NEW YORK (AP) — Who could ever forget the wisdom of the rock band Spinal Tap: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
After watching the season premiere of "Mad Men," I have hit upon my own truism: It's such a fine line between challenging and annoying.
By traditional TV standards, a lousy episode of "Mad Men" is unthinkable. From its cast to its costumes to its rich sensibility, there's always plenty to admire.
But that doesn't get this brilliant series off the hook as it starts its much-awaited sixth season. The two-hour opener was, simply put, a disappointment — even annoying — for how much it demanded from the viewer and how little it offered in return.
What did we learn from the episode (which, written by series creator Matthew Weiner, aired Sunday on AMC)?
Ad man Don Draper (series star Jon Hamm), though still married to his adoring mate Megan (Jessica Pare), was still tormented, brooding — and philandering. As his inaugural tryst of 1968, Don cheated with the wife of a physician neighbor who was called away from the Drapers' New Year's Eve party on a medical emergency.
"What do you want for this year?" the doctor's sexy wife asked Draper as they lay, one floor below his own apartment (and Megan), in post-coital repose.
"I want to stop doing this," he said.
It was a nice twist and the episode's only real payoff.
Meanwhile, Don's agency partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was still gin-soaked and sardonically bleak.
"Life is supposed to be a path," he moped to his psychiatrist, "and you go along and these things happen to you and they're supposed to change you." But it "turns out the experiences are nothing."
Don and Roger and the other principals of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce took turns posing for company photos. Their individual portraits seemed to capture what's happened to many of these characters: They operate more than ever in isolated spheres, barely able to relate to one another, barely able, it seems, to even stand one another.
"Mad Men" has always been fascinating for the oblique way the characters interact, connecting disconnectedly, often talking past each other in cryptic interchanges, with the viewer invited to fill in the gaps.
But the gaps yawned way too wide in the season opener. Besides, too many of the scenes were static set pieces, revealing little and moving the episode nowhere you could see.
Perhaps most problematic: the character of Don's ex-wife, Betty (January Jones), who came off as not just obnoxious, bitter and battling weight issues, as in the past, but also downright inscrutable.
In bed with husband Henry (Christopher Stanley), she seized on his comment that a 15-year-old friend of their daughter's who was spending the night plays the violin beautifully.
"She's just in the next room," said Betty with a mystical smile. "Why don't you go in there and rape her? I'll hold her arms down."
Henry was astonished and so was the viewer. What was that about? Just who has Betty become, and to what purpose for the show? And what's up with her dyeing her blond hair brown?