"Is it my imagination, or is the lobby full of Negroes?"
That's the last blast from the special two-hour premiere of Mad Men (AMC, Sunday at 9 pm), delivered with typical insouciance by Roger Sterling (John Slattery), incorrigible wit and senior partner in the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It's been nearly a year and a half since we've hung out with this crew in a new episode, as production was delayed while AMC negotiated budgets and other issues with series creator Matthew Weiner. But they're back, and although Roger is as sharp as ever, it appears the series as a whole might need a few episodes to get its footing.
In short, the partying of the early '60s during which the first seasons were set (with its requisite bad behavior of infidelities, unrestricted alcohol consumption in the office, not to mention casual racism and sexism) appear to have given way to a mid-'60s hangover. The new firm is middling along, with Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) bringing in most the of the business while Roger tries to poach his clients; and mysterious savant Don Draper (Jon Hamm) appears to be more interested in his new wife, former company receptionist Megan (Jessica Paré), than in work.
And maybe that's the rub. Where's Don? He's given plenty of screen time, but he's turning 40, a fact he's not happy about, an unhappiness exacerbated by Megan's surprise birthday party in their mod New York sky-rise apartment. But worse, the old Draper magic seems to have left the character as well as the show. No longer does Don enter a troubled creative meeting to deliver one of his Zen koans ("You are the product"). Instead, he brushes off his creative team's inability to deliver the goods on a Heinz baked-bean account. He either moons over Megan or he mopes. There's a perfunctory meeting with his three children, and no sign of divorced wife Betty (January Jones, on real-life maternity leave). The only heat his character generates is in the vaguely S&M role-play make-up sex with Megan following the party.
So where does that leave us? We get Roger's quips, office gossip about Don and Megan ("Masters and Johnson"), and Pete and Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) picking up their rivalry over office space from Season 2. The only fully realized scene, both comic and touching, takes place between ex-pat Brit Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) and office doyenne Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks).
Despite all the debates about the accuracy of Mad Men's portrayal of the '60s, what originally impressed about the show was that it held together as a fully imagined fictional world. The cultural and topical signifiers were both tossed off and integral, the workplace and private lives played out in a social context that felt complete. So you could get a quick, oblique reference to Ed Sullivan ventriloquist Señor Wences in the same episode that was — stunningly — given its greater meaning when Don, over a lunch of steak, eggs, and whiskey at a downtown bar, runs across someone reading Frank O'Hara.
Not even Don's mystery past is much of a mystery anymore — Megan casually mentions his life as "Dick Whitman" as though it were a high-school indiscretion. When Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) says that Don has changed — that he's now "kind and patient" — a co-worker says, "It galls you," to which she responds, "No, it concerns me." Me too, Peggy. At Don's Memorial Day birthday party, when Peggy's date (an "underground newspaper" writer) talks about "four riots in three cities in two months," there's indication that this episode is a precursor to late-'60s social turmoil. Here's hoping that one of the best dramatic series in television doesn't devolve into bland topicality.