'Mad Men': Inside Summer TV's No. 1 Hidden Gem

Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss
Image credit: Carin Baer

It's easy to understand why Weiner is so protective of his show. He oversees every last detail, from writing or co-writing more than half of this season's 13 scripts to working closely with a team of researchers who ensure period accuracy on all fronts. (Producers have stacks of Sears catalogs and Better Homes and Gardens issues from 1955 to 1962 to call on for inspiration.) When he walks a reporter through the various Mad Men sets, Weiner proudly points out the Drapers' new living-room collection, which combines colonial revival and mid-century modern: ''Betty wanted a change,'' he notes. If his vision is exacting, it's probably because he's been living in the Mad Men universe for nearly 10 years now. Weiner started working on the pilot in 1999, when his day job as a staff writer on the Ted Danson sitcom Becker left him yearning for a more fulfilling gig. He had always been fascinated by America in the late '50s/early '60s, a period filled with optimism, prosperity, and brewing social change. Nothing seemed to encapsulate all of those themes better than the go-go world of 1960s Madison Avenue.

The pilot script caught the eye of Chase, who was so impressed he hired Weiner to join the Sopranos writing staff. In 2002, Chase himself submitted the pilot script to the network on Weiner's behalf. Yet HBO passed. As did Showtime. AMC, however, snatched up the project, putting up a $3 million-plus budget for the pilot (subsequent episodes cost $2 to 2.5 million). For his part, Weiner claims he has no bad blood with HBO, and he insists he doesn't feel ''restricted in any way'' by being on basic versus pay cable. ''I can't swear and I can't show nudity. But I don't think anyone watches the show and goes, 'Why aren't they swearing?''' he says. ''The sex is done in a way that tells the story. It's not fake. We get to tell stories about adults. And that's been amazing.''

Everyone, it seems, shares Weiner's enthusiasm for the job, which makes the Mad Men set a remarkably cheery place. A recent visit saw the cast's resident imp, Kartheiser, flinging off a wingtip and leaping clownishly around the room before heading to the lunch tent. And Robert Morse, the 77-year-old Emmy winner who plays Sterling Cooper's eccentric, Ayn Rand-obsessed patriarch, Bertram Cooper, was spotted happily hanging out on set — on his day off. When the 16-hour workday stretches past midnight — as often happens — no one complains. Moss, who spent much of the first season swathed in increasingly bulky pregnancy padding and prosthetics, has even learned to embrace the constricting girdles of Peggy's wardrobe. ''When they brought that thing to me this year, I was like, 'Put it on! Make it as tight as you can make it! Cinch it up!''' she says with a laugh. By now, the cast has also developed a healthy sense of humor when it comes to the offensive — and period-accurate — dialogue they regularly have to endure (as when Aaron Staton's Ken Cosgrove called a heavier Peggy ''a piece of fruit that went real bad real fast and no one ever got to eat it''). ''We know it's a good script when we do our table read and the heads lower, like, five times,'' says Moss. ''I definitely cringe at the sexist things the guys say. The guys cringe too.''

NEXT PAGE: ''Ideally, what you want on these shows is five years.''