Few shows have so expertly embraced their period piece status the way that AMC’s “Mad Men” has, but fewer still have also been so open about letting time lapse. While the TV medium is adept at strategically stopping the clock (nobody wants to see Bart Simpson make it to high school), “Mad Men” has submitted wholeheartedly to the spirit of evolution. The show somehow manages to elicit both a craving for progress and a nostalgic swoon for the aesthetics of a bygone era, often in the same scene. In last night’s season premiere, Don Draper ceremoniously lands one last kick on an Eames chair before embracing the changing times.
The action picks up almost a year after the end of Season Three, and a lot has changed. Gone are the rows of meticulous, bespectacled secretaries, the booze-fueled afternoon romps and the British overlords. If it wasn’t for the constant smoking and pounding of whiskey, you might think you were watching a rerun of “Trust Me” (just kidding, nobody knows what that would be like). The new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce headquarters, now situated in the Time-Life Building, no longer boast a tony Madison Avenue address. There’s no second floor, no formidable oak conference table and the firm’s proprietors are more than a little insecure about it.
It’s a new sensation as a viewer of “Mad Men” to watch that once irresistible Don Juan batted aside by a 25-year-old actress on a first date. The sexual politics are vastly more complicated now, and that’s bound to stymie our newly single protagonist quite a bit this coming season. With the once-comfy norms so out of whack, Don finds himself initiating a “relationship” with a prostitute, whom he pays to smack him around a little. We see a man divided: desperate to maintain control, but testing the waters of a new sexual zeitgeist. There’s liberation in the air, and like the less austere offices of the new Sterling Cooper, it’s very welcome to everyone except Don.
Doing business in this new environment includes building a new relationship with the press. Once upon a time, the ad men were hidden forces behind the campaigns they built, but now the magazines and newspapers are looking to cast Don as a character. Not surprisingly, the one thing Don can’t talk about brilliantly is himself, and he subsequently blows an interview with Advertising Age by coming off like a mysterious weirdo instead of a Teflon luminary. Self-disclosure is not a strong suit for the former Dick Whitman, and he learns that the hard way.
While adopting this new attitude may be good for Don, it may unfortunately spell trouble for “Mad Men.” This season starts out as a tabula rasa: The corporate espionage is in the past, Don and Betty’s marriage is kaput and the once-demure Peggy now speaks her mind. The demons once lurking in the dark corners of Mad Men’s seemingly flawless mid-century American façade are being exorcised, leaving its creators with their toughest challenge yet. For most shows, dissolving the tensions between appearance and reality may be a problem, but if any show can keep that ball rolling, it’s the one about advertising.