July 24, 2008

On the ‘Mad Men’ Set, Success Sells

By Alan Pergament, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jul. 24--Afew days before the AMC series "Mad Men" got 16 Emmy nominations, creator Matthew Weiner gave a tour of the set to some of the nation's television critics, during the annual TV writers' conference last week.

The series is firmly entrenched in the stylish world of Madison Avenue advertising in the early 1960s. Weiner explained how attention had been paid to every detail in the Colonial country house in upstate Ossining, N. Y., the home to handsome advertising executive Don Draper (Emmy winner Jon Hamm) and his beautiful wife, Betty (January Jones), a Grace Kelly look-alike.

This includes the Georgian furniture, the 1960s-style kitchen cabinets and the turquoise headboard in the Drapers' bed. Weiner had to be persuaded to accept the headboard.

"It is so extreme," said Weiner, the former writer for HBO's "The Sopranos.""[The set decorator] said, 'Betty's bedroom is important to her. This is not a frigid woman. This matters to her. And January would look amazing against it.' "

Sold. Television critics, as well as Emmy voters, also were quickly sold last season on Weiner's detailed scripts dealing with a smoke-filled era of ethically and morally challenged people of both sexes before the triumphs of the women's movement and surgeon general's health warnings.

Last Saturday, the Television Critics Association honored the first season of "Mad Men" as Program of the Year, Outstanding New Program and Outstanding Achievement in Drama. In accepting one award, Emmy-nominated John Slattery, who plays a partner in the

advertising firm Sterling Copper, cracked: "I want to say how glad I am that the message of smoking, drinking and whoring that ["Mad Men"] puts across has registered with [critics]."

Critics roared. But Slattery was only half-kidding in summarizing the politically incorrect era.

"It's about people who don't get what they want," he told me afterward. "Nobody gets what they want in this world. That's why I think it struck a chord."

The Emmy nominations and the critics awards were just what AMC wanted and needed to serve as advertising for the 10 p. m. Sunday return of a series that is more praised than watched.

"It's a different season, it's a different tone," said Slattery. "Smartly, [Weiner] doesn't try to top himself with the second season. It's more plot-driven, lighter, quirkier ... Last year, some of it was pretty heavy stuff."

"Playing dress-up"

Unfortunately, Sunday's opener plays like the opening chapter of a novel. It's so slow-moving and non-eventful that it may make first-time viewers wonder what all the fuss is about. Next week's more involving second episode deals with more personal and professional crises and addresses some ethical and social issues of the time.

But back to the set. The most noticeable thing when meeting the actors is how much younger they look in person than in their suits and outfits on the show.

"The suits and the hair definitely give everybody a mature look," explained Aaron Staton, who plays account executive Ken Cosgrove. "Everybody looks five years older."

Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the ambitious account executive Pete Campbell, sees the clothes as a metaphor. "Part of this show is actually boys pretending to be men," he said. "There's a large portion of this office of guys playing advertiser. They're just playing dress-up."

"I like playing Pete," added Kartheiser. "I don't know if I like Pete. But it's fun to do some of the things he does." Like trying to blackmail Draper -- who viewers learned last season wasn't who he appeared to be and reinvented himself -- into giving him a promotion.

Draper, the criminally handsome and seemingly confident lead character, outwardly has everything in life -- beautiful wife, kids, great job, stylish house. But he has a tortured soul that led him last season to seek excitement in the arms of beautiful women.

"Women have been available to him and he has used them to either change his feelings or escape his situation and make himself feel alive," said Weiner before turning philosophical. "There is always a false self. People invent themselves, it is part of the American myth."

Weiner has invented a cast full of characters living a lie, led by Draper. "He has his own particular ethic and he doesn't like going against that," said Hamm.

His wife, Betty, is essentially lying to herself about her marriage.

"The reality that she's alone in it, that was an interesting story to me," said Weiner. "These are the women of my mother's generation."

Working women

Draper's former secretary, Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss ("The West Wing") has moved into the boardroom as a copywriter. She starts the season carrying the secret that she had an illegitimate child in last season's finale after having a fling with Campbell.

"For me," said Moss, "[Peggy] represents that movement of women in the work place. It's a very important movement, which now is taken for granted a little bit. But there were pioneers. I like getting to represent those woman and kind of show what it was like."

And then there is beautiful, sexy head secretary Joan Holloway (Christina Hendrick), who had an affair last season with Sterling (Slattery). "No one is looking at Joan and not feeling either intimidated or aroused," said Weiner. "That woman's power is right in front of you."

Hendricks said she played Joan in her audition differently than Weiner had imagined the character. "I think I was maybe a little more female-ish, a little more overtly sexual and a little more confident than he imagined the character," she said.

The cast includes Michael Gladis (whose likeness to Orson Welles was mentioned last season) as insecure copywriter Paul Kinsey and Rich Sommer as heavyset media buyer Harry Crane.

"This is one of the few times my being unwilling to get in shape paid off," said Sommer of being cast.

Everything has paid off for AMC, which bought the series after HBO turned it down. Its success is an advertisement for believing in one's vision. Who knows, Weiner could even have a sexier, more provocative sequel down the road set in the ad business.

"The really dirty stories [in advertising] were from all from the '80s," said Weiner with a laugh. "You add cocaine to these people."

TV Preview

"Mad Men" 10 p. m. Sunday AMC

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