Still smoking? Mad Men is back on air in America

Mad Men returned last night with a new season on American TV. Does it still pack a punch? Sarah Hughes tuned in

Sharp suits, sharper dialogue, the sound of a match being struck and the oddly comforting clink of bourbon hitting rocks. It can mean only one thing: Mad Men is back on air in America. For fans of the show it's about time.

Few seasons have been as heavily anticipated as the fourth of Matthew Weiner's advertising drama, which arrived last night swaddled in a cloud of hype and blessed by largely positive early reviews.

Expectation levels have been on the rise since last summer's bravura season finale, which transformed the boys and girls of Sterling Cooper from dominant players to scrappy contenders, suggesting that Weiner was not prepared to coast on the plaudits and tell us slick variations on the same old tale.

In the week leading up to the opening episode, that excitement reached critical mass. As New York buzzed over the best Mad Men parties, Banana Republic threw an open casting call for the show and were inundated with would-be Don Drapers and Joan Holloways. The demand in Hollywood for tickets for the premiere was so great that they had to move the screening to Mann Chinese 6 cinema, traditionally home to some of movieland's biggest openings including the new Angelina Jolie film, Salt.

The hype should come as no surprise. Mad Men's popularity has always been based not on how many fans it has but by who those fans are. For a show averaging around 2.1 million viewers in the US (and under a half a million viewers in the UK) it has become surprisingly ubiquitous – parodied by everyone from The Simpsons to Sesame Street and cited as a favourite by the likes of Meryl Streep and President Obama.

Indeed, the President was so taken with the show that not only was it his regular DVD viewing during the 2008 election campaign, he also recently wrote to Weiner saying how much he enjoyed season three.

Weiner apparently took the praise in his stride, perhaps unsurprisingly given that, in addition to being sanctioned by the President, Mad Men has been garlanded with awards (including Baftas, Emmys and Golden Globes) and fawned over by critics and viewers alike.

It's also worth noting that while the ratings in both the US and the UK might lag some way behind the coverage, they have increased with every season. A fact which, coupled with reasonable download figures (season two saw a 60 per cent increase in viewing when DVR figures were factored in) and healthy DVD sales, suggests that there is a small but growing interest in the show.

Hoping to capitalise, AMC released a slick, sexy promo ahead of the premiere, which concentrated on that cathartic season three finale while seeming to recast the show, somewhat misleadingly, as low on angst and high on laughter.

The reality is rather different. The new season opens on Thanksgiving, 1964. Kennedy has been dead a year. The Beatles have arrived. The Civil Rights Act has recently been passed, Vietnam is well underway and a young boxer named Cassius Clay is about to become known as Muhammad Ali. In worse news for our dapper heroes, the US Surgeon General has recently announced that smoking might just be hazardous for your health.

And if America is a country on the verge of change, caught on the cusp of breaking from the confines of the past and embracing something terrifyingly new, so too are the men and women of the newly formed Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

For suddenly single Don Draper it would seem that smoke-filled Greenwich Village nights with equally unattached women drift elusively ahead, even as former wife, Betty, having swapped her suburban cage for a gilded one, once more flutters her frustrated wings. Back on agency time, Don and the boys are also discovering that life as a young, thrusting start-up isn't quite as easy as it used to be, now that they're working for the penny-pinching Brits, with clients quitting, endless cattle calls and increasingly desperate pitching as they scrabble to make their mark.

Then there's Peggy, Mad Men's career girl about town. She continues her ascent, walking the line between personal power and office politics like a quirky Rona Jaffe heroine, albeit one with a surprisingly dark side. Meanwhile, Peggy's flipside, the thrusting, neurotic Pete, continues to combine a remarkable ability to divine which way the cultural wind is blowing with a remarkable inability to make that perspicacity work in his favour.

If there's one criticism that could be levelled at a confident, well-paced opening episode, it's that Weiner is going to have to show impressive juggling skills if he's to keep all these different, often unconnected balls in the air. Does the audience care about an increasingly unsympathetic Betty when her story is divorced from the main action? Can he interweave the story of Don's personal life with the story of the new firm? What about the fates of those characters such as Sal and Paul who didn't make it to the new firm?

The challenge any television show faces over time is how to keep control of a spiralling cast and increasingly complicated storylines, and while Weiner has in some ways addressed that issue with the creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it's also true that with a show as complex as Mad Men, for every plot strand severed a new one pops up to take its place.

Despite this, it initially seems as though the biggest change to the drama is not so much in personnel as in tone. One of the main criticisms of Mad Men has always been that it uses its slick costumes and clever sets as magician's props, diverting the audience away from its ultimate lack of soul. This is a show about selling things, this argument goes, and what it sells best is the idea that the past is an another country, one we secretly hanker for.

Answering those critics, Weiner chooses in this first episode at least to show us his lighter side. Peggy trades quips with her co-workers, sharp-suited silver fox Roger Sterling throws out one-liners with customary ease, even Don seems, on the surface, to be more relaxed than in previous seasons.

But, just as we're becoming accustomed to the idea of "Mad Men: the Office Years", Weiner slows down, shows us the disconnect between the light-hearted remarks and the tired, striving reality and reminds us again what makes this show one of the smartest on television.

We see that Peggy, increasingly confident at work remains less sure in the privacy of her home; we catch the glimpses of exhaustion in Pete's eyes as he makes another pitch; and we see the subtle effort that goes into keeping Joan's image afloat. With every carefully weighted pause, every snappy comeback, every clever line, we are reminded that these people make their livings through selling an illusion – and that for some of them, that illusion starts very close to home.

Nowhere is that more true than with the show's putative hero, the ever elusive Don Draper. "They raise you up and they knock you down," he remarks wryly in the opening episode and no one knows better than Don, the self-made man par excellence, how true that can be.

Freed from the perceived chains of suburbia, this former farm boy turned city slicker now has the freedom to do whatever he wants. He can bury himself in work; he can go out every night; he can spin whichever version of himself he wants to (and does so in the first episode, attempting to feed The Wall St Journal a perfectly calibrated image of Donald Draper: Advertising Man).

And yet for all the style with which he spins his plates and sells his dreams, the key to Don's personality has always been his wistful yearning for a different life. He is the man who knows how to sell the world, but not what to do with the profits he's made. Thus faced with ultimate freedom, with the chance to openly date those smart women he previously fooled around with, the Midges and Rachels, the Bobbies and the Suzannes, he instead drifts back seemingly helplessly towards non-threatening child-women just like the wife he has left behind. As always, one of the most interesting things about the character remains this disconnect between his alpha-male image and insecure reality within.

The insecurity finds a wider echo throughout the show itself. At its core, Mad Men, like so many acclaimed American dramas from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to The Wire, is about the hollowness at the heart of the American Dream. This fourth season seems determined to strip that idea right down, to show us that all the sales technique in the world can't paper over the cracks when they keep on coming, and that while you can buy into the belief that a new car, the right home, a perfect washing machine or a holiday abroad will make everything better, the day may still come when the car breaks down, the home is repossessed, the washing machine instalment plan falters and the holidays can't be paid for. At Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce change might be coming, but no one ever said that change was all you need.

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