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'Mad Men' turns period drama into an exclamation point

The AMC series about an ad firm in the 1950s started off slowly. But win a few awards and high-profile fans and just see how the swells buy in.

June 03, 2009|Lisa Rosen

After the first season of "Mad Men," AMC's startling, provocative series about admen in 1960s New York, the cast was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding drama ensemble. Matthew Weiner, the show's creator and executive producer, walked the red carpet with stars January Jones, Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss, but nobody noticed them. As Weiner recalls, "I was thinking, 'I wish people would take their picture; they're so good, they're so beautiful.' "

What a difference a year makes. The cast was duly besieged on the red carpet this January, and not only because it won the SAG Award for its second season. Weiner and his cast and crew have watched in amazement as the show has taken hold in the popular imagination. In the last year, hit shows have parodied them. Political columnists have made mention of them. Stories on design began replacing the term "midcentury modern" with " 'Mad Men'-era." Clothing designer Michael Kors called the series an inspiration, and a recent New York Times fashion story linked the resurgent appeal of vintage watches to the show.

"We're all a little dumbfounded. I don't think you quite prepare yourself to know how to respond to being part of the culture," says Vincent Kartheiser, who plays weaselly accounts man Pete Campbell. The attention is even more impressive considering the show's modest ratings: Last year it averaged 1.5 million viewers.

Weiner realized something big was happening in the middle of the second season. "I overheard people talking about an episode in a Starbucks, and I couldn't believe it." For Jon Hamm, who stars as Don Draper, winning the distinguished Peabody Award was a turning point. "That's one of those awards you think you'll only hear about," he says. The show shut down production to fly everyone out to New York for the ceremony.

Elisabeth Moss, who plays secretary turned adwoman Peggy Olson, was stunned when the show won the Golden Globe for best drama last year and Hamm won for best actor. "Every single time we go to an awards show, if we win anything, we're shocked and ecstatic," Moss says, "but because this was the first time, I think it was a real moment of realizing that people were watching the show, and that was a big deal to us." Many more accolades followed, including the first Emmy win for outstanding drama for a basic cable series.

The high profile of some of their fans has been overwhelming as well. "It's the most bizarre sensation to read some article and hear that Paul McCartney loves 'Mad Men.' Or Jerry Seinfeld loves it," says Hendricks, who plays secretary Joan Holloway, for whom the word "bombshell" could have been created.

Hamm's biggest shock was being told by Sean Penn and Meryl Streep that they were fans. Weiner has heard from some of his writing heroes, like Larry Gelbart and Norman Lear. Frank Pierson ("Dog Day Afternoon") approached him, offering his services. "He's now in the writers' room," Weiner says. "Arguably one of the greatest living writers. It means you're doing something right."

So do the parodies. "The Simpsons," in its famous Halloween episode, featured a homage to "Mad Men's" opening credits. Homer's silhouette falls out of a high rise in slow motion in the segment "How to Get Ahead in Dead-vertising."

Last October, Hamm was asked to host "Saturday Night Live," to his great surprise. In his opening monologue, he described "Mad Men," embellishing the plot a little to include the cast of "CSI" and a dance competition to draw in more viewers.

In a sketch showing the admen at work, Hamm was joined by "Mad Men" costar John Slattery (Roger Sterling) and Moss. (Moss was filling in at the last minute for Amy Poehler, who had gone into labor that day.) "I didn't know they were going to make fun of the show as much as they did," Weiner says. "I loved every minute of it."

The in-joke homages haven't stopped. On a recent "30 Rock," Kenneth the page goes into anaphylactic shock; right before he passes out, he whispers, "My real name is Dick Whitman," a reference to Don Draper's true identity.

Hamm appeared on "30 Rock" earlier in the season, in a role completely unlike Don, except for the part about his devastating good looks. He's the show's first breakout star, but others have seen changes in their careers as well. As Hendricks notes, "I've been able to sit in rooms of people I've respected my entire life, and they know exactly who I am and talk about working with me. It's every actress' dream."

For Weiner, who worked for years on the show and couldn't even get his agent to read the pilot, the public visibility is especially sweet. "When you do something like this, and you're paying attention to all the details, to find out that people are paying attention, that the audience is intimately involved in the show, that's a comfort," he says. "It makes you realize you're not screaming out into the darkness."

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