March 14, 2012



The season premiere episode of MAD MEN wasn’t screened at PaleyFest tonight.  
Although the show airs a week from Sunday and virtually every other PaleyFest honoree screened an upcoming episode of its series, series creator/showrunner/Keeper Of All Mysteries Matthew Weiner wasn’t about to let the premiere out of his grasp.  In fact, he’d obviously made it clear to the night’s moderator Elvis Mitchell that nothing in the way of spoilers would be remotely forthcoming tonight, because in a 90-minute Q&A, there was hardly even an attempt to gain any information on Season 5.  And such is Weiner’s power that not even the audience members called upon for questions dared try to cross his moat  Combined with the absence of (unavailable) key cast members Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks, the evening, while worthwhile, was in all honesty somewhat anti-climactic.

Instead of the premiere, the episode screened was the finale of Season 4, “Tomorrowland.”  The remarkable thing about watching Mad Men for the first time after its 17-month hiatus was recognizing just how strikingly unusual and different it is from everything else on television, so much so that it actually takes a few minutes to readjustAlthough the series uses the basic grammar of television storytelling–characters have illicit sex, suffer through money and career problems, cope with betrayal, alternately scheme and scramble to protect themselves–it does so in a way so stylized that it almost recalls David Lynch’s Twin Peaks more than it does, say, The Sopranos.  The cinematography, editing rhythms, use of musical score, pacing, production design–all have a stark particularity of tone unique to this series.  The performances, too, go beyond strict naturalism to a subtly theatrical mode that add to their emotional force (this somewhat strange quality may contribute to the fact that although the series itself is one of the most honored in the history of television, none of the actors has ever won an Emmy).  Many other fine TV dramas are “cinematic,” but Mad Men is an art film.
Then, of course, there is the content, far more concerned with moral issues and the weight of history than other shows that tell similar stories.  Watching Mad Men, it becomes even more obvious than it had been that The Playboy Club and Pan Am were trivia in comparison, specks of period decoration standing next to a show that passionately wants to evoke exactly what it meant (and means) to be a human being at a particular moment in history.
In keeping with the series itself, the Mad Men Q&A–confined to previous seasons–was, for the most part, far more serious and weighty than other PaleyFest sessions have been.  Apart from Weiner, all the regular cast members (but for Moss and Hendricks) participated, and all of them spoke of how proud they were to participate in the series.  Jon Hamm and January Jones talked about how heavily their final scene of the season (in which Don Draper told ex-wife Betty that he was engaged to someone else) had weighed on them, as it marked the true end of their TV marriage. John Slattery addressed last season’s episode in which Roger Sterling’s war experiences got the better of him when meeting with Japanese clients.  Jared Harris told the audience that he shared Lane Pryce’s love of America and its willingness to let its citizens evolve, no matter their social class at birth.  (This was about as spoilery as the evening got:  Weiner let it be known that Lane would be revealed as a Mets fan.)  Even Aaron Staton, whose Ken Cosgrove has been and out of the agency (and the show) talked about how Ken balances his feelings for his family with his business ambitions, and how that balance has differed from Don’s.

There were a few minor revelations.  It came as a surprise to hear that Weiner is strongly pro-Betty Draper, more than most viewers (Jones said people run from her on the street when they see her):  he had no problem with Betty hitting daughter Sally last season, and agreed with her that nanny Carla deserved to be fired in the season finale (albeit not as brutally as Betty did it).  Weiner didn’t utterly rule out a last-minute change of heart, but said the plan is still for the series to end after Season 7, and said he and senior writers Andre and Maria Jacquemetton have talked about the stories they want to tell between now and then, but that there was no master plan at this point.  

Apart from that, we’ll all have to tune in on March 25 for the super-sized (128 minutes!) and Jon Hamm-directed season premiere.  Like Don Draper himself, Matthew Weiner knows how to keep a secret.   

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."