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TV Preview: Hank Stuever on the Return of AMC's 'Mad Men'

No time like the past? From left, Rich Sommer, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Bryan Batt and Christina Hendricks are faces in the show's early-'60s crowd.
No time like the past? From left, Rich Sommer, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Bryan Batt and Christina Hendricks are faces in the show's early-'60s crowd.

Briefly, so as not to spoil much but proceed with caution: After his California sojourn, Don Draper (né Dick Whitman) is back and is back in the saddle as creative director at Sterling Cooper, but haunted still by his dark, secret origin story -- in the pre-pre-Google age, he assumed the identity of a dead Korean War soldier.

Don stares into space . . . as he warms milk for his wife, Betty, in bed and ripely pregnant with their third child.

The ad agency, now subsumed by a British agency, eighty-sixes the head of accounts and surreptitiously promotes conniving Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and good-egg Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) as new, competing heads of accounts. I am most satisfied when "Mad Men" busies itself with old-fashioned work of Madison Avenue; listening to Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) divvy up the list between the two ambitious men is a lyrical chant of Sterling Cooper's prowess: "Bacardi, Bird's Eye, Cadbury . . . Chevron Oil, Dunkin' Donuts, Kodak, Popsicle, Warner Bros. . . . Lucky Strike, Maytag, Pampers, Playtex, Utz." ("Why does he get Utz?" Ken interjects.)

Don and sad Sal Romano (lots of staring off into space, which in Sal's case is a deep walk-in closet of covert gay urges) are dispatched to Baltimore to tend to the London Fog account. Bawl'merans are in for a brief treat here: a fleeting look at a re-created Hausner's restaurant! Other "Mad Men" fans will appreciate the episode's locating itself (and Don and Sal) in a hotel, on a business trip, with a bellhop to tempt poor Sal and a stewardess on layover to bag Don:

"It's my birthday," he sighs into her neck.

"Really? Is it?" she says. "Let me see your driver's license."

"That's not gonna help," he says.

A sublime moment, but soon enough, a familiar torpor sets in. Try as I might, "Mad Men" fails to resonate, settle in, tell me something. It can no longer get out of its own way so as to allow its multiple story lines to experience actual forward momentum. (Only the calendar does that.) And, true to its narrative of workplace discrimination, it never seems to give enough material to its outstanding female cast (Hendricks, especially, and Moss, and January Jones as Betty), which can act circles around the men.

Increasingly, even the cigarette smoking looks off, too studied, and now Banana Republic is on the kick, compelling the American consumer to watch (and dress like) "Mad Men." Much of what the show sells as a theme now has to be helped along by the devoted analysis of its thinky fans and, not ironically, the marketers who sell "Mad Men" purely on cool '60s aesthetic. Lately there have been all these catch-up guides, fashion spreads and other primers in magazines and on Web sites, meant to aid the uninitiated in telling their Ken Cosgroves from their Pete Campbells.

On average, "Mad Men" is watched by 1.5 million or so viewers when it actually airs -- barely anyone, in relative terms, so the show depends on a vast afterlife on DVRs, "On Demand" requests and Netflix rentals to keep the hype alive. This is perhaps "Mad Men's" most delicious irony: Hard-core fans and newcomers prefer to wave the magic wand of commercial-elimination before they will watch a show about the most glorious days of advertising.

When the Don Drapers of the world roamed the land, a TV show was just a TV show. It was on when it was on; if you missed it, you missed it. You certainly wouldn't build your life around talking about it or telling other grownups they had to watch old episodes of it in order to catch up. You were supposed to give it two seconds' thought, and you were supposed to buy the products of its advertisers.

Don rolls over, stares at the wall, reaches for his watch, stares at it. . . .

Don ponders the middle distance while the milk on the stove boils over. . . .

Don gazes out the airplane window. . . .

A little dab of "Mad Men's" style goes a long way. If you find yourself with a stack of old episodes, getting ready for more of the "Mad Men" craze, and you want to believe, and yet you lack faith, I am here to absolve you. You read it here first: You do not have to watch "Mad Men."

Mad Men (one hour) airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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