Monday, March 26, 2012

"Mad Men" season premiere recap: You can be a real Dick on your birthday

After more than a year's hiatus, AMC's "Mad Men" returned to air last night with a two-hour episode. Spoilers are below. Don't click through if you don't want to know.

Honestly, considering how long the show's been off the air, last night's double episode "A Little Kiss" was a bit underwhelming. No, I know "Mad Men" isn't supposed to be a breakneck thriller. This is a show about details, like how saying the wrong thing at a surprise birthday party can make you a semi-pariah or how a joke-y help wanted ad can wreak havoc in multiple ways. There are seldom big jolts in "Mad Men," which makes them all the more shocking when they come. That said, last night's episode was particularly languid, with the better part of the first episode spent on the surprise party, and the better part of the second episode spent dissecting Megan Draper's "burlesque." There was little forward motion and we spent a little too much time for my taste on the "Lane finds a wallet" story in the second episode.But don't get me wrong -- slightly underwhelming "Mad Men" is better than no "Mad Men" at all, and this episode certainly had lots of good moments. First, there was Megan's full rendition of "Zou Bisou Bisou." How many non-musical dramas do you know would that stop dead so a fairly minor character could deliver a song? Of course, on "Mad Men," the scene isn't really about the song, it's about how the song (and Megan's adorably lusty performance of it) affects everyone in the room, from Don to his various co-workers. The major fallout from the scene is, of course, a mortified Don brutally chastising his new wife for throwing a party, and telling her how he hates birthdays. That's understandable. Since his mother died in childbirth, and he was raised by the cold-hearted, unloving Whitmans, I'm sure he grew up believing birthdays were nothing to celebrate. Plus, I imagine it's a little difficult when you have two identities and, hence, two birthdays (he points out that Dick Whitman was 40 about 6 months before Don Draper). And I doubt the actual birthday party was the whole problem. Surely, after years of marriage to bottled-up Betty, Don must be really uncomfortable receiving such unabashed public affection from a woman. Megan, as her mini-meltdown at Sterling Cooper Draper Price suggests, wears her emotions on the surface. It must be hard for someone as guarded and secretive as Don to adjust to that. However, up until the party, his new wife seemed to be having a positive influence on him, teaching him to be kind and patient (much to Peggy's chagrin) and even opening up to his new bride about Dick Whitman. Of course, Don will always be Don (or will he always be Dick?), and his damaged, angry side will never be gone. Megan, so far, seems to know how to play him well, taunting him in her underwear until he can't stand it anymore. I don't know how long this marriage will last, but it seems like it might be more fun to watch than Don and Betty's union.
Speaking of fun, we got several great scenes of Don's co-workers mocking, lusting over or otherwise commenting on Megan's performance. It's tough to beat Roger's rendition of Frere Jacques, but Harry's massive faux pas in detailing his lust of Megan to Stan manages to do so. It could have easily gone to the "She's standing right behind me" device used in so many  movies and TV shows, but Harry remains blissfully ignorant, even when Stan basically tells him that Megan is right behind him. Harry really is a crass idiot, isn't he? No wonder Don doesn't like him.
Oh, and lest us not forget Lane Pryce's charming aping of "Zou Bisou Bisou," which is so funny and adorable, it wrangles a laugh out of a weepy, post-partum Joan.
Anyway, here are some more of my thoughts on the season premiere, "A Little Kiss":
  • So, the new season is set in 1966, in the heart of the civil rights movement, and the episode is bookended by scenes showcasing that turbulent time. The episode opens with staff at rival ad agency Y & R (Young and Rubicam) dropping water bombs on black protesters outside. This leads to Roger's brilliant idea to run the fake "help wanted" ad making fun of them ("Our windows don't open"). The irony, of course, is that Roger is hardly a race relations crusader. In fact, I'd go out on a limb and say his biggest beef with Y&R is that they thought of the water bomb gambit before he did. And the stunt backfires in many ways -- first when Joan rushes in, thinking the ad means she's been fired, and then when the firm gets a slew of black applicants answering the ad. Great going, Roger.
  • Speaking of Roger, he's apparently not even trying to bring in new business any more, and just keeps looking to snake Pete's clients away. Pete tries to assert himself, first by demanding Roger's office (half a victory -- he gets Harry's office instead), then by tricking Roger into going to the fake Coca-Cola meeting. This conflict is going to cause some drama down the line.
  • After Don and Peggy brokered a bit of a truce last season, Don pulls the rug out from under her by supporting Heinz's disapproval of the bean campaign. She's stung that doesn't go to bat for her and makes a fool out of herself at the party with the snotty comment about having to go back to the office to work on the campaign. Of course, being Peggy, she immediately feels awful about it, and ends up profusely apologizing to both Don and Megan. Oh, Peggy!
  • In her defense, I think a bean ballet is a cute idea, and I'm sure you could do it without it looking gross. And, you know, kudos on getting Heinz into the office after Don was seemingly rejected by them at their lunch last season.
  • Speaking of people who have been inexplicably drawn back to the SCDP, Bert Cooper is back after somewhat ineffectually charging out of the office last season. But, then, where else would Bert go?
  • Loved Joan's visit to the office -- not just because of her crushing breakdown in Lane's office (Christina Hendricks, once again proving she's not just a pretty face, is pretty terrific in that scene), but also the effect she has on everyone at SCDP. I actually gasped when someone casually handed the baby to a flummoxed Peggy. Equally tense was the moment when Pete walked in and saw the mother of his illegitimate child pushing a stroller. And, of course, there was Roger's creepy "There's my baby line." Good, tense stuff.
  • Is it just me, or did Jane Sterling finally get a funny line this episode at the party? Roger: "Why don't you sing like that?" Jane: "Why don't you look like him?" Tee-hee.

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