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Days of Wine and Roses: Televisionary Talks to Rich Sommer of AMC's "Mad Men"

There won't be any Lost-style jumping through time for the cast of AMC's Mad Men, which returns next month.

I caught up last week with Mad Men's Rich Sommer--who plays the bow-tied Harry Crane, the head of television at Sterling Cooper--the day after the Emmy nominations were announced to try and ferret out some information about Season Three of Mad Men and what circumstances we'll find Sommer's Harry Crane under when the series returns with new episodes on August 16th on AMC.

While Sommer was slyly tight-lipped about revealing any concrete information about the season (or whether it takes place before or after the JFK assassination), he did promise that the first episode of Season Three "pretty much kicks down the door right away" and assumes that viewers have been with the series since the very beginning. (In other words, make sure you refresh your Mad Men knowledge by picking up the second season on DVD straightaway!)

Televisionary: Congratulations on Mad Men snagging sixteen Emmy nominations yesterday!

Rich Sommer: Thank you. Very, very exciting day.

Televisionary: Were you surprised at all by the outpouring of Emmy love for the show?

Sommer: Well, last year we got sixteen [nominations] as well and I thought we'd get some love because I think that the people who work on the show are incredible but I did not expect to meet what we did last year. I thought that people would be kind of... I dunno, I just thought that some of the shine would have come off of it but I'm happy to know that people feel about the show the way we do.

Televisionary: What's amazing is that, over the past two seasons, Mad Men has become an absolutely important part of the TV landscape. Did you have any idea when you first joined the show that three seasons later it would be quite as iconic as it is today?

Sommer: Not in the least. I mean, people after the first season would ask me did you know it was going to be this good or this interesting or different and I always said "yes" to that. Absolutely. I knew it was something very unique from the beginning. At this point did I know that it would be as impactful as it's been or as, sort of, well-received as it's been? Absolutely not. I never anticipated the level of success we seem to have gotten.

Televisionary: So, Season Three kicks off next month and everybody's very anxiously awaiting the start of the new season. I'm wondering if you can give us any hint as to when exactly it takes place. Can you tell us if it's set before or after JFK's assassination?

Sommer: I can't tell you any of that. It is certainly in the future from where the last episode was. I can tell you that we don't go back in time. Um, but I can't really nail down any specifics.

Televisionary: I think you saw the first episode of Season Three already?

Sommer: I have. I just saw it this week.

Televisionary: Can you tell us anything about what Season Three is about thematically?

Sommer: It's my understanding the way Matt [Weiner] has put it, it's about change. It's about people changing... It's so hard. (Laughs) I feel bad because there's so little not only that I'm allowed to say but I also am always so nervous about blowing people's enjoyment of the show. As an avid TV viewer, I know how much I like to be surprised and so it's hard for me to like to give anything away at all.

I mean, thematically it's about change. And I can say too that this first episode of the third season is different from the first episode of the second season where, personally--and maybe Matt or the other writers would disagree with me--but I felt that the first episode of the second season was sort of a breath of relief that we were back because we had no idea if we'd be back at the end of that first season... I don't know if you remember how it opened but it opened with "Let's Twist Again Like We Did Last Summer" and sort of like a happy dance.

And this season does not waste any time on that. It pretty much kicks down the door right away. It assumes that you've been there for the entire story and requires that you've been there the whole time and it starts right out of the gate. It's really great.

Televisionary: Season Two saw Harry go through a lot of changes himself and had him standing up for himself and becoming the head of the TV Department at Sterling Cooper. What kind of situation do we find Harry in at the start of Season Three in terms of his emotional context?

Sommer: I think you get to see a guy who got what he asked for. I mean, he got what he wanted and kind of got what he asked for and any kind of connotation that could mean. The change that you see is big things but you just kind of see how a promotion like that, for a guy who was sort of on the same level with everyone else, can affect someone's mentality and not only that person's mentality but the mentality of the people around him in dealing with him.

Televisionary: When we last saw Harry, his wife Jennifer was going to have a baby and I'm wondering, as a father yourself, are we going to see this baby change the relationship between Harry and Jennifer? Should we be looking for any pained looks from Harry towards Hildy?

Sommer: (Laughs) I have to sort of plan my route of attack on any of these answers... Babies always impact a relationship. Certainly, I know that in my real life, it's changed ours for the better. We're kind of a team on this weird, human project which is awesome. And different people react to it in different ways. How it affects Harry and Jennifer is unique to Harry and Jennifer's situation. Sorry to be so vague! (Laughs)

Televisionary: It often seems that Don and Roger treat Harry as though he's somewhat beneath them. Do you think that Harry will ever be able to earn Don's respect?

Sommer: I hope so. I mean, I hope for Harry, speaking sort of from the point of between Seasons Two and Three, I hope he can. I mean, it only seems to make sense. He's a guy who is on the cusp of what is going to be one of the biggest media revolutions ever and somehow he got in on the ground floor and I'm positive he didn't even know he was doing it. Yeah, I think that if he doesn't completely screw it up there's got to be, at some point, some deference to that.

