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Originally published Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 6:01 AM

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'Mad Men': Times change and a battle rages outside

The TV Watch: "Mad Men" returns to AMC for a fifth season, and times have changed — again. The Season 5 opener of the show airs at 9 p.m. Sunday, March 25.

The New York Times

Tonight in Prime Time

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There was no question that "Mad Men" would get around to the civil rights movement. From the start, racism was the carbon monoxide of the show: a poison that couldn't always be detected over the pungent scent of cigarettes, sexism, anti-Semitism, alcoholism, homophobia and adultery, but that sooner or later was bound to turn noxious.

That promise was made in the opening scene of the premiere episode of Season 1. The first face on screen is a black one in profile, that of a waiter carrying a tray of cocktails across a bar crowded with white, mostly male customers. The camera closes in on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), scribbling ideas on a napkin for a Lucky Strike campaign. Asking for a light, he notices that the busboy, an older black man, smokes Old Gold, and Don asks him why he is so loyal to that brand.

"Is Sam here bothering you?" a white bartender interjects before the busboy has uttered a word. Shooting the black man a warning look, the bartender tells Don, "He can be a little chatty."

It was the dawn of the 1960s, and that kind of humiliation was so commonplace that both Don and the busboy shrug it off. "Mad Men" returns to AMC for a fifth season on Sunday, and times have changed — again. Black people are now picketing on the street, chanting for fair employment and equal opportunity. It's a tinderbox summer of riots and protests, and the reception from some who are working on Madison Avenue is less than supportive. Advertising may be a cool profession that draws talented, sophisticated people, but even some of them can be bigots.

"Mad Men" distinguished itself by depicting not just the fashion of the 1960s but also the attitudes that are now so unfashionable. The show's creator, Matthew Weiner, found a sly, satirical way to revive the crudest forms of sexism and prejudice that were typical then but are nowadays carefully airbrushed out of television. Old attitudes about race in particular are so distasteful that it's become almost taboo to show them, even in the past tense. So most shows refract unsavory times through a contemporary lens, often bending reality to showcase a main character's ahistoric decency and open-mindedness.

That effort was at times so contrived that it turned more offensive than the truth. ("Little House on the Prairie" is a classic example of twisted storytelling: The writers of that hit show, which ran from 1974 to 1983, left out Dr. George A. Tann, a real African-American doctor who treated Laura and her family for malaria, and instead invented Solomon, a son of a former slave who seeks refuge and an education from the kind-hearted Ingalls.)

Even "Mad Men" knockoffs lack the nerve to depict racism as it really was. "The Playboy Club," a short-lived NBC drama set in Chicago in the 1960s, made sure that the sole black bunny was treated by the heroine with dignity and deference.

On "Mad Men," even the good guys have bad attitudes. Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who sang "My Old Kentucky Home" in blackface at a Derby Day party, isn't opposed to civil rights, he's just reflexively racist. In Season 4, Roger angles to set up the newly single Don with a friend of his wife's over Thanksgiving. Don asks Roger, "What do you need?"

Roger replies lightly, "Someone white to carve our turkey." It's a casual joke but one that resounds a little later, when Don is on a date with the young woman, and she mentions the deaths of Andrew Goodman and two other civil rights workers in Mississippi.

"Is that what it takes to change things?" she asks sorrowfully.

Don is more taken with her dress than with her idealism.

It's the show's willingness to put its characters in the context of the times, and not whitewash the white men, that gives it an edge and keeps a drama that in its fifth season has gotten — let's face it — a little old and soapy, interesting to watch. Particularly at this moment, when the case of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed by an armed neighborhood-watch volunteer, has become a heated cause, the 1960s look a lot like prologue.

Don and his colleagues are flip, self-centered and oblivious, no different from the many privileged Americans who stood on the sidelines and averted their eyes. They are the ones who ended up on the wrong side of history and whose testimony is usually left out of the textbooks, like the bourgeois Parisians who collaborated — faute de mieux — during the Nazi occupation, the South Africans who welcomed cheap labor under apartheid or the cadets who set fire to the clothes of the first female cadets admitted to the Citadel military college.

That is perhaps one reason that it's hard to care quite as much about the fates of frustrated ad executives, put-upon secretaries and unfulfilled wives. But it's not the only one. The two-hour premiere feels long and is a little dreary, repeating many of the same themes that were so new and unexpected when the series first began. Certain genres have inherent limits, and just as there are only so many ways zombies can storm a stalled car on "The Walking Dead," there are only so many jokes to be had from an adult's cradling an infant in one hand and a cigarette in the other on "Mad Men."

The downside of success is too much devotion. "Mad Men" fatigue is brought on by all the fuss and cute imitation: the Banana Republic fashion line, copycat shows like "Pan Am," '60s memoirs, coffee table books, cookbooks, cocktail recipes, magazine spreads, "Mad Men" costume parties and "Mad Men" drinking tours of Manhattan.

It's not fair, really, but a show that became a hit because it seemed so original has been so co-opted that it now looks like a cliché.

Seventeen months have passed since last season's finale, and other shows have come along that are set in a present that suddenly seems fresh and unexplored, like "Homeland" on Showtime and "Girls," which begins on HBO in April.

The personalities on "Mad Men" don't change, but the times do. At this point, the context may be more interesting than the characters.

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