‘Mad Men’ premiere slow moving and character driven

Brian Dollard | March 28, 2012    

After nearly becoming as distant a memory as the 1960s, “Mad Men” returned to viewers on Sunday with the two-hour premiere of its fifth season… “Mad Men”


Sundays, 10 p.m.

Grade: B+

After nearly becoming as distant a memory as the 1960s, “Mad Men” returned to viewers on Sunday with the two-hour premiere of its fifth season.

Few are happy with the status quo at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce when the action opens after Memorial Day 1966. The symbolic drives the conflict in the first episode. Megan (Jessica Paré) wants to throw Don (Jon Hamm) a surprise birthday party. Joan (Christina Hendricks) wants to leave her apartment. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) wants Roger’s (John Slattery) more spacious office.

Although far from an exciting two hours of television — the episode verged on tedious — the season opener’s reliance on minor conflicts does not mean character developments are absent from the premiere.

While episode writer and series creator Matthew Weiner takes a leisurely pace to develop the motivations behind these decisions, each story gives the audience a strong preview of what the new season might examine.

A key aspect of the first episode that “Mad Men” examines well is the changing role of women in America during the 1960s.

The newly married Don and Megan Draper enjoy each other’s company both in their exotic New York apartment and in the office, where Megan has received a promotion and Don appears less motivated at work.

Megan arranges a surprise celebration of Don’s 40th birthday with his coworkers and friends.

The swinging soirée serves as a noticeable reminder of the generational differences between Megan and Don. After an evening filled with electric jazz music, patio marijuana smoking and Megan’s sultry rendition of the Gillian Hills song “Zou Bisou Bisou” — Don chooses sleep over sex and wants no part of Megan’s public display.

Their disagreements over the party eventually causes Don to dismiss Megan and leads to a fight between the couple. But Megan uses her sexual power over Don in a way that his ex-wife, Betty, never did. He is submissive to her. Megan subtly sells faithful monogamy to the cheating-prone Don.

Speaking of the character formerly known as Mrs. Draper, Betty Francis is notably absent from the first two hours of the season, especially for an episode so focused on the female characters. After spending season four drifting further away from the interesting and complex character she once was, her lack of lines did not exclude anything from the show but actress, January Jones.

Joan is busy and exhausted with her new responsibilities as a mother and employs the aid of her mom to assist with the baby’s care. Joan and her mom quickly clash over their ideas on the responsibilities of a wife and mother when Joan expresses her interest in returning to the office.

Her mother goes the biblical route by offering, “Where thou goest, I will go.” Joan’s response comes from the practical approach: “How did that work out for you?”

The men also have their own generational struggles.

Despite Pete’s successful courting of new accounts — and Roger’s attempts to steal Pete’s clients away — he has trouble losing his inferior status to Roger in the office. Pete’s loathing of Roger drives him to suggest that he needs Roger’s office to properly conduct business. Peter’s notion is laughed at by the other “senior” partners of the firm. But eventually, Roger compromises to Peter’s demands by bribing Harry Crane with a bonus to switch rooms.

The stakes of the exchange are minor, but hint at a season-long conflict arising between the two polar characters — the impossibly charming Roger and the perpetually irritated Pete.

The civil rights movement makes a brief cameo at the bookends of the episode, although it’s not the show’s best examination of the subject. Here’s hoping they will expound on the issue in future episodes.

Viewers should expect more interaction by the boys and girls of Madison Avenue with these cultural and character issues as this season develops.

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