Televisionary: Matt Weiner is very particular about every period detail. Is it frustrating or liberating to work on a show that pays such strict attention to the small details?

Sommer: Oh, it's so liberating. It makes our jobs so much easier. Not only on the period detail, but on the detail in the writing--the way it's so carefully written--it makes our jobs so much easier. We truly have to learn the lines and say them out loud and that would be it.

Ronnie Pipes, who is one of our makeup artists, and I were talking last night--we had a little gathering to celebrate the Emmy nominations--and Ronnie was saying (this is a guy who was just nominated for another Emmy for the makeup on the show), it's not a show that's just about the look, it's not a show that's about the costumes, this is a writers' show. This is a show that's totally about the writing. And we could do this thing in black capes and sweatsuits that had no definition at all (laughs) and you would still get a story that we'd argue would be as compelling as any other on television.

You look at the Emmy nominations yesterday. Four out of the five nominations for drama series [writing] were for our show, which is ridiculous! It's crazy and it's wonderful and I think it's a testament to how well these people do their jobs.

Televisionary: Obviously you're working on a period show. Does it ever force you to step back and kind of make you see our own times in a different way?

Sommer: Sure. We used to talk about it during the first season. This show is less about how much things have changed and more about how much they haven't. It seems to me that the only real difference between how the characters behave and speak on our show and how people behave and speak now is they were slightly more brazen about how they did it, in general.

I mean, there are still people who are just as brazen but anything that these characters are saying people are still thinking now whether it has to do with gender or race or religion. Any of that stuff. I just think we've sort of put this veneer of "PC" over it but I don't actually think attitudes have changed that much. I mean that's a little bit of a dismal outlook, a little bit jaded but that's kind of what I've come to think from the show.

Televisionary: And is there any issue that stands out that you'd like to see the writers tackle?

Sommer: Oh,gosh, is there any issue that stands out? No, I feel like I don't think we're missing anything. I don't feel any stone is going unturned. And I love how--and any good television show should do this--any of these themes or issues are explored through the characters that we've already gotten to know. And, again, I know this is what TV is supposed to do but it is particularly exciting to be one of the sort of vessels through which things are explored. It's a very exciting process.

Televisionary: I've heard you're a huge fan of board games, so I'm wondering are there any new board games that you and the cast have been playing lately?

Sommer: No, actually a few of us have gotten more into video games this year. A couple of us picked up Xboxes and have been bringing them to the trailers and, whenever we have a free moment, we're kind of sitting in there playing video games. Which, in a way to me is sort of a step back. It's good and I am loving these video games, although, when I step back from what I do I kind of miss the old "Scoobyness" of a good, old-fashioned board game.

But this year, the one board game a couple of us have played that's brand new, it came out a few weeks ago, it's called Space Alert. It's a really nerdy, wonderful, stressful CD game that, as you play the game there's a a CD sort of with a robot voice telling you what to do. It sounds really, kind of like all those games that came out when we were in 5th grade but it's actually really, really intense. It's a great cooperative game.

Televisionary: Yet I love the idea of you in a bow tie playing Xbox.

Sommer: (Laughs) Someday when the show is over we will put out all the pictures we have of ourselves in costume doing very, very modern day things. Right now, obviously, we don't want to burst that bubble and it would be unfortunate to see Harry Crane with an Xbox controller in his hands, but someday it will be fun to let people in on what those trailers are like. It's a pretty fun place to work.

Televisonary: If the writers could have Harry do anything, no matter how crazy or out there, where would you like them to take the character?

Sommer: I kind of came up through comedy; that was where I started. I did a lot of improv when I was coming up through school and I've always sort of been tapped as a comedic guy. As much as I love Harry Crane and I don't wish harm on him, I am always interested to see how dark a character can get. Whatever it is, I don't know what the trigger would be, but I'd love to see Harry in the absolute depths of despair. That's something that would be interesting to get to play.

Televisionary: Well there was a rumor a few years back that he was supposed to be killed off in the first season.

Sommer: That is true. He was, as my understanding, supposed to commit suicide near the end of the first season. I am very grateful he didn't.

Televisionary: And a lot of fans are as well, I'm sure.

Sommer: (Laughs) I appreciate it!

Mad Men's third season begins Sunday, August 13th on AMC. Mad Men: Season Two is available on DVD for a suggested retail price of $49.98 but you can pick up a copy now in the Televisionary store for just $24.49.

Comments

Alexandra said…
Thanks for the great interview! Sommer's is absolutely right about this being a writers' show. The writing is brilliant and the fantastic cast really makes it come alive. I'm thrilled that the show received so many Emmy nominations and can't wait for season 3!
SamSee said…
Hurrah for Harry Crane! I like what Sommer said about Harry's position as head of TV and being at the forefront (even if unwittingly) of "one of the biggest media revolutions ever." It will be really interesting to see what happens to his character over the course of the next season.
V. Salt said…
Is it wise for a show that gets such terrible ratings to assume that everyone in the audience has been watching from Day One? "You must watch 20+ hours of television in order to understand what's going on in this one" is a terrible strategy for attracting new viewers.

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