09/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mad Men : "Out of Town": Season 3 Opener Satisfying If Not Scintillating

Be warned, this is a review and not a full recap, which is available at all the big entertainment sites, but there be plenty of spoilers here. So if you are waiting to see the season premiere of Mad Men later during the week on AMC, or waiting for the DVDs, you've been warned.

That said, kicking off season three, the much-lauded Mad Men went in a new direction, with Jon Hamm channeling his inner Steve McQueen as Don Draper moved his existential crisis of late last season from LA and Palm Springs to the City by the Bay in a high-revving car chase through the streets of San Francisco ...

Okay, so that didn't happen. So how was the season three premiere? And how did it fare commercially?

The hype for Mad Men's season three opener paid off, with ratings up by a third.

The very good news for the show is that ratings are up sharply, by roughly a third. Some 2.8 million saw the show when it first aired at 10 PM on Sunday night. And the combined viewership for all three showings that night was four million. The cult is definitely getting bigger.

Betty Draper (January Jones) has convinced herself that she's in a happy place now.

And what about the show itself?

I found it a bit under-wowing.

With our characters having survived the Cuban Missile Crisis at the end of season two, it's the spring of 1963. Out of Town takes Don Draper, and closeted Sterling Cooper art director Sal Romano, well, out of town. To glamorous Baltimore, as it happens. A Baltimore as you've never seen it, and perhaps never will. They were there to reassure a client in the glamour-packed raincoat-making business, an outfit with what turns out to be the incongruous name of London Fog (ring a bell?), that Sterling Cooper will still be attentive old Sterling Cooper, notwithstanding the British invasion.

Oh, yes, the British invasion. By which we do not mean the Beatles. Not just yet.

When Roger Sterling decided to throw over his old wife in favor of marrying Draper's very pert, modern-looking 20-year old secretary, he set in motion a chain of events that led to the corporate takeover of venerable Sterling Cooper by a much larger British firm. Thus occasioning a big round of some very contemporary-sounding lay-offs, and, naturally, some very contemporary widespread insecurity in the once rather convivial workplace.

A third of the staff has been laid off, and the axe has just landed near the top, with the head of accounts -- a character we've never seen before, played by Michael Gaston, who was the villainous FBI supervisor on Fringe -- goes out in furiously bellowing style. With the axe wielded by Sterling Coo's new British overseer, Lane Pryce, played by Jared Harris (son of the great Richard Harris), also from Fringe, on which he played a mysterious teleporter.

The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.

In somewhat nefarious fashion, he sets up a cutthroat competition for the accounts position by telling both designated office weasel Pete Campbell and easygoing Ken Cosgrove that he has the job.

Which seems a formula for more workplace chaos, and another echo of current corporate desperation and dysfunction.

Of the old regime, Don Draper is the key man, with Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling in some danger of becoming supernumeraries.

Don and Sal's trip to London Fog (in Baltimore!) is more eventful than anticipated. Of course, as "the new British overseer," as Cooper refers to him, points out, the name was simply illusory. London hadn't been foggy, it had been beset by coal dust, a very different thing.

Anxious themselves about corporate performance, the London Fog execs wonder if they should branch out into new fields of fashion. But Don urges that they stick with their core competence. After all, "There will always be rain."

The show began with Don heating up milk for pregnant Betty, flipping into a reverie about his own far less than immaculate conception as little Dick Whitman. Which I found to be a bit precious. Betty, having taken Don back, resolved to continue in her marriage as she's expecting her third child, is glowing if sleepless with pregnancy, hoping for her House Beautiful fantasy to be real as Don brings her the warm milk and spins up a soothing fantasy tale to further relax her. "You're really good at this," she coos. You don't know the half of it, darlin'.

The episode lived up to the show's billing as "the sexiest on TV," but with a certain twist.

Yet Mr. Family Man is quick to spin up another sort of smoothly seductive tale when, accompanying Sal on the business flight to Baltimore, he meets a pretty blonde stewardess. They end up having dinner together, naturally. Don and the stew end up in his hotel room, while Sal, naturally, goes to his own room alone. But when he needs a bellboy to fix a problem, he finds finds that his closet door is more than ajar. Bryan Batt does some of his best acting here.

Only for both impromptu couples to be interrupted by a fire alarm. With Don, clambering down the fire escape past Sal's window with his playmate in tow, spies the other impromptu couple. And actually looks a bit surprised.

Which surprised me, as I would have thought that Don had been able to read Sal's sexuality.

But he's cool with it, of course. And if anyone understands the need to husband one's secrets, it's Don Draper/Dick Whitman.

Back at the idyllic homestand, with adoring daughter Sally going through Daddy's things, Don's souvenir from the night before -- stewardess wings! -- becomes a quickly improvised gift. But Don is at an unaccustomed loss for words when asked to describe Sally's own birth.

Not so much of some of the other major characters in this season opener.

We didn't see too much of Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) in the season premiere. That's never a good thing.

Joan Holloway is still, unfortunately, engaged to that seemingly perfect yet actually perfectly loutish doctor. She thinks she's on her way out of Sterling Coo, but I doubt it. Her inevitable clash with the head Brit's Brit assistant -- who's diving into the secretarial pool as he explains that, despite his title, he's not that kind of secretary -- had some chemistry to it.

Peggy Olsen has not only her very nice newish office and her very own secretary, who's not paying all that much attention to her.

Roger Sterling is still engaged to his 20-year dreamboat -- the reason for the British takeover in the first place -- and is making wedding plans when he's not distracted by little things like his erstwhile ad agency.

He seems to play a much bigger role in the next episode.

All in all, a certainly satisfactory if not scintillating opener for the third season. The show captures the air of uncertainty that grips today's U.S. economy, and hints at major culture clash ahead.

In the outside world, which is generally interwoven quite well in the show, this season is set in 1963. So we have the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with a limited nuclear test ban treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the civil rights movement coming to a head with Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, and of course the assassination of John F. Kennedy all coming up.

Inside, well, we have Peggy moving that glass ceiling upward, Sal taking a step outside that closet, Joan assessing whether her mind is more important than her body, insecurity and corporate upheaval driving the younger guys, Roger testing the limit of charm and a charmed life, and Don seeing whether his incessant journeying leaves him anywhere he hasn't already ended up.

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