Mad Men -- TV Review

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One surefire sign of a television series in its prime comes when an episode's plot and subplots dovetail so stylishly that it's difficult to tell which is which. What's the "A" story in Sunday's season premiere of AMC's network-redefining "Mad Men"?

Is it silky adman Don Draper (Jon Hamm) learning how to play with the big boys, now that he's left his career as a 1964 organization man and struck out on his own? Or Draper negotiating the tricky diminuendo of his wrecked marriage to wounded housewife Betty (January Jones), hastily remarried but reluctant to relinquish the house they once shared? Or might it even be plucky Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) spitballing a PR stunt to buoy the fledgling firm's iffy fortunes -- leading as ever with her forehead, as if every glass partition in the Time-Life Building were yet another glass ceiling lying in wait to thwart her progress?

It's all three, of course -- not a "B" story in the bunch.

Four seasons into guiding the hit show that changed how not just AMC but all of basic cable goes about its business, series creator Matthew Weiner could almost be forgiven for resting his loafers on the writers' room table and coasting. Instead, he takes sole writing credit on the premiere, an eventfully plotted yet literally elliptical hour of highly professional television. After orbiting deftly around the twin spheres of home and office, the episode ends where it began, with Draper belatedly mastering the black art of manipulating an interviewer more powerful than the one who'd bloodied him at the top of the hour.

Tech credits are pro throughout, with director Phil Abraham and DP Chris Manley especially adept at framing a series of office tableaux without succumbing to a single static composition. The large cast remains uniformly fine, with sterling support from a delightfully ferrety Vincent Kartheiser as Pete, Rich Sommer as Harry -- though his pronunciation of tsuris leaves little doubt he wasn't to the matzoh born -- and Anna Camp as a blind date who memorably gives Draper a "weak no," and from whom it seems likely more will be heard.

The title Weiner gives to all this elegant to-ing and fro-ing is "Public Relations" -- plenty apt for Peggy's ploy to get a client's product into the papers but just as suitable for Draper's handling of an unexpectedly prim pair of bikini salesmen and, on reflection, for an ad agency that's all windows and no walls. As Draper and his Sterling colleagues demonstrate again in this auspicious premiere, there's no shark tank like a goldfish bowl.

Airdate: 10-11 p.m. Sunday, July 25 (AMC)
Production: Lionsgate in association with AMC
Cast: Jon Hamm, January Jones, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks
Director: Phil Abraham
Writer-creator: Matthew Weiner
Executive producers: Matthew Weiner, Scott Hornbacher
Producers: Blake McCormick, Dwayne Shattuck, Dahvi Waller, Jonathan Abrahams
Director of photography: Chris Manley