out.

I watched Mad Men's Season 4 again late last year and liked it better than I did the first time around, and I liked it quite a lot then, though not as much as the previous season, which reached great heights with its episodes around the John F. Kennedy assassination and the end of the original Sterling Cooper agency. But the years ahead on its historical timeline are full of many pitfalls.

The only other show to win four straight Emmy Awards as the best dramatic series, The West Wing, barely pulled off the feat in its fourth season. Like Mad Men in its fourth straight win, West Wing won little else to accompany the overall series award.

By Season 5, creator Aaron Sorkin had left his own show and it never recovered its previous heights, either creatively or commercially. Perhaps, in retrospect, it had already passed its peak in Season 3. That's what I think looking back at the overall of that show.

Mad Men is still in mid-course. Well, late mid-course. As we've seen all along, it's like a long novel which is being televised. We won't be able to assess it in full until it is done.

Meanwhile, Season 5 is off, if not to a flying start, at least a good one.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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