It isn't often that a winner of umpteen Emmys asks me for a favor.
So when Mad Men executive producer Matthew Weiner comes close to begging that this story avoid revealing certain details about tonight's two-hour return of the show, I'm willing to play along.
After all, with 17 months having passed since the last season, anticipation is high and fans are ready to settle back into the show's patented mix of retro cool and uneasy cultural criticism.
The problem is that Weiner, a charming, sharply intelligent guy with passionate zeal for controlling many things connected to his show, wants almost everything held back.
What about the character who we see least in the first episode? "I don't want people to know that," he said. "I want them to be waiting to see (that person)."
Okaaay. What's the significance of the gathering that starts the show? "I really don't want to talk about that in the article," Weiner said, firmly. "They're going to be shocked."
Can we at least say whether Jon Hamm's star character, Don Draper, actually marries the secretary he proposed to at the end of Season 4?
"I don't want people to know, because there is a lot of pleasure, in the first half-hour especially, in finding out where we're landing," Weiner said, admitting he was asking a lot, considering that AMC provided critics with copies of the two-hour premiere weeks ago.
"That is a big piece of entertainment: the surprise," he added. "I want their pulses to be racing when the theme music comes on and then be put in a world where they're completely (on edge) . . . The experience of not knowing is part of the theme of the season."
What is obvious, after watching the two-hour episode, is that Weiner has captured that sense of off-kilter familiarity that makes Mad Men so special. Remember, this is a show with an opening sequence showing a man falling down a building.
We think we can welcome these characters back like old friends to start a fifth season, until he shows us how little we really know about them, even now.
I can say that time passes for our characters between last season's end and this year's beginning, finding the intrepid folks at '60s-era ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in new and changing times.
Vincent Kartheiser's Pete Campbell remains ambitious as ever, John Slattery's Roger Sterling still plays the insecure, entitled son of privilege and Elisabeth Moss' Peggy Olson stays a bit befuddled by the new life she's living.
One subject Weiner will discuss: the feeling that the better Draper's personal life becomes, the worse his work life turns out.
"The insecurity of the business, to me, is part of why he proposed to that woman to begin with," said Weiner, acknowledging that a great life outside of work can seem like Kryptonite to the show's super-talented adman. "(He thinks), 'My business life is a mess, I've got to nail down my personal life.' I think we're all like that."
Weiner's conclusion: "I would not say, by any means, that the theme of the show will ever be happiness. And you can say that without spoiling anything."
Protective as he is, Weiner is a man who has fought hard to tell his show's story the way he thinks it should be told.
The story of his tough negotiations with AMC last year for the next three seasons of Mad Men are the stuff of legend. They wanted shorter running times for the episodes — to stick in more commercials — fewer cast members and more product placement opportunities.
As Weiner told the New York Times, the executive producer had decided he would quit the show before a compromise was worked out. The only change he couldn't swing: persuading AMC to abandon plans for shifting the show's debut to early 2012, a decision they made outside his negotiations.
"I went back to work in May and could have had the show on in October, but it's always been AMC's plan to have the show in spring 2012," he said. "They had four shows last year, they do one show a quarter and that's the way it worked out. I wasn't happy about it, but the product was this two-hour premiere."
• • •
Mad Men may just be the least watched, most influential show on television — at least, judging by Nielsen's ratings figures.
According to Nielsen, the show drew an average 2.2 million viewers in 2010, about one-third the viewers of AMC's hit The Walking Dead and a fraction of the 14 million who line up each week for network TV's biggest hits, NCIS and The Big Bang Theory.
Yet, Mad Men's return is hailed on the covers of magazines from TV Guide to Esquire. Weiner and the cast appeared on the Today show Monday morning, and spinoff books connected to the series include Mad Men on the Couch, a psychoanalyst's take on all the characters.
Skinny ties and Rat Pack-style fedoras have been the rage for years now, while everything from Adele's swinging '60s chanteuse image to old-school furniture designs have seemed rooted in Mad Men's pop culture afterglow.
The series even inspired at least two network TV shows set in the '60s this season, NBC's ill-fated The Playboy Club and ABC's probably canceled but not officially gone Pan Am.
Let's see Jethro Gibbs have that kind of cultural impact.
Ask Weiner and his answer is simple: The show's true viewership isn't measured accurately, sometimes on purpose.
Mad Men episodes are often at the top of Apple's iTunes store, and when you add viewers who watch episodes on DVR up to seven days after the air date, Mad Men's audience jumps by 80 percent, Weiner said.
Some places where you can see episodes, such as Netflix and some on-demand services, don't report their viewership, perhaps because suit-clad executives still are trying to figure out what everyone should get paid. (Reportedly, the companies producing Mad Men could make up to $200 million from deals with iTunes and Netflix.)
"It's in the Top 10 in 44 countries around the world; I saw it on the air in Zanzibar," Weiner said. "Even when we had a 1 million person audience we had the sweet spot of the advertising market. I always like being the underdog, but it's preposterous to suggest that there are only 3 million people watching this show."
The key now is to re-engage those 3 million-plus fans after they've had nearly a year and a half to find new uses for their time at 9 p.m. Sundays.
And because I'm a fanboy at heart, I couldn't help reading Weiner a little passage about Draper from Mad Men on the Couch to see what he thinks.
The analysis says Draper's legendary arrogance is a cover for deep self-doubt. "The smooth veneer (Draper) has created represents an effort to remake a self that feels damaged and broken into one that others view as sturdy and impressive." Sound right?
"Who isn't like that?" Weiner said, bursting into laughter. "I'm in show business. I have not met anyone who isn't compensating for something."
But do you think that way while writing Don's journey?
"I would say what Don would say: 'You're the doctor.' "
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog, the Feed, at www.tampabay.com/blogs/media.