THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
TELEVISION REVIEW

Hitting closer to home

With season 4, the removed reality of ‘Mad Men’ grows unsettlingly familiar

Returning cast members include Jon Hamm as Don Draper. Returning cast members include Jon Hamm as Don Draper. (Mike Yarish/AMC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / July 23, 2010

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This review contains spoilers.

One of the many beauties of AMC’s “Mad Men’’ has been its loud silences.

So much is not said on this show, set right before both the therapy revolution and the media explosion put a premium on talk. For three seasons now, all that unspoken feeling among the characters has lingered in the air like their cigarette smoke — a barely visible, subtextual energy. Because the atmosphere has been so muted on “Mad Men,’’ it has sometimes seemed like a bold black-and-white production — think Elia Kazan — even while it’s filmed in lush, sepia-tinged color.

When season 4 of “Mad Men’’ premieres on Sunday at 10, though, you can feel the silky veil of silence sliding off. The show’s world of mad men, mad women, and mad children (see: Sally Draper) is beginning to look just a little bit more like our own. As Thanksgiving of 1964 approaches, and Don and Betty’s discord has gone public, the characters are waking up a bit, expressing anger and desire more directly. Even the stiff Don (Jon Hamm), who must promote Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to the press despite his distaste for bragging, will learn a lesson in the values of verbalization. And in the agency’s crowded new office on Sixth Avenue, Joan (Christina Hendricks) has snagged a room of her own.

So yes, there are changes afoot in mood and location — but not in quality. Watching the premiere of “Mad Men,’’ I was once again thrilled by the dark grace of the show. The writing remains remarkable, as it toggles between the rhythms and clichés of 1950s movies and the timeless resonance of mid-20th-century theater. You rarely find such economical and evocative scripting on TV.

As always, the production design is flawless, from the clunky dial phones to the dim claustrophobia of Don’s Village apartment, where he spends nights shining his shoes by the TV set. But don’t dismiss “Mad Men’’ as mere glossy magazine posing, even while it has lent itself to countless magazine spreads. The Emmy-winning drama is a diamond-sharp look at how human nature bleeds through such artifice. It’s about the inescapable relationship between the turbulent Dick Whitman and his dapper creation, Don Draper. It’s about how we change across the decades, and how we stay the same.

Wisely, show creator Matthew Weiner has not backtracked on last season’s eventful finale. Betty (January Jones) is still with older man Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), and the new agency born in a suite at the Pierre Hotel is still moving forward. “Mad Men’’ isn’t a TV procedural that has to fall back on the same setup week in and week out, and these new twists are welcome. The story, which was running the risk of redundancy last season as Don continued to cheat on Betty, is evolving.

Don has become a full-blown star in the ad world, having created a floor-wax TV commercial that is more than just a slogan — it has hints of a story. As “Mad Men’’ chronicles the early adolescence of advertising, it dissects and studies all the elements of today’s commercial arena — the elements that we take for granted. The title of the premiere is “Public Relations,’’ and the episode sketches out very rough versions of the stunts and spin doctoring that now greet us every day, everywhere we look. Don, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) are at the forefront of an increasingly aggressive approach to grabbing attention, winning press, and generating sales.

Peggy, played with such odd-duck timing by Moss, is becoming quite the natural; now, like Don, she falls into a trance as she envisions an ad campaign, describing it as if she were reading Shakespeare. In some ways, she is Don’s female parallel, with her secret past and her instinctive understanding of consumers. And Kartheiser effectively makes Campbell into both a boyish opportunist and a predatory snake. Like so many of the characters on “Mad Men,’’ he is at once a simple stereotype and something far more mixed-up and difficult to pigeonhole.

Hamm continues to bring both fire and ice to his portrayal of Don. In the premiere, Hamm reveals more of the self-loathing we’ve seen brewing in Don in the past, without bringing in even the slightest hint of sentimentality, self-pity, or wounded pride. Some of the other indelible male TV performances of the past decade — James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Hugh Laurie as Gregory House — are colored in with endless detail. Hamm’s Don is a portrait more filled in with mysterious empty spaces, as Don is both unknown to himself and therefore unknowable to us.

Jones’s skills are less easy to celebrate. Some viewers feel she’s a weak link in the cast, and her disastrous turn hosting “Saturday Night Live’’ last fall only confirmed their reservations. I go back and forth on the issue, but generally find her persuasive as a woman who wants to be parented, who resents her own children for putting her in a parental position. Jones is consistently disturbing when she vents her hatred for Sally (Kiernan Shipka), a phenomenon that continues despite Betty’s romance with the more fatherly Henry. At Thanksgiving dinner, after Betty forces sweet-potato casserole into Sally’s mouth and Sally runs from the room, we can hear Sally yelling, “Ow, stop pinching me.’’ Betty is like a little girl bullying another little girl. It’s so very creepy.

And, alas, so very timeless. “Mad Men’’ gives us the brief opportunity to think that that kind of naked aggression toward children doesn’t happen anymore; but then, we know better. The show gives us an alien world, filled with obsolete artifacts, then lets us find ourselves in it. Brooding and addictive, sleek and revelatory, “Mad Men’’ is back.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

MAD MEN

Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, Vincent Kartheiser, Christopher Stanley

On: AMC

Time: Sunday, 10 p.m.-11 p.m.