After a 17-month break, "Mad Men" finally returns Sunday night to begin its fifth season. Its return, however, is being met with mixed reviews — well, mixed reviews for "Mad Men," that is, which would be considered raves if they were for any other series.
The devil is in the details when you're a four-time Emmy Winner for Outstanding Drama Series. After all, when you are arguably the most critically beloved series on television, you are always being compared to yourself. So now, as the cracks start to show — like they do for every series this far into its run — critics can't resist pointing them out alongside the expected raves about the show's cast and film-level production.
"The two-hour premiere feels long and is a little dreary, repeating many of the same themes that were so new and unexpected when the series first began," The New York Times writes. "Certain genres have inherent limits, and just as there are only so many ways zombies can storm a stalled car on 'The Walking Dead,' there are only so many jokes to be had from an adult's cradling an infant in one hand and a cigarette in the other on 'Mad Men.' "
This season, the show is set to tackle the social movements that began in the 1960s, in particular the civil rights movement, but having been off the air for so long, it has some catching up to do. There are loose ends from season four that need to be tied up before the show can move forward, and with race riots and picketing beginning in the streets in earnest as the season kicks off, the show works hard to get everyone up to speed so it can move forward. "The two-hour premiere ticks by mainly as a series of vignettes where familiar characters strut their familiar stuff and talk about work that no one ever seems to do," the Wall Street Journal says. "When it's over, fans will have gotten their 'Mad Men' fix, if not much of a high."
In a three (out of four) star review, Slant writes, "As is usually the case with a landmark show's return, the two-part opener, 'A Little Kiss,' is primarily concerned with establishing mood and with dropping hints as to where the narrative may lead us. [The episode] is ultimately a haunting character study that's slower and more melancholy than perhaps any episode of 'Mad Men' that's preceded it. There's a Cheever quality to 'A Little Kiss,' an unsettling sense that every inhabitant of the show is reaching a moral stasis and crisis simultaneously and exactly at the same time."
That sentiment is echoed by Variety: "Series creator Matthew Weiner resists rushing into anything, easing into a reset of where players currently stand in a manner — especially given the protracted absence — that should leave all but the most ardent fans trying to putty-in the gaps. Each time-lapse introduces more wrinkles in the show's world, but the premiere offers a sketchy road map of what's to come, and won't expand 'Men's' footprint beyond its solid arthouse niche."
To be clear, the above reviews are generally positive, talking about the show's "deserved accolades" and especially about Jon Hamm's performance, but "Mad Men" has moved beyond the point of "is it good?" criticism and deep into the land of near-doctoral study of its intricate plotting and how its dealings with the rebellious '60s symbolize what's going on in our current world. When critics are simply asked to assign it a grade, they are, like Newsday, mostly offering up A's.
In its rave review, Newsday declares, " 'Mad Men' is back and back in all the right ways — the humor, the writing, the period details, and best of all, the flawless attention to these characters and their cluttered interior worlds."
Assigning the season-five debut four stars (out of four), USA Today praises the show's "meticulous" attention to detail and goes on to cheer, "No series sets a higher, more consistent level of excellence, a level sustained, fans will be pleased to hear, as 'Mad Men' returns after a 17-month absence. ... That high level of achievement extends to the cast, led by the shockingly under-Emmyed Jon Hamm, playing a man who is his own deeply flawed invention and letting us see the effort and pain behind the charade. But there's not a weak performer on view Sunday, from the preternaturally assured Kiernan Shipka as Sally to old pro Robert Morse as Bert."
So it seems fans will not be disappointed by Sunday's episode. Consensus opinion seems to be that while it might not rank as one of the series' best, it does a good job of catching everyone up and setting the tone for what will surely be a riveting season of highbrow television.
Will you be watching "Mad Men" on Sunday? Let us know in the comments below.