Can ‘Mad Men’ sustain its retro cool?

Devotees ponder series' path while Weiner revels in maintaining edge

‘Mad Men” has been the focal point of so many articles, and so much gossip, that its season-five premiere screening at the Cinerama Dome last week seemed almost anticlimactic.

Over four seasons, “Mad Men’s” zealous followers have been caught up in near-death experiences involving not only the cast of characters but also the show itself. Industry insiders, in observing the negotiations to save the show, were prepared to award creator-producer Matthew Weiner an Emmy in brinksmanship to add to his collection of Emmys in more conventional categories.

So, after a 17-month hiatus, will viewers still have the stamina for seasons five through seven? Judging from the positive reaction of the audience at the Dome, the answer seems to be “yes.” But the journey may raise some intriguing questions about themes and plot points needed to sustain the show.

Several shows, like “The Sopranos” or “Downton Abbey,” have prompted extensive critical analysis, but the critiques of “Mad Men” could fill libraries. The response has astonished the various network executives who were totally non-receptive to Weiner’s initial presentation — who wants a TV show set in the 1960s that focuses on an advertising agency?

Weiner, a superbly gifted writer as well as a feisty negotiator, proved the skeptics wrong. But he himself remains surprised by the ongoing media storm.

The fifth season was supposed to start last summer until hostilities broke out between Weiner and his network and production partners, AMC and Lionsgate. AMC wanted two more minutes set aside for commercials while Lionsgate wanted cost reductions and a reduced cast. Weiner, who was represented by Brian Lourd of CAA, suspected AMC’s real motive was to donate “Mad Men’s” summer slot to another network show, “Breaking Bad,” and AMC didn’t help things by dropping hints to the press that the show was being held up by “non-cast negotiations.”

Weiner ultimately mobilized the show’s cultural clout to win his deal points, along with a reported $30 million payday for seasons five through seven. After all, how could a network defeat the man voted by Time magazine as one of its hundred “most influential” leaders and by the Atlantic as one of its 21 “brave thinkers”?

Plotting three more seasons, Weiner acknowledges, “scares me to death.” He adds: “I have rigid rules against anything that smacks of repetition.” The ’60s setting, he believes, continues to be key to the show’s success as its characters are thrown into the turmoil of transition. “The show is all about accommodating change,” he explains. “The characters do good things and terrible things, but our show is aggressively nonjudgmental. We accept them for who they are.”

Viewing the starting episodes of season five, some loyal fans nonetheless wonder what new guiding themes will emerge to sustain the show and what new sources of jeopardy will challenge the frazzled, and somewhat aimless, characters.

The protagonist, Don Draper, like the producer, Matt Weiner, have proved adept at surviving near-death experiences, and both seem to be enjoying every minute of it.

Will that be enough for three more seasons?

Battling over a wan don

Forty years after the release of “The Godfather,” the lawyers are battling over its legacy.

The ever-combative Bert Fields filed suit last week seeking ownership of the film on behalf of Mario Puzo’s heirs plus $10 million in damages. Paramount, which released “The Godfather,” promptly defended its ownership and filed a suit to stop publication of a novel titled “The Family Corleone,” a “Godfather” spinoff.

It was in 1969 that Puzo, then a struggling young novelist, sold a 60-page manuscript (part novel, part outline) to Paramount, pleading that he needed the option money to feed his family while he completed his book. Robert Evans and I liked both Puzo and his novel, and we made the deal.

The movie, of course, ultimately made Puzo a superstar and transformed Francis Coppola into a movie icon. “Godfather Part II” further enhanced the franchise, but a third film was a disappointment. That seemed to be the end of the adventure.

Nonetheless, following Puzo’s death in 1999, the studio authorized the author’s estate to come out with a novel titled “The Godfather Returns.” The estate later went on to create “The Godfather’s Revenge,” this time without studio authorization, and now is seeking a deal to publish a prequel. The studio insists “Godfather’s Revenge” was an embarrassment to all concerned.

While none of these books resulted in another movie, Puzo, just before his death, decided to pitch a prospective “Godfather IV” to Coppola, with whom he had remained friendly. The director, still skeptical about sequels, liked Puzo’s idea and decided to break his resolve never to take on another Godfather project.

“Puzo and I went together to the studio and said we wanted to do another ‘Godfather’ and told them the idea,” Coppola related to me. “It was a damn good idea but the studio gave us a quick ‘no.’ I don’t know whether it was an issue of cost or personality but they were unequivocal. I was surprised.”

Puzo died shortly thereafter. As far as he and Coppola were concerned, “Godfather” projects died as well.

They were wrong about that.

Now it’s up for the court to decide, and the decision will be strictly business.

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