PHILADELPHIA — Matthew Weiner has a few things he’d prefer I not tell you about the Season 5 premiere of AMC’s “Mad Men.”
Starting with what year in the ‘60s it is when the show resumes Sunday, after a 17-month hiatus.
“What happened with Don and Megan? Don and Faye?
“Did Joan have the baby?
“How is the character Betty affected by actress January Jones’ real-life pregnancy?
“What’s going to happen to SCDP without Lucky Strike and with Don’s anti-tobacco letter?”
So, OK, maybe more than a few things.
Requests that critics not reveal major plot points aren’t unusual, especially as TV coverage becomes more and more spoiler-centric, but Weiner’s, attached to the long-awaited screener for the two-hour season opener, “A Little Kiss,” goes further than most.
Which should surprise no one who’s followed the magnificently detailed onscreen adventures of ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) for four seasons of “Mad Men.”
Or the almost as obsessively chronicled negotiations that led — eventually — to a deal for at least two more seasons of the show that won the outstanding-drama Emmy four years in a row while somehow remaining more prominent on magazine covers than in most people’s living rooms.
Details, large and small, matter to Weiner, whose control apparently extends to the AMC publicity machine, which released Season 5 photos that give almost nothing away — a striking contrast to its handling of “The Walking Dead,” where the casting of a major Season 3 character was announced only minutes after this week’s Season 2 finale.
So has Weiner gone overboard with the secrecy? Maybe a little. But for anyone who’s seen the fourth season finale, “Tomorrowland,” there shouldn’t be many actual shockers in Sunday’s episode (“The Walking Dead,” this isn’t). What there are: A few mild surprises, probably better experienced in context in an episode that finishes stronger than it starts.
I can’t argue with the writer’s belief that “the viewers are entitled to have the same experience (critics) just had” (though we got a version without commercials and with a piece of music Weiner’s since replaced after some especially perspicacious critics — don’t look at me — noted it wasn’t released until six months after the time period we’re not supposed to mention).
So I’m not out to spoil his show. Or his fun.
And Weiner did seem to be having fun at a “Mad Men” cocktail party during the Television Critics Association meetings in January, surrounded, as usual, by a knot of reporters.
Could he tell us when the show starts, asked one.
“No, of course not,” Weiner told her, then pretended to relent. “It’s a minimum of 24 hours after the finale ended.”
Another, telling him that “a lot of us would love to see a Sally Draper spinoff,” asked about the storyline for Don’s daughter this season.
“I cannot tell you about her story, but Kiernan (Shipka) is a big part of the show, as always,” Weiner said, adding some praise for the 12-year-old’s “natural talent.”
“I have a meeting with her mother at the beginning of the year, and I’m like, ‘Well, this year, she’s going to do blank, blank, blank.’ And (Kiernan’s mother) Erin said to me, she said before she came to visit this year, Kiernan said to her, ‘Mommy, don’t say no to anything. He gives me great stuff.’”
In the past, that great stuff included a masturbation storyline.
Anything more shocking than that?
“I don’t personally find masturbation shocking, except on TV. I think it’s a fairly big part of the human experience,” Weiner said, laughing.
“But, yeah, you will see the reality of a little girl’s life in that period. For me, it’s super-important to keep her story alive, because she is an entry point for a lot of the audience (who may have been her contemporaries). I’m not her age, but I see a lot of things from my childhood,” said the 46-year-old writer, noting that Season 4 was the first to take place in a year “when I had actually been on the planet.”
But then, “I lived in Baltimore till I was 11 and it was 1965 in Baltimore until 1980.”
I’d spotted January Jones at the party a few minutes earlier, her hair in a long angled bob that wouldn’t have been out of place in the later ‘60s, and asked Weiner if I could read anything into that.
“January has one life with me on the show and another life with the glamour of an international movie star. And whatever she’s doing — I haven’t seen her tonight — she always looks great,” he said.
But “that is not the show haircut, I guarantee you. I do not let them cut their hair into anything. And Betty Draper, in particular, will die with that haircut,” he said, laughing.
Hair, wardrobe, furniture — to Weiner, it’s all storytelling and he’s not going to apologize for being a bit obsessed.
“I think the window dressing is story and when someone comes up to you and says, ‘What do you want it to be?’ you don’t say, ‘Whatever you want,’” or you’re missing an opportunity, he said.
“I was taught that that was a part of telling the story. I got to meet Josh Brolin and I was talking about ‘American Gangster’ and I said, ‘This is going to sound weird, but you were wearing the most amazing leather jacket I’d ever seen in that thing.’
“And he said, ‘Denzel (Washington) gave me that jacket, and that was the character.’ And so that’s the way I look at it. Just don’t throw that stuff away. And I have people who feel the same way. Janie Bryant (the show’s costume designer) is writing as much story as I am, when she picks those items for those people,” said Weiner, who admitted he laughs when he hears the producers of newer shows set in the mid-20th century disavow any connection to “Mad Men.”
“I applaud anyone who can get a show on the air,” he added, but “most of it feels like a vindication … Because there was not one individual at a studio level who I did not visit with the (“Mad Men”) script who did not tell me that I was insane. So I certainly want to call them up and say, like, ‘Now it looks like a good idea.’”
“Mad Men,” of course, has always been about a bit more than the ‘60s, no matter how detailed the decor.
This season, Weiner said, “It’s every man for himself. And a lot of it is about, when is everything going to get back to normal?”
Here in 2012, that sounds as much like today (and probably tomorrow) as it does like yesterday.
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