TV Review: AMC’s ‘Mad Men’ Shows No Signs of Creative Fatigue in Fifth Season Premiere

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CHICAGO – The long-awaited return of AMC’s four-time Emmy Best Drama winner “Mad Men” is finally here and there seems to be more doubt than ever before. Will the 17 months since a new episode hurt the show creatively? Can “Mad Men” stay as culturally important and creatively consistent this far into its run or will it start to struggle? I felt the doubt in the air when I put in the two-hour premiere, “A Little Kiss.” And it was gone before the first commercial break. “Mad Men” is back. And it feels like it was never gone. TV Rating: 5.0/5.0
TV Rating: 5.0/5.0

There seems to have been a very conscious effort on the part of Matthew Weiner and the incredible writers on “Mad Men” to make the start of this season very much a continuation of where these characters last were when we left them in season four. There have been shows that took significant times between seasons in the past, including “The Sopranos,” in which it felt like major events had happened off-screen and it took some time to catch up both in plot and thematically. “Mad Men” isn’t spinning its wheels, but we are not far at all from the themes and questions that ended season four.

Mad Men
Mad Men
Photo credit: ABC

How will Sterling Campbell Draper Price handle the continued fall-out from losing Lucky Strike and Don’s controversial anti-tobacco letter? How will the firm respond to Don’s surprising marriage? Will Peggy continue her relationship with the counter-culture? Will Joan’s marriage and new motherhood survive Vietnam? How will Lane continue to change as he spends more time in the strange world of Madison Avenue? And can any of these people avoid becoming relics as the country goes through arguably its most landscape-changing time? Civil rights, gender equality, homosexuality, and more elements of society that may have been considered an impossibility when “Mad Men” began are impacting the lives of these characters — will they adapt or become dinosaurs?

Mad Men
Mad Men
Photo credit: AMC

Creator Matthew Weiner has made it very clear that he was disappointed by how many critics spoiled the opening episode of season four and has asked repeatedly that we not ruin anything about the beginning of season five. So I won’t tell you the answer to any of the questions above other than to say that Weiner and his team have brilliantly taken what worked about season four and, I believe, naturally evolved it into season five. The last season, the best in the history of “Mad Men,” was about the identity of Don Draper (Jon Hamm). It opened with the line, “Who is Don Draper? (in his controversial Ad Age interview). And that question haunted the entire season as he came to terms with his fatherhood, working relationships, and even his drinking problems.

To this critic, there’s a key question in the fifth season premiere of “Mad Men” that I believe will arc the whole season — “Is this what Madison Avenue represents?” How will a group of people who built their fortune on increasingly outdated advertising and cultural models adapt to changing times? Or will they? There’s more melancholy as season five opens as it feels like Megan’s character (Don’s new wife played by Jessica Pare) is being used to illustrate the cultural flaws of her new husband and office mates. As Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Sterling (John Slattery) bicker over the size of their offices and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) insults Megan, one gets the sense that they’re not very aware that the land beneath them is changing. There’s a cynicism at the core of SDCP that may have seemed witty and charming in the early ’60s but now seems behind the times.

Mad Men
Mad Men
Photo credit: AMC

Clearly, there are some fascinating themes to explore this season and the cast is more than up to the challenge. It’s been fascinating to watch Jon Hamm portray what I think is the overall arc of the show — the fall of men like Don Draper. In season one, he had a family, juggled girlfriends, wooed major clients, drank heavily, smoked all the time, and held his secret past firmly in place. As the show has gone on, all of that has dissipated. He’s becoming a shell of the man he was in season one, a sad sack who can’t even enjoy his birthday. There are glimpses of the old Don, but Hamm doesn’t lose sight of the fact that Don at 40 is not what he used to be. I ADORE what Bryan Cranston has done on “Breaking Bad” but it is stunning that Hamm has never won an Emmy for this role.

Same goes for Elisabeth Moss (who should have won last year). She’s still fantastic in the season premiere as her role (as all women in the workplace roles) seems to be changing. The cast is arguably the best on TV. Slattery seems to be injecting his character with a bit more melancholy as well and Kartheiser has possibly the biggest arc in the premiere as he starts fighting back against the older partners who, honestly, don’t seem to be as important as they once were. Hendricks and Harris deserve praise as well. On most other shows, their performances would be the stand-outs.

There’s something so unique about “Mad Men” that I almost forgot how good it was while it was gone. The attention to detail has been very well-recorded but it’s not just a matter of period recreation. The detail is in the characters as well — both in how they’re written and performed. Have there been more completely three-dimensional characters in the past decade of television than Don Draper and Peggy Olson? OK, maybe Joan Harris, Roger Sterling, and Pete Campbell. It’s great to have them all back. TV doesn’t get much better than this.

“Mad Men” stars Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, John Slattery, Robert Morse, January Jones, Kiernan Shipka, Jared Harris, Alison Brie, and Jessica Pare. It returns on AMC at 8pm CST with a two-hour fifth-season premiere. content director Brian Tallerico

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