'Mad Men': Gone 17 months, still flawless

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THE SHOW "Mad Men"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC

REASON TO WATCH Two-hour fifth-season premiere . . . Finally.

CATCHING UP The fourth season opened with a question posed by a reporter -- "Who is Don Draper?" (Jon Hamm) -- and closed with more: Can his new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, survive without Lucky Strikes, which dropped SCDP? Was Don's declaration that the newborn agency not accept tobacco advertising a sign of genuine moral fiber -- albeit well hidden the first three seasons -- or just a smart publicity stunt? Does Roger (John Slattery) know that Joan (Christina Hendricks) did not terminate the pregnancy that resulted from their night together. And will Don really marry exotic French-Canadian beauty (and his secretary) Megan Calvet (Jessica Paré)?

WHAT SUNDAY'S ABOUT Sure, answers are coming Sunday night, and (sure) so are more questions; "Mad Men" -- like life itself, or "Jeopardy!" -- tends to be plagued by them. But this two-hour opener is not even remotely about resolution but about placing the characters in a specific time (at some point after 1965, when the fourth season closed) and place (still New York).

The world has changed and so has theirs. The Civil Rights movement has asserted itself. The war in Vietnam is accelerating. Last question: Will these characters change with the times, or is character writ in stone?

MY SAY Seventeen months is an awfully long time, really. Since the last original "Mad Men" aired (Oct. 17, 2010), babies have been born that now can walk (and talk). Empires have fallen, or at least dictatorships in the Middle East have. Economies have cratered, and cratered some more. We've all gotten on with our lives. All of us except "Mad Men" -- stuck in that twilight world of lawyers, agents, networks and demanding showrunners, until a deal could be struck.

Problem is, pop culture tends to be about the immediate future ("The Hunger Games") and not the distant, receding past. The assumption on the part of warring parties is that we would still care. The assumption's a good one -- we will -- but what showrunners Matthew Weiner and his key creative partner Scott Hornbacher have done is pretend those 17 months never even happened. Just assume this was a normal break, friends.

There's no attempt at "catching up"; no expository dialogue that attempts to fill in the gap, however slightly. It's all sink or swim time -- get on board immediately with these characters' private lives . . . or don't. That's wise because real fans (of course) demand that. It's a bit presumptuous too, and there are a couple moments when the two-hour opener feels more like work or a memory test (what was that beef between Pete and Roger again?) than pleasure.

But those moments are rare. "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.

BOTTOM LINE Mostly a joy (and don't worry, you won't sink). Our Sunday obsession begins anew.

GRADE A

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