“Mad Men,” Happy Audiences

Mad Men Season 5
Mad Men Season 5

The highly anticipated fifth season premiere of “Mad Men,” AMC’s celebrated 1960s drama about Madison Avenue advertising executives, has finally arrived.

I’ve always appreciated the show’s approach to season premieres: keep moving forward. There are no big wedding or birth episodes on “Mad Men.” Life happens off-screen and milestones do not define characters. This episode was no different.

But boy, did it exceed my expectations. The show was on hiatus for 18 months, and watching the two-hour premiere, “A Little Kiss,” was like reuniting with an old friend — a friend that has shed a lot of his or her annoying habits.

The new sets are brighter and more colorful. There is only one advertising pitch scene. Betty doesn’t get screen time. As copywriter Peggy Olson said in one scene, Don Draper actually seems happy. Absent are the requisite yelling, brooding and binge-drinking that characterized the show’s fourth season, and frankly, left me a little exhausted.

The premiere starts eight months after the last season’s finale, and a lot has changed. I was pleased with the slow and thoughtful reintroductions of my favorite characters. Many scenes took place inside the characters’ private homes instead of the office. Intimate close-up shots often served as the first glimpse into a character’s changed world. Yes, I’m talking about how baby Kevin’s butt reunited us with Joan.

I was pleasantly surprised that the premiere also focused on newer characters. Megan (Jessica Paré), the young secretary who recently married Don, is becoming one of my favorite characters, and Paré’s performance was terrific. Megan’s awkwardly provocative song-and-dance at Don’s party and her ensuing confrontation with him were two standout moments that broke up the premiere’s slow pace.

“Mad Men” usually refrains from addressing historical events, but the premiere took a thoughtful look at the Civil Rights Movement. The movement seems to be in full swing at the opening of the episode and in the end, the agency makes the decision to become an equal opportunity employer — but only to save face after running a joke ad that claimed they were doing so. I think it’s realistic that the bigoted executives I love to hate haven’t abandoned their prejudice to keep up with the changing social climate.

As the show has consistently proven, the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s likely Don will cheat on Megan, Peggy and Joan won’t get raises and Betty will continue to treat her children poorly…and get screen time. But this season of “Mad Men” is shaping up to be refreshingly different from the rest. The characters probably won’t change much during the next season, but the world around them will.