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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This Sunday, AMC presents the two-hour season premiere of "Mad Men." Our TV critic, David Bianculli, promises not to give away any key details, but he does have some things to say about the return of what he calls one of television's very best series, and about today's TV dramas in general.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: For decades, when broadcast television called the shots and dominated the TV landscape, the biggest event of the year was the fall season, when networks would unveil their new shows and return with fresh episodes of old favorites. But now, because of cable and satellite TV, the fall season isn't the only game in town.

There's the summer season, which used to be nothing but reruns; now it's the time when HBO brings back "True Blood," and when AMC, in just a few months, is going to present the final episodes of "Breaking Bad." There's the winter season, when we get new episodes of "Justified," "Girls" and "House of Lies," and just finished a batch of exciting new "Walking Dead" episodes.

And now we come to the spring TV season, which, as in nature, is a time to rejoice in the spirit of rebirth. "Game of Thrones" is back, with its strongest season yet, and so is "Doctor Who." And best of all, there's AMC's "Mad Men," which begins season six on Sunday, delivering all the pleasures that today's most ambitious drama series can bring.

Way, way back in the 1970s, NBC used to present a rotating series called "Novels for Television," and all the networks then were big on miniseries adaptations of popular novels. These days the best weekly drama series are the novels for television. As with the classic soap-opera form, loyal audience members get to know these characters so intimately that subtleties of plot and personality carry echoes not only of recent episodes but from earlier seasons.

Matthew Weiner, creator of "Mad Men," has established his own narrative rules for his Emmy-winning drama series, the continuing story of advertising executive Don Draper in the 1960s. On "Mad Men," the breaks between seasons sometimes take longer than a year, and when the show returns, it doesn't pick up where it left off.

It leaves a gap, and viewers have to start each season as though they're the ones who left and have to catch up. What year is it? What's the status of Don's marriage? And what's going on with all the other people in and around Don's life? Those are the very basic questions that, as each season begins, "Mad Men" is eager to protect. And I'll honor that, so you can tune in Sunday and figure it out for yourself.

But my favorite moment from the two-hour season premiere is one that reveals something only about Don, played so sparingly and perfectly by Jon Hamm. It's in a setting so familiar that it could be any year, at any time. Don, with his advertising team, is pitching a new ad campaign to his clients.

Those who have kept up with "Mad Men" know that this is the place where Don Draper thrives and shines, where he can come up with just the shimmery language and images necessary to seduce his clients, like a snake charmer, into seeing and raving about his vision. This time the clients own a luxury hotel in Hawaii, and Don has come up with an ad campaign that doesn't show the hotel at all - just a set of footprints in the sand, leading into the water and vanishing.

Don spins his magic while the clients react, and Don's colleagues, smarmy Pete and loose-cannon Roger, chime in. But this time, for the first time, Don's verbal seduction doesn't have the desired result.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")

JON HAMM: (as Don) I think we're not selling a geographical location; we're selling an experience. It's not just a different place. You are different. And you'd think there'd be an unsettling feeling about something so drastically different, but there's something else. You don't miss anything. You're not homesick. It puts you in this state - the air and the water are all the same temperature as your body. It's sensory, the music, the fragrance, the breeze and the blue. Stan?

JAY FERGUSON: (as Stan) It's just a sketch.

HAMM: (as Don) Hawaiian legend has it that the soul can go in and out of the body but that it usually leaves from a leeward point into the waves. Hawaii. The jumping off point.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) So what happened to him?

HAMM: (as Don) He got off the plane, took a deep breath, shed his skin, and jumped off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) I assume this is a photograph.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Full(ph) color. And that water is transparent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Well, I suppose it reminds me a little of the cinema. But mostly I see James Mason at the end of that movie walking into the sea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as character) What is that movie?

HAMM: (as Don) I'm not sure I know what you're talking about.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) He's killing himself. I don't think they show it but he's going to swim out until he can't swim back.

HAMM: (as Don) That may be a personal association for you, but that's not what this means.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: We looked at this. None of us thought of that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (as character) "A Star is Born."

HAMM: (as Don) The copy is all about the Hawaiian legend. Aloha means hello and good-bye.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) I'm sorry but this is very poetic.

HAMM: (as Don) Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (as character) Where is our hotel? Where's the Pink Palace? And Diamondhead. You've got to have Diamondhead in the shot.

HAMM: (as Don) Anyone can do that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (as character) I don't agree.

BIANCULLI: I'm guessing - and this is only a guess - that this will end up being the primary theme of this new season on "Mad Men." It'll be Don Draper losing his touch as the '60s march on. It'll be Don Draper doing, in the show, what his drawn caricature does in the beginning of every episode as the opening credits play. He goes into free fall, surrounded by all the images of happiness and desire he helped create.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

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