They're back, all the mad and happy men and women who make up the fledgling ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the fourth season of Mad Men. Jon Hamm's Don Draper strides down the white and faux-wood halls that seem lit with a brighter wattage of fluorescent bulbs. (Those were the days, eh? When ''energy conservation'' referred mostly to pacing oneself between the refillings of one's highball glass?) Don is feeling more pressure than ever after all, he's now one of the guys running the joint; he's even obliged to hold his nose and submit to an interview with (ugh) a print journalist to promote the new company. A Don under pressure is a Don full of the barely contained irritation that Hamm's superbacting manages to suggest is actually a towering rage, one that must be hidden.
Few viewers like to have their Mad Men spoiled by grand plot revelations, and so I'll avoid discussion of these until you've seen the premiere. But I can assert that the series has benefited artistically from the business decision that concluded last season. In shuttering Sterling Cooper and launching SCDP, the show is immediately jazzed by the renewed energy and willfulness that often accompanies a start-up. Clever creator Matthew Weiner takes the challenge of keeping a fourth-season drama fresh and makes it parallel the business challenge his characters are facing. Don, Roger (that snow-topped dry martini John Slattery), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), and the rest want their enterprise to succeed as much as we want Mad Men to rouse itself from the narrative sluggishness that occasionally marred last season.
To that end, the premiere emphasizes peppery dialogue rather than long, soulful, silent glances. There are crackling scenes set in the workplace; I particularly loved the byplay between Elisabeth Moss' Peggy and a new copywriter played by Jack & Bobby's Matt Long. The show shorthands the duo's new-to-us collaborative closeness by giving them an in-joke: They moan to each other the refrain of a then-famous routine by comedian Stan Freberg. Oh, don't fret, there's plenty for January Jones' Betty to do, and the aftereffects of last season's crumbling Draper marriage provide many quietly surprising, emotionally charged moments.
Without giving away any of Mad Men's new plotlines, I will say that there's a priceless scene in which Boss Draper tells off some prim prospective clients, and we learn that even a Midwestern secret-keeper like Don has some kink in him when he's not bedding Betty. If that doesn't tantalize you enough to tune in, you're also probably immune to the charms of Christina Hendricks' Joan Harris. You, you…Communist! A–