Unfortunately for Matthew Weiner, he was born about 35 years too late, and as it happened, his break as a TV writer came in sitcoms, not high-end dramas.But Weiner was nevertheless determined to pursue his vision for a series that would capture all of his fascination with American culture in the finger-snapping era of Camelot and the Cuban Missile Crisis, of skinny ties and steel-tipped bras, of the Rat Pack and Sputnik.
By day, Weiner was working on the CBS sitcom “Becker.” By night, with the added motivation of the approach of 35th birthday, he poured himself into penning the pilot of his period-dreams. That was seven years ago. On Thursday, after many a twist and turn his Weiner’s life and that of his pilot script, his baby is set to make a splashy entrance on the heels of effusive reviews and a big marketing push from AMC. The film-centric basic cabler picked Weiner’s “Mad Men,” from Lionsgate TV, last year as the show to lead the channel into the scripted series realm.
“No network quite got this show until AMC,” Weiner says, and that’s in keeping with the spirit of the show. “This show is all about misconceptions, and our contemporary culture’s misunderstanding of this period in American history and how it influenced who we are today,” Weiner says.
CONTINUE READING TO WATCH A VIDEO CLIP OF "MAD MEN" CREATOR MATTHEW WEINER DISCUSSING THE PERIOD SETTING OF THE SHOW.
Set in 1960, “Mad Men” revolves around the denizens of a top Madison Avenue advertising agency. The show is primarily seen through the eyes of the ultimate agency-biz player – creative advertising whiz Don Draper – and a wide-eyed new recruit in the secretarial pool, Peggy, a good girl from Brooklyn with cute bangs and shapely ankles. She’s a naïf but smart enough to realize how much she doesn’t know after her first day on the job on Draper’s desk at Sterling Cooper. Supporting characters range from Joan, the man-hungry leader of the femme pack at the agency to the various sycophants and status- seekers that hover around Draper, played with notable depth by Jon Hamm (pictured left), and his narrow-minded, bigoted boss, Roger Sterling, portrayed with unctuous charm by John Slattery (pictured right).
Weiner turned the concepts and characters around in his head for years before he ordered himself to write it. Back then he was known only as a comedy writer, having worked on a string of sitcoms. His agency reps sent the script around to the usual network and cable suspects but there were no bites.
“People only thought of me as a comedy writer and I kept hearing that it wasn’t funny enough,” Weiner laughs. “Mad Men” became his writing sample for jobs, though he never stopped showing it around town, particularly to other writer friends.
Weiner was working on Fox’s “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” about five years ago when his agent finally got “Mad Men” into the hands of “Sopranos” boss David Chase. He was hired on the HBO mob drama a week later. And Weiner never forgot the instruction he received early on from Chase, who’s notoriously demanding of his staff writers.
“He said even if I fire you, you should keep trying to sell that script,” which struck Weiner as good advice from a man who endured his own long struggle to get “Sopranos” on the air.
Weiner’s reps were quick to send the script to AMC when the word got around that the channel was looking to branch out into series. To his delight, AMC embraced it without hesitation. Other than a few new pages of plot- and character-clarifying dialogue, the “Mad Men” pilot shot last year was essentially the script Weiner wrote seven years ago.
“We were attracted to the passion Matt showed for this script – we were looking for passionate creators who have a clear vision of their work,” says Rob Sorcher, AMC’s exec veep, programming and production. “He brings such attention to detail. It’s a period show but it has a very contemporary feel. It’s not a nostalgia play; it’s a look at the alchemy of how all this happened.” (Sorcher also had a natural affinity of the world of “Mad Men,” having started his career in advertising.)
“Mad Men” has drawn early praise from TV crix, (including Variety’s Brian Lowry – click here for his take) for its meticulous attention to the detail of the period. The show subtly telegraphs the changes, large and small, that have come to pass during the past five decades, from consumer products to cultural attitudes and mores.In one scene, young kids bounce around the front and back seat of a moving car. In another, a preschool age girl pops up with a dry-cleaning bag over her head, and all she gets is a scolding about messing up the pressed-and-starched apparel that had been covered in the lethal plastic sheeting. And the costumers on “Mad Men” have surely cornered the market on crinolines, chiffon and taffeta, which flow freely in virtually every scene.
Weiner has been inventive in weaving in bits of history and Americana into the plot that give the pilot extra resonance, such as a re-imagining of how the “It’s toasted” slogan was developed for Lucky Strike cigarettes.
On a weightier plane, “Mad Men” reflects the institutional discrimination that all but the most strait-laced WASPs faced in every aspect of public life, particularly in business. There’s no social pressure to hide condescending “us” versus “them” attitudes; anti-Semitism in particularly is expressed as a corporate pride and self-preservation, though the almighty dollar is still the all-American leveler, as Draper and his bosses are willing to paste on a smile and solicit a lucrative department store account from a wealthy Jewish business owner – a women no less.
But where “Mad Men” really comes alive is in its examination of gender roles, and the dynamics of how men and women interacted in the years just before Betty Friedan sallied forth with “The Feminine Mystique.” In Weiner’s view, the pressure to live up to the stereotypes of the strong male warrior-provider and the needy, compliant, home-making wife were just as limiting and confining to both sides.
“The men on this show in one way or another are all asking themselves, ‘Is that all there is?’ and the women are asking ‘What’s wrong with me?,’” Weiner says.
Throwing men and women together in pressure situations in the workplace only complicated things, as Peggy learns the hard way, and quick. “Mad Men” has a lot to say about all of this but based on the first three episodes, it’s clear that Weiner plans to take his time, and show, not tell, through Draper and Peggy’s external actions and inner conflicts.
Weiner has long been fascinated by literature, art, film and music of the New Frontier period. Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic “The Apartment” for sure casts an influential shadow over the tone of “Mad Men.” One of the things Weiner has labored to get across in the show is how the conventional wisdom of today about the pre-JFK assassination period is largely wrong in its rosy nostalgia. It wasn’t a simpler, carefree time of big cars and bouffants and boundless optimism about the future. It was a time of sexual repression, made all the more frustrating by the advent of easily-accessible birth control options, and geopolitical jitters about the nuclear race, the spread of Communism, the domestic divide on civil rights.
The pilot of “Mad Men” was shot in between his three-month hiatus last year on the bifurcated final season of “Sopranos.” Much of the below-the-line work on the pilot was done in by “Sopranos” crew members, only too happy to be occupied during their break. Weiner has recruited a number of “Sopranos” alumni for ongoing creative roles in “Mad Men,” including helmer Alan Taylor, cinematographer Phil Abraham and producer Scott Hornbacher. Weiner calls Hornbacher a “magician” for allowing them to pull off the necessary period look of the show each week, even with a per-seg production budget that is generous basic cable standards.
Of course, none of it would fly without a strong cast. Hamm in particular carries the weight of the show on his broad, sturdy shoulders. He is the rare leading man who can deliver a joke well in one scene and unstated emotional turmoil in the next. Elizabeth Moss (pictured right with Hamm and co-star Vincent Kartheiser) was the first of about 30 actresses who read for the role of Peggy.
“I wanted relative unknowns because I knew that for the audience, not knowing these actors would make them believe they were the characters. I also needed actors who could give me naturalistic performances with dialogue that encompassed some rather elaborate dialogue,” Weiner said. He can’t say enough about his leading man, Hamm.
“He has such a depth to him,” Weiner enthuses. “There are very few people in the world who can do the things this (character) does and not have you hate him. That’s the quality that most defines his character.”