By David Hiltbrand
---- — This is what passes for a crisis in the lives of TV critics: Each year about this time (well, except for the terrible “Mad Men” drought of 2011 — about which the less said the better), they’re sent a disc with the first few hours of the new “Mad Men” season.
The problem is that it invariably arrives with a note from the show’s haughty creator, Matt Weiner, spelling out the details and plot points he strongly requests not be revealed.
Personally, I’ve never been all that smitten with the Emmy darling, finding “Mad Men” over the course of its run to be pretentious and stagey. So I never chafed under Weiner’s embargos because in my opinion nothing much ever really happened in his ‘60s office pageant.
Until now, that is. Because the sumptuous two-hour opener to Season 6 is a remarkable piece of work — beautiful, provocative and deep. It’s an unexpectedly exquisite distillation of the show’s themes and aspirations.
So, what can we say about this mini-masterpiece, which plays out like the great lost work of filmmaker Paul Mazursky?
Well, certainly not the year in which the sixth season begins, because that prohibition tops Weiner’s manifest.
We do know it takes place in Olden Tymes, because mistletoe is still hanging and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is on a desperate deadline to revise a Super Bowl ad for her new agency — Cutler, Gleason, & Chaough.
The hustle to make American consumers crave what they do not need goes on. But Peggy knows the drill. “My job,” she tells her clients, “is to introduce your headphones to a huge, drunk, male audience.”
The goal is fixed, but everything else in Don Draper’s world is radically transforming: Hair is longer, skirts are shorter, and the writers’ room smells like reefer. The Generation Gap is announcing itself with brutal finality.
But the tonal shift in Season 6 is even more pronounced than the societal mutations. Everything is brighter, as if the characters had suddenly entered an era of super-saturated Cinemascope.
The show is incandescent right from the opening scenes when Don (Jon Hamm) is on a fact-finding trip to Hawaii with Megan (Jessica Pare).
Out of the blue, Don, a stranger in this paradise, has a blinding, ecstatic experience. For one mystical flash, he is unshackled and unfiltered, alive in the moment.
This state is especially profound for Don, who usually cannot escape the sense that he is a fraud. Even his name, Draper, suggests a manufacturer of superficial disguises.
“Mad Men” has always explored the issues of identity, karma, and the many ties that bind. And almost everyone in this episode is questioning his or her role in life. But this struggle becomes especially poignant for Don after his brush with enlightenment.
For Don, going halfway around the world isn’t quite far enough. He’s still got to return to his day job as Manhattan’s slickest snake-oil salesman.
When he tries to insert a taste of his newfound wisdom into his latest ad campaign for the sponsors who sent him to Hawaii, all his clients can see in the imagery is desperation and death.
After this stinging professional rebuff, Don is soon lost again, his descent achingly depicted in a scene that finds him swilling booze in the morning, dispiritedly watching the TV screen as Carl Betz trades dialogue with his TV wife on “The Donna Reed Show.”
The writing is distinctly and delightfully sharper as the series heads into its penultimate season. The show’s chronological progression this season into what is conspicuously the modern era seems to have freed the staff from its more mannered tendencies.
As a consequence, the characters take on a galvanizing new life, becoming more convincing, clever and nuanced. There’s Roger, for instance, slipping into Foghorn Leghorn schtick in the middle of a wonderfully illuminating and deeply cynical session with his shrink.
There are some inspired set pieces in this opening chapter, too. The dizzying disaster that is the memorial service for Roger’s mumsy represents a series highpoint. It’s like the Marx Brothers crashing into “Who Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
There isn’t a single misstep in this absolutely sterling chapter, from its exotic tropical opening to its devastating denouement set in a driving snowstorm.
I say that with confidence. Just don’t ask me what year it is.