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Posted on Sat, Jul. 24, 2010 10:15 PM
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'Mad Men' returns for fourth season, starting on another high note

 Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, left), Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) are setting up a new ad agency in Season 4 of “Mad Men.”
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, left), Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) are setting up a new ad agency in Season 4 of “Mad Men.”
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Paul Simon once sang of 1964: “It was the year of the Beatles, it was the year of the Stones, the year after JFK.” But as the curtain rises on the fourth season of AMC’s retro-docu-drama “Mad Men” in the fall of that fateful year, all eyes are on just one person: Donald F. Draper.

It says something about “Mad Men” that an entire episode can be set in the most important city in the world, mere weeks after the end of Freedom Summer, with Barry Goldwater and LBJ fighting for the country’s ideological soul … and all anyone wants to know is where the creative head of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is spending Thanksgiving.

And here’s the great part: The conceit not only works, it’s working better than ever.

One of the pleasures of “Mad Men” has been watching it interweave the macro-dramas of 1960s America — especially those set in motion by the suburbs, the struggles for equality and the pill — with the micro-dramas of this show. The latter surround the Draper family and the ad agency where Don is its enigmatic heavy hitter, its Joe DiMaggio.

Still, I’ll admit I was prepared for a bit of a letdown with the new season, especially after I rewatched last season’s finale. That was one of the most perfect hours of television I’ve ever seen, so effortlessly did it round up all the stray story lines while launching its main characters in whole new trajectories as the world around them came off its axis.

That episode, you may recall, revolved around two divorces, one at home and one at work. Betty Draper (January Jones) kicked out Don (Jon Hamm) after discovering his infidelity and his secret identity. You sensed, however, that the death of the president, and the fact this was 1963 and women were asserting their independence as never before, were also factors in Bets’ decision.

Meanwhile, after learning from Conrad Hilton of the imminent sale of Sterling Cooper to the big, bland Madison Avenue agency McCann, a cabal made up of Don, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) and Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) engineered an audacious coup to take back their firm. Of course, they got help from “Mad Men’s” most-loved supporting characters, including the firm’s erstwhile den mom Joanie (Christina Hendricks).

(By the way, if you don’t recall any of this, because you are just now getting on the “Mad Men” bandwagon, do yourself a favor and skip tonight’s premiere until you have watched Season 3, now available for rental or download.)

As Season 4 gets under way, almost a year after the end of Season 3, it’s hard not to detect a strengthened confidence on the part of everyone involved. And not just the characters, who despite their square haircuts and dowdy wardrobes are starting to talk and act as beneficiaries of the social revolution happening around them, rather than its victims.

Confidence is guiding the hand of “Mad Men’s” writers as well. The jitters of Season 2, which saw Don transported to some bizarre California Shangri-La for three weeks, the importance of which has never really been explained, are now a distant memory. Last season, the characters grew in stature and depth, to the point where any story gimmick or outside event had a hard time permeating the thick veil of office intrigues and domestic tensions.

I suppose “Mad Men” has always been this way, but I realized how my relationship to it as a viewer had changed when, late last season, a CBS news bulletin appeared silently on a TV set in the background and my first thought was, “Oh no — I hope they don’t get sidetracked by the Kennedy assassination.”

They didn’t. In fact, what’s so enjoyable about today’s season opener is seeing, in so many ways, how the show keeps finding cultural beats to inform the personal upheavals going on. Some of these fusions are lighthearted, as when we get our first look at the new digs of Sterling Cooper. As a zippy orchestral score swells, we’re walked through the agency’s sun-lit corridors, a far cry from its cavernous former office.

Later, we get a peek inside the new conference room, sans conference table. Bert, always a sucker for Eastern design trends, had been told that removing the table would “force the conversation” between the firm and its clients.

“Sure,” somebody wisecracks, “a conversation about why there isn’t a table.”

And there’s Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), one of Sterling Cooper’s prized recruits, in her office, idly re-enacting the old Stan Freberg sketch “John and Marsha” with a young male copywriter.

Freberg is a bit of a throwback to the “carefree” ’50s, but otherwise the scene is pure ’60s, as Peggy carries on in a way she wouldn’t have dreamed of doing at the old Sterling Cooper. She sits on a table, legs uncrossed, being admired by a handsome buck who’s clearly smitten by her intelligence … and probably her newfound power as well.

Back at the Draper home we find Betty and hubby No. 2, Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), several months into an unhappy union.

Little Bobby Draper is wetting the bed, his sister Sally is getting the Mommie Dearest treatment from Bets, and Henry — living rent-free under Don’s roof — is looking a lot less assertive than he was during the divorce proceedings. When Henry’s mom grouses that he could’ve gotten all the milk he wanted without marrying the cow, you realize her uncharitable assessment is righter than even she knows.

But in 1964, neither Betty nor Don can quite comprehend the wave of libertinism that’s about to wash over the country. Don, who has rented a room in the city, is a single man and therefore free from the taboos that he had formerly flouted.

But he’s not really free. The past remains his prison, and not even the smart, vivacious co-ed that Roger fixes him up with can spring him from that jail. In the end, Don finds there is still one last sexual taboo he can violate.

No episode of “Mad Men” would be complete without the advertising campaigns, each a cultural touchstone. There are three in this hour, two for print, but the stand-out is the TV commercial. Don conceives it, executes it and becomes the darling of Madison Avenue when it airs. Stardom is something he is unprepared for.

Indeed, the idea that a media person could become a celebrity is one that, in 1964, had probably not even occurred to Jerry Della Femina, the legendary self-promoting ad man whose 1971 memoir, “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor,” has just been reissued in a paperback splashed in “Mad Men” colors, red and black.

We spend much of the hour hearing about what a great commercial it is before we actually see it. Despite the buildup, and the fact that it is true to the era’s production values, it’s a heck of an ad. Don tells us he designed it to trick viewers into thinking they were watching a movie, “for the first 30 seconds, anyway,” and indeed, I was completely fooled.

I won’t give it away, but when you watch it, note the long, lingering camera shot on the little boy. Then look at Don’s reaction. And then realize that only someone who has suffered like that little boy could have made that commercial.

It’s a heck of a show.

“Mad Men,” Season 4, begins at 9 tonight on AMC.

To reach Aaron Barnhart, call 816-234-4790 or send e-mail to abarnhart@kcstar.com.

Posted on Sat, Jul. 24, 2010 10:15 PM
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