"Mad Men" has gathered no dust during its 17 months on the shelf.
The AMC drama returns Sunday for its fifth season with one of its freshest episodes yet. The show looks rejuvenated by a long vacation it didn't want. It resulted from creator Matthew Weiner's bruising contract negotiations with AMC and production company Lionsgate.
Some fans have said long delays have killed the momentum of shows like "The Sopranos." That was certainly a risk for "Mad Men," which went twice as long as it usually would between seasons.
But long wait times, it turns out, can also be good for shows.
That’s certainly the case with “Mad Men,” judging from its two-hour season premiere.
Sunday night's episode wastes no time establishing itself: It's now 1965. The old crew is back. We find out very quickly whether Don really went through with plans to marry his secretary, Megan. (We wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you.) Babies have been born since last season. A child has learned to talk. Marriages have entered lulls.
The show opens with a sequence that is simultaneously dated and shocking -- and still scarily relevant today. It features the casual mockery of something modern-day Americans consider almost sacred. (No, it's not prescription birth control. But good guess.) You can't believe it's happening, but you're sure things like it did. Immediately, we're back in the "Mad Men" era -- and it feels more immediate than ever before.
The feeling never lets up. The timely references feel matter-of-fact, rather than like winking asides. (At one point, while driving, Don casually reaches across the front seat to keep his kids from sliding forward -- because these are the dark days before shoulder harnesses.) A party during the episode is hipper than any I've been to. (But maybe I'm not the best barometer.)
The most frequent feeling is one of relentless forward motion, faster than you can stop it or even identify it. Older people putter about, unsure what to do. Younger people almost effortlessly outwork and outsmart them. The old feel disregarded and the young feel underappreciated. The two feelings are almost the same.
The first episode suggests that "Mad Men" could be on a similar path as "Breaking Bad," which came back from a yearlong break with a season that was easily its best. Not that the delay was without cost: Star Bryan Cranston lost his eligibility for what could have been a fourth consecutive best dramatic actor Emmy.
During his long, by-all-accounts miserable negotiations over returning to the show, Weiner fought AMC and Lionsgate on several points. He resisted calls to cut the number of actors and make product placements more explicit. He got his way on those key points, and in exchange agreed to wait until 2012 to bring his labor of love back to the airwaves.
It turned out to be a good decision for everyone involved. AMC was able to train much more of its promotional power on "The Walking Dead," which repeatedly broke its own ratings records to remain the network's most successful show. (AMC also launched the considerably less impressive "Hell on Wheels.")
Weiner, meanwhile, seems to have poured every extra second into "Mad Men." The show lives and breathes – and sometimes gasps – as never before. He and his talented writers seem to have thought and rethought every small twist, but still produced an episode that feels spontaneous rather than worked over.
"Mad Men" used to be a great show you watched. Now it feels like you're inside of it.
Which brings us to the best part of the long wait between episodes: Weiner's agreement with AMC and Lionsgate also calls for the show to end after seven seasons. Which means we're more than halfway through "Mad Men."
If nothing else, long waits delay the end.