July 24 (Bloomberg) -- Don Draper, the dapper, secretive advertising whiz in “Mad Men,” emerges from his Madison Avenue cocoon in the premiere of the show’s fourth season.
Don (Jon Hamm) starts strutting his stuff after a one-legged reporter brands him a “handsome cipher” in a story on his struggling new ad agency. He made the mistake of ticking off the journalist by refusing to talk about himself.
“My job is to write ads,” Don tells his colleagues at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the long-named firm with a short client list that’s dominated by Lucky Strike cigarettes. “Who gives a crap what I say?”
The trade-paper story hurts the agency’s reputation, so it’s time for its star to raise his profile in the solid season-opener of one of TV’s best series. (The premiere airs Sunday on AMC at 10 p.m. New York time.)
Don is pretty grumpy these days. He’s split from his icy wife Betty (January Jones) and is living alone, getting most of his nourishment from cigarettes and booze. I’m reminded of the T-shirt slogan: The Liver is Evil and Must Be Punished. In Don’s case, throw in the lungs for good measure.
He still enjoys the ladies, especially those with a good right cross. During one session he demands a good slapping. After receiving one blow he demands, “Harder!”
The regulars are back, including perpetually horny boss Roger (John Slattery), who speaks of “stuffing” a woman at Thanksgiving and waxes enthusiastic about Chicken Kiev emitting hot streams of butter when probed.
Chief weasel Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) is as brown-nosed as ever, telling the boss the competition can’t keep up “because you don’t work there.” He and colleague Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) cook up a scheme on behalf of a ham company: It involves a couple of nagging women, a scuffle, a story in the New York Daily News and the brainstorm slogan of Peggy’s life: “Our hams are worth fighting for!”
We’re reminded that despite endless self-congratulation about their creative brilliance these people are selling meat and cigarettes.
Just don’t tell Don that. He takes his craft very seriously, especially when clients give him the thumbs down. When executives from a bathing-suit company reject his pitch for an edgier ad campaign, he goes ballistic. Soon Don is talking to a Wall Street Journal writer about his new, dynamic self.
The show is fast-paced, so the few slow spots don’t last long. There’s sharp dialogue and 1960s period touches, including coats and ties at Thanksgiving dinner and Don’s discussion with a young date about the death of a civil rights worker.
“Is that what it takes to change things?” the babe chirps before telling him she plays wenches, courtesans and harem girls on the New York stage.
It seems certain that the modest Don of past seasons is history. Now he’s on a very modern mission: promote thyself. They didn’t have Oprah back then, though don’t be surprised if he turns up on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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