LOS ANGELES - The second-story patio overlooking the pool at the Langham Hotel has a strict no-smoking policy, but it was recently lifted for a party featuring the cast of "Mad Men," many of whom smoke as much off-camera as they do on the show. No hotel employee was going to keep them from lighting up.

Viewers may not be as obliging Sunday when the four-time Emmy-winning drama returns after a 17-month hiatus with numerous questions hanging in the air. Will Don Draper find happiness in his new marriage? Did Joan keep her baby? Will Peggy finally get some R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

Most important: Does anyone still care?

Based solely on the excitement at this cocktail party, the answer was an emphatic yes.

Jon Hamm, who plays Draper, was in such demand that a flock of reporters had him pinned against the balcony rail.

But rabid TV lovers with a couple of glasses of wine in them don't necessarily reflect the general audience, many of whom have switched their allegiance to the determined zombies of "The Walking Dead" and the even more determined staff at "Downton Abbey."

"It is presumptuous to wait more than a year and expect your audience to come back," said actor John Slattery,

who has earned four Emmy nominations for his role as glib advertising executive Roger Sterling.

"My nose was out of joint when 'The Sopranos' was off for more than a year. I was like, 'Who in the hell do they think they are?'"

You can send your complaints to AMC, which chose to stall production to give more immediate exposure to "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead." The strategy worked; both dramas have built larger audiences than "Mad Men" ever had. But at what cost?

"Men" may have won the Emmy for best drama four years running, but it's too peculiar to be a mainstream hit and for its small but affluent fan base, absence may not have made the heart grow fonder.

"I always feel like we're the underdog," said creator Matthew Weiner. "I don't have guns or traditional tension. At the beginning, people said, 'What the hell is that?' Well, now they know what it is. It can never be new again.

"But I think it helps that the same person has stayed with the show. I'm terrified about repeating myself. It's just as tough as ever."

One advantage Weiner and his writing staff have is that we have gotten to know these characters -- or at least as much as you can know in a show that's largely about people putting up walls.

Minnesota native Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the ambitious Pete Campbell, said this fifth season builds on our history with these people, leading to eye-opening discoveries.

"Matthew has continued to find relatable stories without jumping the shark," he said. "You don't want to reach too far into the bag of tricks. He's found things that could and should happen organically, but still be unexpected."

Keeping secrets

So what exactly do we learn in the two-hour premiere?

The action appears to pick up just a few months after Draper popped the question to his much younger, much hipper secretary, Megan. The freewheeling, free-loving element of the '60s is slowly creeping into our hero's button-down life, particularly during a surprise birthday party at which Megan serenades him with a frisky French number.

And then there's Don's protégée Peggy, who is dating ... well, um, we're under strict orders to stop there. Actually, it's more like a firm request.

Weiner, who inherited a no-spoilers policy from his old "Sopranos" boss, David Chase, sent a letter to critics, begging them not to reveal what happens in Sunday's premiere.

"My goal every season is first and foremost to entertain the audience and I know that this is best accomplished when key story lines are not revealed in advance," he wrote. "I am asking you to please join with me to ensure this enjoyment."

Fair enough -- assuming people still crave answers. Few shows can sustain the fervor of fans very long, which is why "Lost" got such acclaim for wrapping up the series after six seasons. Weiner has been adamant about closing shop after Season Seven. Even that may be pushing it.

"This has reached certain heights that few shows have ever reached and it's inevitable that people will go, 'Well, it's not what it used to be,'" Slattery said. "But I think that just means that everyone has worked harder. I think this will be the best season yet."