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March 28, 2008

'Mad Men'

Madmenboys By Ray Richmond

They came hundreds strong Thursday night to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood -- a movie house built in the early 1960s -- to celebrate a series that celebrates the early '60s in all of its cigarette-smokey, martini-guzzling, sexist glory: AMC's "Mad Men."

It sneaked on the air last July as the first original dramatic series offering in AMC history, under the radar and decidedly out of mainstream earshot. But as TV Guide critic and moderator Matt Roush assured last night, it won't be sneaking up on anyone anymore even if it's 48 years out of date. (Aaron Staton, left, Vincent Kartheiser and Rich Sommer. Photo courtesy of Kevin Parry/Paley Center for Media)

It was closing night of Paleyfest 2008, and in "Mad Men" the Paley Center for Media had the perfect denouement: a series coming off Golden Globe victories for top drama series and lead drama actor in John Hamm (a.k.a. The Next George Clooney) and widely hailed as something of an instant classic. Critics agreed it felt liberating to watch a show, artfully shot like a series of 13 indie mini-features, that glorified an era when the term "secondhand smoke" meant taking a drag off of your friend's cigarette and women were less equals than assistants and playthings. Glass ceilings were what you above your bed instead of a mirror.

There was a certain giddiness in the Dome Thursday night that emanated from the nine attendees onstage, headed by creator-executive producer Matthew Weiner and also featuring Hamm and castmates John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer and of course the great Robert Morse. They had the unmistakable air of kids who have been handed the keys to the candy store and were recently told they can spend an extra day feeding on truffles and gumdrops. ("Mad Men returns to AMC for a second season of 13 episodes in mid-July.)

It was also interesting to note how the pecking order unfurled at the event, almost as a microcosm of the Sterling Cooper ad agency depicted in "Mad Men." Weiner played the dominant alpha managing partner, Hamm (who plays Don Draper) the enigmatic, princely corporate hotshot, Kartheiser (who portrays the villainous Pete Campbell) the devil's advocate who is more devil than advocate -- and Moss (naive Peggy Olson) and Hendricks (Joan Holloway) the quiet but calculating assistants who know their place.

Madmenpanellady But enough with the metaphor. How did this growing phenomenon happen, anyway? Weiner admitted to being a bit baffled by all of the fuss himself.

"The TV critics gave us such love that, as a writer, my first thought was, 'I'm a fraud'," Weiner said. "But I have to think part of what happened is people saw, or at least have told us, that we have an element of being similar to real life. Sometimes you just want to escape and the show gives you that a little bit. Other times, you don't mind that the show is so related to your life and it feels right." (Matthew Weiner, left, Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. Photo courtesy of Kevin Parry/Paley Center for Media)

Hamm, sporting his usual several-days' growth (word is he has to shave twice daily during filming, so much testosterone does he possess), had his own theory about things.

"Our show is not a guilty pleasure," Hamm offered. "In a lot of ways, it's just a regular old pleasure, the kind you take pride in experiencing. We take our time. We aren't like a lot of other shows in that we aren't dependent on any certain formula or based on a show that's succeeded in the past. We're our own unique beast, really."

Weiner agreed wholeheartedly with that. "Watching 'Mad Men' takes an enormous amount of effort from both the audience and from the writers in that we work hard to make sure you don't know what's going to happen next. We're all so used to getting that formula from Agatha Christie or 'Law & Order' where you can pin down what's going to happen. We're not like that. We're also honest in an almost embarrassing way."

With that, Weiner exercised some of that embarrassing honesty when asked by moderator Roush to give a little preview of what might be coming up in season two.

"I don't predict good things for anyone in this room," he announced.

"But can you give us a sense of where things are headed when the show picks back up?" Roush inquired.

"Oh no, I don't want to do that," Weiner replied with still more moderately embarrassing honesty. "I can tell you it's still in the '60s."

Whoa, slow down there cowboy!

"Honestly, it's a gift to viewers that they know as little as possible going in, It's going to be on soon. People can watch it."

Later, Roush noted how "Mad Men" had once been on the development slate at HBO and how the network had passed, wondering how that network let the show get away. Weiner appeared a bit uncomfortable with the question but allowed, "I don't know that this show would have been what it was if it had been at HBO. I love working at AMC and I love the way it turned out."

Still later: "And will you continue to explore who is Donald Draper?" Roush probed.

"I feel like I'm in the writers room, you're making me so nervous," Weiner offered.

Less nervous was Robert Morse, the Broadway legend who earned his stripes back in the early '60s starring onstage in a show that might be seen as a precursor to "Mad Men," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Morse acknowledged that he sometimes draws odd stares from his co-stars when he strolls onto the set singing "A Secretary is Not a Toy" (from "How to Succeed in Business").

Madmenboyspanel "This is all just such great fun, being on this show," Morse noted.

And then there was the now-bearded Kartheiser, clearly the eccentric of this group. He seized on the opportunity to define his place not only on "Mad Men" but indeed in the cosmos after it was pointed out by the moderator that his troublemaking Pete was clearly one of the least happy characters on the show. (John Slattery, left,  Robert Morse and Vincent Kartheiser. Photo courtesy of Kevin Parry/Paley Center for Media)

"I think 'happy' is a weird word," Kartheiser began. "I don't think that happiness is anything that anyone really...lives. I think we all kind of touch on it once or twice a year for a fleeting moment. Happiness is not something we endeavored to embrace until it was spelled out that we were all about 'The Pursuit of Happiness.' That's why Americans are so much less happy than a lot of Europeans. There's all of that pressure here to be happy, whereas Europeans realize that's impossible so they don't even try to be happy. They just accept being content and leave it at that. But I guess Pete wants to be happy."

Kartheiser is more than happy, however, to be the villain of the show, finding that "heroes are really the tragic ones. That's especially true in real life. The villains almost always win. There's nothing tragic about winning."

Weiner will drink to that. Not that winning is so unfamiliar to him. He was, after all, an Emmy-winning writer and producer on "The Sopranos" who therefore knows a little something about human fallibility. What intrigues him, and therefore infuses "Mad Men," are the stories of those who fight themselves and their demons as much as they do any outside battles -- and often lose.

"I think it's fascinating that this firm is just on the wrong side of a lot of things," Weiner says. "Heroes are far less interesting. If you always win, there's not a lot of conflict. It also isn't how real life works."

It's surely worthy of note that a series set in 1960 (the opening season of "Mad Men" spanned April to November of that seminal year) can embody so many of the same issues -- emotional, personal, sexual, familial -- as our lives do today. Weiner said Thursday night that this hasn't escaped his notice, nor has the idea that what holds someone's interest is often what isn't revealed rather than what is.

"We believe with this show in the idea of sex appeal and the way men look at women," he said, "and that is essentially the unwrapping of the package. We love the fact that on our show the women dress conservatively and people who watch are totally on the verge of seeing something but never quite seeing it. You have to always keep 'em wanting to see more."

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