Mad Men's Season 4 premiere: The critics react

Don Draper is testier. His ex-wife Betty is bitchier. And the TV commentators, though generally approving, have their own gripes

Jon Hamm as Don Draper.
(Image credit: AMC)

The almost painfully anticipated fourth season of AMC's "Mad Men" kicked off last night with an episode called "Public Relations" in which 60s ad-man Don Draper comes to terms with the need to sell himself (and his new agency) shamelessly. Some say the award-winning series (which has put its design-conscious stamp on everything from cocktails to Barbie dolls) is "at a dangerous point where cultural fervor is at such a peak that the series might no longer live up to unfairly high expectations." Here's a sampling of critical reaction to the first episode:

A good start, but a slow one: "The premiere struck me as deliberately low-key, unwilling to shift out of second gear," says Michael Agger at Slate. But that's not necessarily bad: While "I was expecting Season 4's debut to 'cause more of a squeal'... there were some promising plot lines."

Remember, "Mad Men" is known for abrupt shifts of pace: "'Mad Men' doesn't play by the rules of setting a tone that is carried on in subsequent episodes. We have to take it a week at a time," says Ken Tucker in Entertainment Weekly. For now, "I like this new Don" who "tells off... prospective clients... barks at the day-maid for moving his shoeshine kit" and then prissily shines "his [own] shoes for the next day of butt-kicking."

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New digs, new direction: With the new firm's "gorgeous" offices (introduced in a "splendid waltz-like" sequence set to David Carbonara’s Rat Pack-style score), everything has changed, says Alan Sepinwall at HitFix. "There are fewer people, fewer barriers (both physical and political) between the partners and everyone else, more of a sense of common purpose." While many familiar faces populate the new offices, the premiere "signals a show that's looking forward, not back. I can't wait to see what's next."

Betty's character is becoming problematic: What stood out for me, says Tim Goodman in the San Francisco Chronicle, is "the level of Betty's bitterness, meanness and unhappiness." In previous seasons, Don's deceit helped fans forgive her, but now that she's embarking just as miserably on "her Dream Marriage version 2.0," the question becomes how to save a character who's "in danger of being one-dimensionally irrelevant"? Either the writers need to give her redeeming qualities, or "her inherently unlikable nature needs to be maximized in some monstrous way."

Actually, Betty has already outlived her value: "I think it might be over for Betty," says S.T. Vanairsdale in Movieline. The intriguing battle between two flawed, constrained spouses is over; now that Don's secrets are out, his and Betty's exchanges are just weird and boring. "If ever a TV character were a victim of her own success, it would probably be Betty Draper. The extraordinary pitch of last season’s climactic episodes established a pretty formidable presence — a moral and philosophical force that vanquished its primary opposition." Unfortunately, now, "she's just a garden variety bitch with no roots to her rage."

Incidentally, whatever happened to Baby Gene? There were some noticeable gaps in the episode, says Meredith Black in the Los Angeles Times. We didn't learn anything about the fates of Don and Peggy's former colleagues at Sterling Cooper and "Baby Gene was nowhere to be found, an absence that seemed to rankle Don and only feeds my growing suspicion that something is going to go terribly wrong with the littlest Draper."

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