What's most remarkable about Mad Men (* * * * out of four, AMC, Sunday, 9 p.m. ET) is not so much what it does right as how little it does wrong.
So meticulous is this character-driven, '60s-set drama's attention to detail that a virtual cottage industry has grown up around the search for anachronisms — an example of that "Oh yeah?" response our culture has to claims of perfection. A stray modern phrase here, an out-of-time bit of music there, and howls arise. So much so, a song used in the two-hour season opener made available for preview has been replaced because it was released six months after the episode takes place.
And when exactly is that? Don't ask; it's one of the many secrets creator Matthew Weiner wants you to discover — and in this case, figure out — on your own. Just be aware that, as so often happens with Mad Men, the answer is not readily apparent. The show drops you into the middle of its lovingly, meticulously re-created universe and expects you to sink or swim. (You are, by the way, free to do The Swim, as the show has long since moved past the dance craze's 1964 debut.)
It's easy to mock this obsession with precision, just as it's easy to bristle at the creator's sometimes extreme demands for secrecy. But they're part and parcel of the drive to create a full-bodied, completely believable universe that viewers can fall into and experience on their own, knowing that no major flaws will jar them out of the story. No show is perfect; small errors will always slip by. But no series sets a higher, more consistent level of excellence, a level sustained, fans will be pleased to hear, as Mad Men returns after a 17-month absence.
That high level of achievement extends to the cast, led by the shockingly under-Emmyed Jon Hamm, playing a man who is his own deeply flawed invention and letting us see the effort and pain behind the charade. But there's not a weak performer on view Sunday, from the preternaturally assured Kiernan Shipka as Sally to old pro Robert Morse as Bert.
This is such a gorgeous show to watch (at least for anyone fond of mid-'60s clothes and design) that it's easy to forget how beautifully these actors play their roles and how true-to-life they and the writers make these characters seem.
While there are, naturally, plots to be explored in Sunday's premiere, it's those characters who matter most. Their world has changed, personally and professionally. New alliances have been forged, new people have pushed their way toward the center of their circle, and a new passion has invaded a series that is still visually sleek and (for some) off-puttingly cool.
Yet what may matter most in the long run are the changes going on around them, and how those changes affect the series. The conformist America of the early '60s is about to be consumed in the fires of the late '60s. Civil rights, Vietnam, the sexual revolution — they're all about to push their way into MadMen's carefully ordered universe. How the show and the characters respond should be something to see.
As those ads used to say in the '60s, stay tuned.