"Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner is on the phone from Los Angeles, but he may as well be sitting on a couch three feet away. He is a voluble, passionate interview subject whose words tend to paint a Technicolor portrait of the person doing the talking as much as the show being talked about.
His four-time best drama Emmy winner, which returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC, has been off the air for 17 months, or pretty much the closest a TV show can get to cancellation without actually being canceled. (The usual hiatus for a network hit, like "The Good Wife," is about four months.)
So there is catching up to do, small scores to be settled, and some explaining to be done. As much as any series on the air, "Mad Men" is a mirror held up to its creator, who is unabashed and unapologetic in its defense. This show has many fans. Weiner just happens to be the biggest.
"I was worried, yeah," he says of the long hiatus. "This was a decision made without me, and at levels beyond me. I was really upset that it wasn't going to be on the air in 2011 and didn't understand why."
Weiner then offers a detailed assessment of that "why." He says AMC kept "Mad Men" off the air all this time because it didn't want to launch too many shows last year ("The Killing" and "Hell on Wheels" also arrived) and not because of the protracted negotiation over salaries (including his) and show budget. He even insists the network misled the press about those reasons, leaving some to assume he was to blame for the "Mad Men"-less void.
But "we're all friends now," he adds. (In recent interviews, AMC chief Charlie Collier blamed scheduling for the delay.)
Details and backstory
This all might come under the heading, "Too Much Information (and Backstory)" -- and those negotiations did make Weiner one of the best-paid show-runners in television. But details and backstory do matter to Weiner. They are his obsession and clearly one reason "Mad Men" is among the most celebrated shows in modern TV history. This is a show that bleeds detail and backstory.
Weiner excised a song a few days before the two-hour ready-for-air premiere when someone pointed out that the song actually came out six months after the period of time in which Sunday's episode is set. And to preserve the suspense for viewers, he also sent critics a specific laundry list of plot points that they were asked not to mention -- a list sufficiently long enough to keep them from mentioning anything other than airtime and episode title.
Although Weiner did let on a bit about what to expect: "We come back after some period of time and definitely things have changed drastically -- or have they?" he says. "We know these characters -- we know everything about them and more than they know about themselves. What is the next stage of their life and what is this feeling of living in a time of change?"
John Slattery, who plays the suave, witty, gimlet-eyed and deeply insecure Roger Sterling, expanded on that theme. "I wouldn't say it's a reboot but kind of a circling back and reinvestigating these characters, based on where they've come from," he told Newsday. "There is a simple quality to this season that kind of hearkens back to the first season. . . . Plus, you are at a certain part in American history with this change all around and there are some who welcome that change and some who don't, and what does that say about their identities?"
But there are ways to talk about the new season without actually talking about the new season, and one of those is by talking about Weiner, 46. This father of four comes from a family of extremely high achievers -- his mother is a lawyer while an entire wing of the University of Southern California's medical school is named after his father.
In his 20s, he decided to become a TV writer, and ended up on "Becker." Not a bad show. Not a dream show either.
In a story now part of industry legend, he dictated "Mad Men" to an assistant at night -- he writes by actually talking the individual characters' parts out in a form of high-blown creative dictation -- then shopped it to HBO after joining "The Sopranos" as a producer and writer. HBO ignored him and his script, and for years so did everyone else, until AMC stepped up.
Weiner has said in numerous interviews that his show is a refraction of himself. Don Draper, for example, "has a big ego and is constantly seeking attention but doesn't want any attention," he said in a taped interview with the TV academy a few years ago. "He has a lot of destructive habits. He's less of a person than he'd like to be . . . he has deep empathy that allows him to do his job well [but] a sociopathological way of assuming the world is the way he wants it to be. . . . He's someone like me, who was 35 years old and miserable."
Of "Mad Men," he says, "so much of this show is made up of people getting what they want and as it always is in life, once they get it, ooohhhh . . . "
In other words, be careful what you wish for, Don -- you just might get it. And 17 months later, we're all about to find out if he does. Matthew Weiner will make certain of that.
Catching up with the 'Mad Men' characters
What were the men and women of "Mad Men" up to when last we visited? A refresher course:
DON DRAPER (Jon Hamm) -- Has proposed marriage to his secretary, Megan Calvet (Jessica Paré), ending a very bad and somewhat debauched year, after losing his beloved confidante Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), widow of the "real" Don Draper, to cancer. Meanwhile, his startup agency -- Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce -- had lost the Lucky Strikes account, and he declared that there would be no more tobacco advertising.
BETTY DRAPER (January Jones) -- Divorced from Don, now married to politico Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley). They're moving to Rye -- but Rye may not know what it's in for. This marriage is already troubled.
PEGGY OLSON (Elisabeth Moss) -- Has plunged into creative work at SCDP and into a new relationship with Abe Drexler (Charlie Hofheimer), the countercultural reporter who's opening wild new vistas to Peggy.
JOAN HARRIS, NEE HOLLOWAY (Christina Hendricks) -- She's office manager at the new agency where she briefly rekindles a fling with Roger Sterling. Tells her doctor husband -- who's Vietnam-bound -- that the baby is his.
ROGER STERLING (John Slattery) -- Had that night of passion with Joan, but doesn't know she didn't terminate the pregnancy.
PETE CAMPBELL (Vincent Kartheiser) -- Has joined SCDP as head of account services -- and without fussy martinet Pete, would SCDP even have any accounts? He wonders the same thing.
LANE PRYCE (Jared Harris) -- The British head of office finance, he had a fling with an African-American Playboy bunny; his father comes to the States and beats him with a cane, but he's back at SCDP.
KEN COSGROVE (Aaron Stanton) -- Account exec who learns that the bread-and-butter account, Lucky Strikes, is gone.
HARRY CRANE (Rich Sommer) -- Yup, he's at SCDP, too, and head of media.