First off, as serious fans of"Mad Men"probably already know, creator Matthew Weiner sent a letter to critics with the screener for the season 5 opener, essentially asking them not to talk or write about anything of consequence in the two-hour opener that airs March 25.
I have a simple reply to that: In today's media climate, don't send a screener out if you don't want its contents discussed. Don't be a hypocrite and try to cut it both ways: Getting pre-air-date publicity from reviewers, but sanctimoniously asking them in the name of fan enjoyment not to say anything important about what they saw on the tape.
It's an arrogance I've encountered only in Weiner and one or two other show creators in my 30 years of writing about TV and media. Most of the best wouldn't think of doing it.
I should acknowledge as much as I admire "Mad Men" I have been nowhere near as adoring as some of my colleagues since I reported the background of the opening episode in season three, which was set in Baltimore and involved the city's famed London Fog company.
Here's the gist of that experience from a piece I wrote:
Like many critics, I had praised the series for its rich period detail through the first two seasons. But what I saw in the Baltimore episode wasn't so pretty, particularly in the depiction of Jonathan Myers, the former president and CEO of London Fog, and his father, Israel Myers, who founded the firm known for its raincoats. They were so misrepresented, according to Jonathan Myers, that I felt as if Weiner had in a way misappropriated their very identity — a little like the series back story of Draper stealing the identity of a dead soldier in the war. Other episodes and other details have fallen under similar scrutiny in publications like The New York Times and Playboy.
Some fans as well as some of my more "Mad Men" adoring colleagues are still mad at me for the cognitive dissonance the facts of such real research -- as opposed to the stuff Weiner's staff sometimes does -- has caused them.
Do you get the feeling that I think Weiner is kind of a jerk? I will not discuss the private correspondence on which I also base that conclusion out of journalistic principles as to what can and cannot be published.
So, here are the things Weiner asks critics not to discuss:
"What year is it? 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 newsletter?"
As Weiner assures us, "As soon as you watch this episode, your questions and more will be answered?"
But since you are children, I will tell you how to behave with that information.
That last sentence is mine -- not his.
Since I do not want to spoil any enjoyment of fans, even though most of them have gobbled up every detail connected to it on a new media landscape packed with "Made Men" details, I won't answer any of those questions. Nor will I provide anything I think of as a spoiler. But maybe you want to stop reading here anyway if you are likely to get upset about such matters.
I do want to say this about the season opener: I cannot remember the last time 90 minutes flew by that fast in a weekly series. (Ninety minutes is the actual running time.) It was written by Weiner, and directed by Jennifer Getzinger.
I instantly fell back into this world, and wanted to stay there as long as I could. I wanted more when the episode ended.
The most striking non-detail-related thing I can tell you: I was reminded how incredibly sexy this series is. And it's sexy in a smart way -- as opposed to the leaden, bang-bang-bang way a series like Showtime's"Californication" tries to be sexy.
I was also reminded as I watched of how great this series is at creating female objects of desire. Feminist critics might say that is not a good thing, but that's another discussion. I think artistically, Weiner and his team are as good as anyone in TV has ever been in this regard -- maybe better.
The most impressive aspect of the opening episode to me in that regard is that the object of heterosexual male desire is neither Betty (January Jones) nor Joan (Christina Hendricks) who have carried that ball the first four seasons.
The standout of the season 5 opener is Megan (Jessica Pare), and she has a musical (yes musical) number about halfway through the episode that defines show-stopper. And I mean that in the sense of a Broadway musical. It also defines desire and voyeurism, and much of the credit for that goes to the director and the point of view from which he asks to watch.
I would love to deconstruct her performance in the song and the episode and tell you what makes them so hot.
But I dare not tell you any more or Mr. Weiner will be mad. I can only tell you enough to try and get him some desperately needed ratings for the show.
(Weiner and AMC might want to do a case study on how HBO brilliantly built the audience for "Game Change" in recent weeks, and neither the cable channel nor the filmmakers asked any such favors in connection with a screener they sent me three weeks ahead of airdate. No requests or restrictions whatsoever.)
But the press should always defer to the wisdom of such ego-driven Hollywood producers as Weiner -- because that's what makes for a great and free press in a democracy.
CORRECTION: The original version was changed to show the correct writing and directing credits for the season opener.
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