It's only natural for AMC's Mad Men to be consumed with thoughts of mortality as it heads further into the turbulent late '60s in its sixth and reportedly next-to-last season of existence. A year ago, the central set piece in the premiere was a surprise birthday party. This time, it's a similarly eventful wake. And that's not the only way in which Sunday's two-hour opener (9/8c), written by series creator Matthew Weiner, drives the death-comes-to-us-all theme home with such sledgehammer relentlessness and obviousness that for the first time, I began to think maybe it is time for this beautifully crafted series to start thinking about giving up the ghost. There's no denying the importance of a show that manages to win four well-deserved best-drama Emmys in its first four times at bat — I didn't hesitate to include Mad Men among the Top 10 in a recent "60 Greatest Dramas of All Time" package in TV Guide Magazine. But does it have to be this self-important?
More arty than artful, the episode gets off to an "uh-oh" note of portentous pretentiousness from the very start, as a voice-over from Don Draper (the excellent Jon Hamm) quotes from a literary classic as the ad man lies on a Hawaii beach, still stewing handsomely in his midlife crisis. A random encounter with someone who jogs memories of a road not taken further haunts Don as he returns to work, tanned but unsettled. As are we when we get a look at Don's new creative team, an unpleasantly shaggy lot indeed — it's the late '60s, when hair and fashion styles went to hell — and it's a team painfully minus Peggy.
Ah, Peggy Olson (wry, tough Elisabeth Moss), savior of this episode, as she blazes a trail at her new workplace, a drag version of Don who's absolutely in command, managing a queasily topical crisis that puts a client's very visible ad placement in sudden jeopardy. This is Mad Men at its best. The premiere is also a strong showcase for John Slattery as the sardonic Roger Sterling, unusually introspective as he jumps through a series of existential hoops while nailing an overlong monologue that gives the episode its metaphorical title: "The Doorway."
But what to make of a patently contrived subplot that sends one of the characters on a bizarre odyssey into the urban underground of anti-establishment malcontents, just so a clichéd free-spirit hippie can announce, "We don't like your life any more than you do." On the nose much?
My ambivalence about this episode doesn't trouble me much; I remember key episodes of The Sopranos (on which Weiner cut his creative teeth) confounding and annoying — even daring to bore — the audience, especially after a long wait between seasons that heightens anticipation for the sort of big moments that these landmark dramas carefully parcel out, often arriving when we least expect them and almost never when we do. Even at its most ponderous and indulgent, Mad Men casts a mesmerizing spell, and that's true throughout this less-than-satisfying but intermittently intriguing chapter. (Random thought: HBO's new season of Game of Thrones would have got off to a much stronger start creatively if they'd strung the first two episodes together, while Mad Men's opener might have been twice as effective at half the length.)
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GUERILLA JOURNALISM: If 60 Minutes clocked in at 30 and told its stories in the profane and explosively irreverent spirit of Apocalypse Now, it might look something like HBO's VICE, a brisk and brash half-hour newsmagazine (Friday, 11/10c) that showcases the enterprising work of the hipster news organization. Co-founder/host Shane Smith says his mandate is to "expose the absurdity of the modern condition," a mission that takes him to hot spots like Kabul, Afghanistan, where children are being recruited as Taliban suicide bombers. His team of in-your-face journalists shares a zeal for a good story. "Look at that! That makes a gun," grins reporter Ryan Duffy as he watches a backyard gunsmith crafting a weapon from scrap metal in the Philippines, the land of many political assassinations. Honestly, it's impossible to look away.
LAST ROLL OF THE DICE: I've lost count (some gambler I'd make) of how many e-mails I've answered over the last month from fans of CBS' Vegas, wondering where this '60s-era crime drama had vanished to. On any other network, a move from midweek to the nether reaches of the schedule would almost certainly be considered a death sentence. (Example: Smash's move this weekend to Saturdays.) But CBS tends to know better than most just what its audience wants, and as Vegas emerges from hiatus in a new last-chance time period (Fridays, 9/8c), this could turn out to be a smart fit with the similarly square but successful Blue Bloods. Like Bloods, Vegas is anchored by a veteran star (Dennis Quaid), albeit one who delivers a much rougher form of frontier justice.
In a typical moment, Vegas rancher/sheriff Ralph Lamb (Quaid) growls, "You want to step outside with me?" to the smarmy D.A. who we know to be in mob boss Savino's pocket. The D.A. knows better. Lamb is on the warpath this week because an FBI suit has blocked his crusade to smoke out a pimp specializing in underage jailbait. They've got a john in custody, but because he's a casino insider who could provide damaging intel on the Savoy's money-skimming operation, racketeering trumps child endangerment — to everyone but Lamb, of course. Even when the storytelling is familiar, the Lambs are good company, including Ralph's brother Jack (Jason O'Mara), who finally comes clean about his part in the mobster Rizzo's death, and Ralph's frisky son Dixon (Taylor Handley), who's currently obsessed with prying away a gorgeous Hollywood-hopeful starlet (the always-appealing Anna Camp) from her sugar daddy.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: The big event: Melissa McCarthy returns to NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30c) for the first time since her sensational hosting gig last season, where her fearless embrace of outrageous physical comedy earned her an Emmy nomination. ... More fabulous diva news: HBO's Game of Thrones (Sunday, 9/8c) introduces one of my instant-favorite new characters: the great Diana Rigg as the "Queen of Thorns" herself, Lady Olenna Tyrell, grandmother to the calculating Margaery. ... Guest-star alert on back-to-back episodes of ABC's Happy Endings(Friday, 8/7c): First, RuPaul guests as Jane and Alex's hairdresser, who spills some juicy gossip about the sisters to Max; then, Andy Richter appears as Penny's distant dad, with whom she hopes to reconcile before her wedding day. ... A while back, I suggested someone give the maimed Michael (Shane West) a hand on The CW's Nikita (Friday, 8/7c). Now it appears that just such a prosthetic device is on the market. ... Show Tune Alert: As NBC's Smash moves to Saturdays (10/9c) with Liza Minnelli on board, PBS launches a third season of Michael Feinstein's American Songbook on Friday (check tvguide.com listings) with an hour devoted to American musicals, featuring the master Stephen Sondheim and one of his muses, Angela Lansbury; and a second hour saluting singing dancers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, with commentary from a suddenly busy Minnelli. ... The 50th-anniversary celebration of ABC's General Hospitalcontinues with a Saturday night edition of 20/20, titled "General Hospital — The Real Soap Dish," reported by Katie Couric (9/8c). ... History's Vikings (Sunday, 10/9c), now lacking new episodes of The Bible as a lead-in, promises a game changer as Ragnar goes mano-a-mano with the evil Earl after learning how the boss man tortured his brother. ... An all-country-star cast, led by co-hosts Blake Shelton (The Voice) and Luke Bryan, performs live Sunday from Las Vegas on CBS' 48th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards (8/7c). A highlight: previous Artist of the Decade winners Garth Brooks and George Strait salute the late Dick Clark, who started producing this show in 1979. In his honor, the award will now be known as the ACM Dick Clark Artist of the Decade. Seems appropriate.