Mad Men (Series -- AMC, Sun. July 25, 10 p.m.)
By BRIAN LOWRY
Filmed in Los Angeles by Weiner Bros. in association with Lionsgate. Executive producer, Matthew Weiner; co-executive producers, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton, Scott Hornbacher; producers, Dahvi Waller, Dwayne Shattuck; director, Phil Abraham; writer, Weiner;
Don - Jon Hamm
Betty - January Jones
Pete - Vincent Kartheiser
Peggy - Elisabeth Moss
Joan - Christina Hendricks
Roger - John Slattery
Lane - Jared Harris
Ken - Aaron Staton
Harry - Rich Sommer
Cooper - Robert Morse
Sally - Kiernan Shipka
There will be no spoilers in analyzing the fourth-season kickoff of "Mad Men," other than to say the Emmy winner again begins slowly but hasn't lost its stride. AMC has shrewdly scheduled the program not just to help introduce "Rubicon" -- another new drama -- but seemingly to maximize its exposure while the latest round of Emmy ballots are in circulation. Although the series will likely never be a major ratings success, its campaign to earn basic-cable buzz and prestige has been Clio Award-worthy.
As in past seasons, "Men" has made another time jump when the season opens, forcing the audience to catch up with what's transpired in that time. Perhaps for that reason, creator-writer Matthew Weiner eases into the story, deftly weaving ample humor into the premiere.
The main focus, happily, is on ad man/ladies man/man of mystery Don Draper (the as usual terrific Jon Hamm), who (and this is a spoiler if you're not caught up on season three) saw his marriage collapse when we saw him last. Based on this sampling, one suspects the issue of those Draper kids also will be a thread throughout the season, reflecting the generation birthed in the 1950s and '60s who, more than any preceding them, were the product of divorce and broken homes.
Yet things are equally challenging for Don at work, where he and his partners are trying to make the best of the boutique agency they launched after considerable scheming.
This hour finds the cast in fine form, but the most interesting crumb to emerge might be Weiner's apparent rumination on the program's success and -- speaking through his protagonist -- his own heightened profile since the series took off.
"Who gives a crap what I say anyway?" Don asks at one point. "My work speaks for me."
The real genius of "Mad Men" has been its ability to draw in a discerning audience with such a low-octane vehicle -- one that, like "The Sopranos," disgorges plot advancements on a timetable of its choosing. Story arcs are developed and then set aside, with Weiner and company returning to them as they see fit.
By that measure, the show's accomplishments include not only re-examining the cultural revolution of the 1960s through a decidedly un-nostalgic lens, but unfolding its serialized narrative with a clear resistance to compromise.
From that perspective, the work does, indeed, speak for itself.
Production designer, Dan Bishop; editor, Leo Trombetta; music supervisor, Alex Patsavas; casting, Carrie Audino. RUNNING TIME: 60 MIN.
With: Christopher Stanley, Alison Brie, Deborah Lacey, Jared S. Gilmore.