“Mad Men”: The gang’s almost all here?

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You won’t hear me raising any objections to the accepted wisdom that Matthew Weiner is one principled artist. In fact, I suspect the world may not know the true extent of it.

EW: Identifying the tough questions, then bravely refusing to ask them.
  • EW: Identifying the tough questions, then bravely refusing to ask them.

Here’s an example. An actress I know had a recurring, nonspeaking role as a secretary on Mad Men back in the Sterling Cooper days.  She once told me a story about the preparation process for a specific episode in which some children were to be seen playing with a toy of the era. While the episode was being prepped for filming, the show’s research team discovered that the toy in question hadn’t been marketed until a few months after the time frame in which the story was to take place. Weiner ordered that the toy be stricken as a prop; accuracy in all details meant that much to him.

Now that’s being responsible to your art. I can’t imagine somebody changing an episode of Pan Am over a quibble about the Etch-a-Sketch. Heck, I’m pretty sure I once saw somebody use an iPad on that show. (That’s why I was so amused when the rumor went out that the Season One finale of Pan Am would depict JFK recovering from his shooting in Dallas, thus shuttling the series into a fanciful alternate universe. As if Christina Ricci’s anorexia and lip injections hadn’t done that already.)

So yeah, I’m totally down with the public portrait of Weiner as Mr. Integrity. But every hagiography has its limits, which I realized anew as I read this week’s EW cover story about the impending, triumphant return of Mad Men after a notoriously fractious hiatus. Here’s how the magazine recounts the crippling strictures Weiner was trying to fend off as he negotiated to bring the show back for a fifth year:

During the negotiations Weiner, whose deal had expired, learned that AMC wanted to slice two minutes off each episode to add commercials and hold the show’s fifth season until 2012, while Lionsgate (the show’s studio) wanted to lop $2 million from the budget, suggesting cast cuts. He balked at all three ideas, viewing them as harmful to the show.

Three paragraphs later, we read:

In the end, the series was renewed for three more seasons, through a seventh and final year, while Weiner signed a three-season, $30 million dollar deal, which would allow him to make the usual 47-minute version of the show within an acceptable budget for Lionsgate.

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Notice an unresolved issue in there? You sure do if you’re a working actor or have ever attempted to be one: What happened to those cast cuts? Saying that Weiner agreed on a budget that was “acceptable” to the studio sounds like a nice way of acknowledging that he caved on one of those three ideas he had found so “harmful.” (The delay of the fifth season to 2012 is portrayed in the article as an unavoidable consequence of his prolonged, ideal-driven battle with AMC.) And since the fulcrum of the budget dispute was the proposal that Weiner eliminate a few “lesser” characters to save money -- a proposal to which he supposedly objected quite strenuously, not only for the sake of the show’s artistic quality but out of respect for his stable of performers -- neglecting to reveal the specific resolution of that impasse is a pretty glaring oversight. The idea that even Weiner would capitulate to sacrificing a few actors to make a deal just doesn’t fit with the narrative the magazine (and, by extension, the entertainment industry) is trying to tell about him as Mad Men returns for another season of cultural dominance. That narrative is amply furthered by the glowing tributes to Weiner EW has secured from actors like Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks -- none of whom were reasonably expected to find their own jobs on the chopping block.

EW has a history of this sort of thing. In the early days of 30 Rock, they noted what a stand-up gal Tina Fey had been in securing a part for her pal Rachel Dratch in every episode that was to be shot. Instead, it took less than a year for Dratch to become even less important to the program than Tracy Jordan’s bail bondsman or Alec Baldwin’s frequent-flyer miles. But the magazine never followed up on that seeming betrayal, which would have put a damper on Fey’s coronation as America’s new comedy “it” girl. And neither did anybody else that I know of.

Following The Case of the Disappearing Dratch required some skills at cross-referencing and an attention span of slightly less than a year. To spot the curious gaps in the epic tale of Weiner the Virtuous, all that’s required is to possess two non-facing pages of a single magazine. On the morning of March 26, when the whole world is blogging about the no-doubt-brilliant season premiere of Mad Men, it’ll be interesting to see if anybody has bothered to tally up the cast credits and note if Weiner’s world  has indeed gotten smaller. It would be more remarkable if some reporter actually had the stones to call him on it. But a media narrative is a hard thing to shake once it’s gotten going, especially if it happens to be substantially true. And our cultural memory is getting shorter all the time. Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure if I ever even owned an Etch-a-Sketch.

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