For 'Mad Men,' Questions Better Left Unanswered

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, July 10, 2008

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., July 9

"Mad Men," AMC's drama series about Madison Avenue ad suits in the early '60s, is the new It Show.

TV critics are gaga over it. Their editors love the Hollywood happy-ending angle -- cold-shouldered by HBO and Showtime, picked up by unhippest of networks, show wins Peabody Award and best-drama-series Golden Globe. So what if more people probably read about "Mad Men" in last month's New York Times Sunday magazine cover story than actually watched the first season (circulation 1.46 million; average audience 1.1 million). It's the new "Sopranos."

So you'd think the "Mad Men" Q&A session would be the ne plus ultra of Summer TV Press Tour 2008.

But if creator (and "Sopranos" alum) Matt Weiner says he doesn't "really like to talk about story lines," hasn't got a good answer for how he came up with the idea for the show and tells critics, in re when the show will answer the what-happened-with-Peggy-and-the-baby question, "I will give you the information as you need it in the most entertaining fashion," the session tends to lose some momentum. Or all momentum.

You wind up with critics treating like the discovery of hidden treasure Weiner's comment that (we think) he expects the show to last about five seasons and cover about a decade in the characters' lives.

You wind up with questions like "How does it feel to be on what amounts to a television phenomenon?" and getting answers like "It's phenomenal."

That was from series star Jon Hamm, who, on the show, wears spectacular suits and sports pristinely slicked-back hair. At the press tour, he was dressed to casual perfection, his mane oh-so-carefully tousled. By "phenomenal" Hamm means having their faith in the series "sort of validated and vindicated in the greater sort of world of television criticism and the culture is amazing and it makes you feel . . . other people like good stuff, too."

"You know, I'm not trying to [poop] on 'Dancing With the Stars,' " he said, disingenuously.

And questions for Weiner like "Do you feel an added pressure now that we all love the show so much?"

"I'm one of those artists who can only hear bad things -- and I'm not encouraging anybody, by the way," he responded.

For the actors: "With Matt playing things so close to the vest with us and with the viewers . . . I'm wondering how much in advance you know what's going to happen?" Actors to critics: not much.

One critic wanted to know whether now that Hamm is a "sex symbol kind of guy," "Do people now recognize you and harass you perhaps a little bit?"

Answer: no.

Surprised by this revelation, critics queried other cast members. "Do people still not recognize you?"

"I think I look quite different than I do on the show," said Christina Hendricks, who doesn't. "And when I do get recognized, it's always in the loveliest of ways. . . . I walked into a restaurant the other day, and I said, 'I don't have a reservation.' And they were like, 'Anyone on "Mad Men," come on in!' I was like, 'Wow, okay!' "

And, this is sad: The "Mad" actresses like vintage '60s clothes, only now that they wear them on the show, Elisabeth Moss said, "I don't really want to go vintage shopping ever."

"It's true," chimed in Hendricks. "We like to dress vintage anyway, and now we feel like, oh, people are going to think I'm in costume. I can't wear that thing that I love."

"Yes," Moss agreed.

"We kind of, like, we can't wear it out," Hendricks said, driving home the tragedy.

"It's like, 'oh my God, it's so '60s! I can't wear that!,'" added Moss, not to be outdone.

"But everyone else is now dressing like you guys," Weiner simpered.

"Well, that makes it even harder, because you go shopping now and so many designers have been influenced by it and you are looking through the racks and it looks like you are looking through the costume rack on the set. It takes a lot of things out of the --"

"A final question," interrupted AMC General Manager Charlie Collier, leaving us forever to wonder what it is it takes a lot of things out of for Hendricks and the suffering chicks of "Mad Men."

The only non-lovefest note came when one critic observed that the show has "a great deal of critical support" and asked: "Can you turn that critical support now, as you enter into the second season, into eyeballs? . . . And, if not, are you satisfied to continue on the show with . . . great buzz but a relatively small audience?"

"Well, I mean, a relatively small audience?" Weiner sniffed. "You know, first of all, I mean, critical?" he sniffed some more.

"I'm an artist. Critical success like this has been more satisfying than a lot of things. But if you want to get into the commercial end of things, I look at what happened in the last year and I think about how people may feel about . . . this show, and I don't think anyone is looking at this and saying it's not a commercial success.

"I also feel that when you look at the history of those channels, it took them five or 10 years, some of them, of showing a lot of things -- forget about original material -- to get to where AMC is. I don't hear A&E anymore. I hear AMC," Weiner said, now on an official tear.

"To me it's Malthusian, the increase in attention for this channel and from where we started to where we are right now. I consider that a very, very big success. It's in multiples."

Uncomfortable silence followed for a nanosecond.

"We have to pay Matt a thousand dollars because he used the word 'Malthusian,' " Hamm jumped in. "We had a huge bet that he couldn't work it in."

He looked at Weiner: "You win -- again."

* * *

"Nightline" icon Ted Koppel joins BBC America's newscast and "Nightline" hires former "The View" co-host Lisa Ling. What could be more perfect?

Less than 24 hours after BBC America announced Koppel had joined its newscast, ABC's news show announced that Ling would contribute a series of reports.

For her "Nightline" debut, she will expose the astronomical increase in retirement-age people in America and the shockingly rapid growth of luxury retirement communities. She will travel to two high-end retirement-living complexes in the wilds of Northern California, where residents will open up to her about the heartbreaking challenges they face despite being surrounded by millions of dollars of amenities.

"She's a terrific journalist with a very distinctive style that fits really well with the 'Nightline' sensibility," exec producer James Goldston said in yesterday's announcement.

Koppel left "Nightline" in '05, citing new pressures from ABC to emphasize entertainment and tabloid fare and the audience fragmentation behind that economic pressure -- pressures he reiterated on Day 1 of Summer TV Press Tour 2008.

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