NEW YORK (AP) -- Who could ever forget the wisdom of the rock band Spinal Tap: “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
After watching the season premiere of “Mad Men,” I have hit upon my own truism: It’s such a fine line between challenging and annoying.
By traditional TV standards, a lousy episode of “Mad Men” is unthinkable. From its cast to its costumes to its rich sensibility, there’s always plenty to admire.
But that doesn’t get this brilliant series off the hook as it starts its much-awaited sixth season. The two-hour opener was, simply put, a disappointment—even annoying—for how much it demanded from the viewer and how little it offered in return.
What did we learn from the episode (which, written by series creator Matthew Weiner, aired Sunday on AMC)?
Ad man Don Draper (series star Jon Hamm), though still married to his adoring mate Megan (Jessica Pare), was still tormented, brooding—and philandering. As his inaugural tryst of 1968, Don cheated with the wife of a physician neighbor who was called away from the Drapers’ New Year’s Eve party on a medical emergency.
“What do you want for this year?” the doctor’s sexy wife asked Draper as they lay, one floor below his own apartment (and Megan), in post-coital repose.
“I want to stop doing this,” he said.
It was a nice twist and the episode’s only real payoff.
Meanwhile, Don’s agency partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was still gin-soaked and sardonically bleak.
“Life is supposed to be a path,” he moped to his psychiatrist, “and you go along and these things happen to you and they’re supposed to change you.” But it “turns out the experiences are nothing.”
Don and Roger and the other principals of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce took turns posing for company photos. Their individual portraits seemed to capture what’s happened to many of these characters: They operate more than ever in isolated spheres, barely able to relate to one another, barely able, it seems, to even stand one another.
“Mad Men” has always been fascinating for the oblique way the characters interact, connecting disconnectedly, often talking past each other in cryptic interchanges, with the viewer invited to fill in the gaps.
But the gaps yawned way too wide in the season opener. Besides, too many of the scenes were static set pieces, revealing little and moving the episode nowhere you could see.
Perhaps most problematic: the character of Don’s ex-wife, Betty (January Jones), who came off as not just obnoxious, bitter and battling weight issues, as in the past, but also downright inscrutable.
In bed with husband Henry (Christopher Stanley), she seized on his comment that a 15-year-old friend of their daughter’s who was spending the night plays the violin beautifully.
“She’s just in the next room,” said Betty with a mystical smile. “Why don’t you go in there and rape her? I’ll hold her arms down.”
Henry was astonished and so was the viewer. What was that about? Just who has Betty become, and to what purpose for the show? And what’s up with her dyeing her blond hair brown?
But if Betty is an enigma, she is trumped by Don, who, to judge from the premiere, is even more obscure than as the predictably mysterious figure of past seasons. He’s now impossible to crack.
During his photo session, Don asked the photographer, “What do you want?”
“I want you to be yourself” was the reply Draper got—a loaded request for a man who, years ago, took possession of a dead man’s identity.
Don’s identity crisis has been at the heart of “Mad Men” since its start. The upscale-professional-suave persona he crafted for himself has served him well. But it’s a product of the 1950s. Draper, while still charismatic and commanding, is increasingly old hat as he enters middle age in 1968. The advertising industry—and the culture, too—continue to shift beneath his feet as he struggles to adapt, but his wingtips seem stuck in concrete.
No wonder he remains tightly wound and detached.
Or is he?
The episode began with him and Megan on a business getaway to Hawaii, where Megan was thrilled to be in tropical paradise.
Don mostly brooded, even after Megan scored a joint and got him stoned.
Yet, when the couple returned to Manhattan, Don spoke dreamily of having “had an experience. It was nice.”
And when presenting a campaign for the Hawaiian resort where he and Megan vacationed, he described “a feeling that’s stayed with me” since this holiday, and showed the clients an ad where an unseen tourist has shed his clothes on the beach and apparently splashed into the ocean.
The clients noted that the scene looked less like a travel fantasy than a suicide. Did the man die?
“Maybe he did,” replied Don, slipping into a reverie, “and he went to heaven. Maybe that’s what this feels like.”
If Don was so transformed by the trip, why no sign of his transcendence when he was there?
Instead, when first seen, he was sunning himself in paradise while reading Dante’s “Inferno”: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
It was hardly the sign of a man having fun. Quite the opposite, it teed up Roger Sterling’s later lamentation to his shrink.
“Life is supposed to be a path,” grumped Roger, but “you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where.”
To its credit, there are no straight lines in “Mad Men.” But the premiere had warning signals that the show may be going astray. Challenging the viewer is what has made “Mad Men” great. But it shouldn’t be a guessing game. It shouldn’t put an onus on the viewer to make sense of behavior that doesn’t add up. That’s annoying.