Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Post Mortem on 'Mad Men' By A Person Who (Almost) Never Watched 'Mad Men' But Watched The Final Episode"

Why would we want to read that?

You’re probably right, Blue Italics Writing Person.  Although who knows?  Sometimes, a person with a remote perspective can provide illuminating observations that the passionate cognoscenti are “too close” to apprehend.  So what the heck?  You’ll either you’ll be illuminated if I provide some illuminating observations, or feel vindicated if I don’t.  So it’s “win-win” for you guys.

You’re welcome.

(And by the way, the preceding rationalization concerning the limitations of expertise?  That’s me in the proverbial nutshell.  If I restricted my agenda to areas of personal knowledgability, I would have long ago departed the blogatorial building.)

Okay, so here goes.

Beginning with a revelatory anecdote:

I first met Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner when he was on the writing staff and I was a one-day-a-week consultant and occasional scriptwriter for the half-hour comedy Becker, starring Ted Danson.

A couple of years later, I reconnected with Matthew on the picket line, during a Writers Guild strike.  In a process whose specifics I can no longer remember or were, in fact, never explained to me, Matthew Weiner and Becker had amicably, or perhaps less than amicably, gone their separate ways. 

The following is a story he told me about working on the show, as we were perambulating the periphery of Paramount Studios, holding sticks with cardboard placards stapled to them that I imagine said something about the strike. 

The Becker writing staff was in the throes of a marathon rewrite session.  Matthew Weiner had just pitched a joke and, according to Matthew at least, the writers’ room had exploded into prolonged and uncontrollable laughter. 

When the excitement died down, the show runner – and final arbiter of what gets into the script and what does not – revealed his pronouncement concerning Matthew’s recent joke pitch; to wit,

“It’s funny, but I have never heard it before.  So we are not putting it in.”

Knowing him even the little that I do, I can imagine Matthew Weiner experiencing two “take-aways” from this seminal experience; to wit, again,

One, “When I’m the show runner, I’ll decide what goes into the script.  And two, I happen to like it when you’ve never heard it before.”

You can see the connection with Mad Men­ – a show that is like nothing you have ever seen before on television.

Which made it the darling of many, including my daughter Anna, who, I am speculating here, may have liked it because it was a soap opera for people who think they are too savvy to succumb to soap operas, and it turns out nobody is. 

Providing it arrives in the appropriate packaging. 

Regular readers are aware of my general disinterest in the personal problems of fictional characters.  (SVU’s Elliot and Olivia, the possible exception.)  The closest I come to caring about TV characters… well, we are regular viewers of this British police drama called New Tricks, and over the past two seasons, of the four originally featured actors, three of them, to my utter sadness and chagrin, have been replaced.  But that’s actors I am emotionally invested in, not characters.  Which is different, don’t you think? 


I believe I have seen three of the ninety-two episodes of Mad Men, including the finale.  From that miniscule sampling, I could see it was smart.  I could see it was different.  I could see it was fanatical in its commitment to detail.  I could see it was about something (The changing times.)

I could also see it was, for me at least, relentlessly gloomy in its overall perspective.  Starting with its lead character, Don Draper, whom, we almost immediately discover, is not who he actually is.

Owing to its tonal dissonance for me, I was not a watcher of the show.  Though many I admire and respect are enthusiastic supporters.

The final episode tried to be upbeat, though it was possible they were trying to have it both ways, the show presenting the illusion that it was trying to be upbeat. 

Case In Point:  The episode’s final moments, showing the classic Coke commercial (as opposed to a commercial for “Classic Coke”) – 

“I’d like to teach the world to sing…”

I’m not sure that commercial wasn’t hilarious back then.

If they were actually going for “upbeat” it was not an organically comfortable fit, the final effort feeling like a guy who is expected to be happy when he doesn’t really know how.  The reaction to a surprise birthday party by a person less than comfortable with surprises.

In its uncharacteristic lurches towards cheeriness, the Mad Men finale was in the end, for me, fumblingly endearing.

Here’s another thing I gleaned from the final episode of Mad Men.

In the climactic moment, a guy in an Esalen-like “encounter group” is spilling his guts about how, all his life, he has never been noticed or appreciated.  The guy in not a regular on the series, just an actor playing a member of the therapy group, his purpose in the story, to serve as the catalyst for getting the show’s central character to finally let go. 

While I’m watching this – essentially what they call a “Day Player” (they are hired for the day to appear in the production) – holding center stage in a climactic moment of the episode and the series, it occurs to me – two things –


“I have never seen this before.”

Wait, three things.


I really like it.

And three – and I reveal this with some discomfort –

By having this entirely extraneous character take center stage in this climactic moment,

The writer was saying,

“In the final analysis, it is not the characters in this series that matter. 

“It’s the writing.”

The writing is the star of the show.

Which is not such a terrible thing.

Unless it draws excessive attention to itself.

When I went to acting school, our teacher would always remind us,

“Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”

On Mad Men, beyond its pervasive depressiveness, I also sensed – and perhaps the show runner on Becker did too – a little too much “loving yourself in the art.”

Though I could very easily be wrong.


Pidge said...


Charlie said...

I thought MM was pretty boring from the outset, tho I did watch several episodes just to take in the sets/costumes/smoke filled rooms. My wife watched it cuz it was a soap, nothing more. Depressing, absolutely.

Forgot to mention a while back when you were writing (briefly) about country music and the clever lyrics (you referenced a Toby Keith song) and I meant to mention that another of the positives of the country genre is humorous videos. Check out Toby's YouTube listings and you'll find numerous charts including the one you mentioned, which is pretty funny.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I found MAD MEN fascinating in part because it gave me many new ways to look at my own childhood (I am Sally Draper's age, and my background had many commonalities with hers). I also thought the show did an exceptional job of showing the changing varieties of sexism and drew some exceptionally human characters.

I rather liked the finale, which suggested to me that no matter what he experienced, be it misery or bliss, Don Draper was ads (turtles) all the way down. Plus, less happily, the reality that everything real that happens to people eventually gets commodified and turned into an ad (and one selling something that's quite likely toxic...) In its way, finishing that ad was a great joke.