'Mad Men' returns with puzzle or two

Jon Hamm and Jessica Pare, as Don and Megan Draper, are back for the new "Mad Men" season, set in an undisclosable year.
Jon Hamm and Jessica Pare, as Don and Megan Draper, are back for the new "Mad Men" season, set in an undisclosable year.
Posted: April 05, 2013

* MAD MEN. 9 p.m. Sunday, AMC. Returns to 10 p.m. April 14.

TIMES CHANGE, people mostly don't.

Especially on "Mad Men."

Which is why it doesn't matter that Matthew Weiner, creator of AMC's set-in-the-'60s series, is again asking critics not to mention what year it is when the show returns Sunday for its sixth season.

Several other things are being withheld, some of which matter even less, except to make the writing of reviews more awkward than usual.

But I've no problem letting fans do their own Google searches to fix ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and company in time. Brace yourselves for the appearance of some slightly obnoxious sideburns and let's move on.

"Are you some kind of astronaut?" a stranger asks Don early in Sunday's two-hour premiere, "The Doorway," before predicting a future for himself based on what he imagines Don's present to be like.

It won't be the last time in the episode that someone's confronted by a stranger or casual acquaintance - stand-ins for some viewers? - who believes he or she has that character's situation pegged.

No one enjoys that kind of thing, but least of all Don, who'd like to consider himself more complicated than the average man - He's reading Dante! He broods about death! - and might be a little too pleased, in his own complicated way, when someone whose work he considers more meaningful than his own pays him a small compliment.

"Mad Men," too, likes to consider itself more complicated than the average drama. Like Don, it may be trying harder than it needs to. But, though the doorway motif begins to feel like a lit-class exercise - or a drinking game - I'm far from immune to the charms of an adult show that's not about serial killers, zombies or drug distribution.

And this is my favorite "Mad Men" season-opener in a while.

Don, admittedly, is a little zombie-like as Season 6 begins, a state we've seen him in often enough that it's easy to overlook it as a piece of a larger puzzle.

Halfway through, honestly, I was longing to shout at him, as Olympia Dukakis did to her two-timing husband in "Moonstruck," "Cosmo, you're gonna die!"

As if that would do any good.

Don's death-defying partner, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), offers his own words of wisdom: "We sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike. You know how we did it? We ignored it."

I'm not supposed to tell you why, but Roger gets to rattle on entertainingly more than once in this episode, which doesn't attempt to serve all its major characters equally (though by the end, you'll have a pretty good idea of what everyone's been up to).

There are several new faces (yes, even more vagueness) and other faces that might just look new (because they're covered in more hair than they used to be).

Two hours can be a long time for a show that's not heavy on action sequences, but "The Doorway" does eventually take us somewhere.

When the final piece of the puzzle is locked in, expect the picture to look completely different.

And yet somehow very much the same.

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On Twitter: @elgray

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