As my Twitter followers can attest, I’ve been recently complaining about Mad Men, or rather all the attention the show is getting.
Don’t worry, zero spoilers ahead.
If you have never watched the show, you are also very welcomed to read the following rant.
Mad Men is certainly amongst the best show currently airing on TV, no doubt about that.
In my mind however, it’s certainly not the greatest show ever though.
With four out of five possible Emmy writing noms and not a single negative article about it out there, the series sure seems like the greatest thing ever.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I think we have our new Sopranos.
By that I mean a good TV show that is by most people considered the greatest show in television history, forever and ever.
The writing is so good, and the stories are so deep, and the symbolism is mind-blowing, and this can go on, and on, and on…
Probably the straw that broke the Camel Cigarette’s back is Bruce Handy’s Vanity Fair piece on Mad Men.
It seems as if we’re talking about some piece of art that should be hung in a museum and Weiner is the greatest genius ever.
Let’s take a look at where this article went wrong and why I do think Mad Men is overhyped.
Off the bat, we’re told an average episode costs a “measly” $2.8 million. I know we’re talking historical accuracy et al., but I think we can all agree that about 80% of the show takes place inside, with at least half of that time spent in the same office/soundstage.
To compare, Lost’s pilot episode was around $10 million and is considered the most expensive pilot in TV history.
Despite all of this, Matthew Weiner seems to be complaining about this “budget constraint”:
I’m of the persuasion that budget contraints are very, very good for creativity. I think people having unlimited amounts of money makes you really lazy. And I will be quoted on that, believe it or not.
The article also underlines even more to what extent Weiner is a control freak, not only on the décor, costumes and props (which is understandable since this is a period piece), but also on the various scripts.
Reading this article, one might have thought Weiner is writing the whole show by himself, if not for the following small parenthesis on the last page of the article:
(Despite the impression I may have given, TV is never a one-man show.)
Oh, and that other remark:
Weiner would descend from the production suite with four or five of his writers trailing him like ducklings.
And there’s also this talk about how they are writing scenes around a single image in Weiner’s mind.
Anyway, moving on the rest of the article, the parallels made between the show’s backstage drama due to salary negotiations and 1920s/1940s movie studios exercising creative control are appalling. Here is the excerpt:
The one public sour point for Weiner amid all of Mad Men’s success was the negotiations for the third season, which in his telling didn’t begin in earnest until after the second season had concluded, along with his original contract. Looking for a raise but with no guarantee that he’d even get a deal, Weiner said, he began putting out feelers for other jobs. At the same time someone leaked to the press that AMC and Lionsgate, which AMC had brought on after the pilot to produce the show, were considering bringing in another show-runner to replace Weiner—which would seem inconceivable on a project so clearly driven by one man’s obsessions, except that the entertainment industry has a long history of swatting away idiosyncratic talents, going back to Orson Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons and Erich von Stroheim on Greed. That history lesson aside, Weiner said he was “mystified” by AMC and Lionsgate’s hard line.
Just reading this should give you a clue as to why this is an almost-inexcusable error. If you still don’t get it (understandable if you don’t know about the two movies mentioned), here’s what’s going on.
First, we’re talking here about The Magnificent Ambersons and Greed, which respectively came out in 1942 and 1924.
As said above, both of these movies are known for their tumultuous history. Long story short, we’re talking about a time where directors were nothing more than interchangeable parts for movie studios. The latter were also exercising dictatorial-like control over the finished movie product. Even Bruce Handy talks about this period in the start of his own article:
Once upon a time, the studios reigned supreme. They bulldozed geniuses and turned out dreck[.]
Yet, he seems to forget that we’re in 2009 and, ever since the 1960s, things have changed.
Let alone the fact that we’re talking about television, not cinema.
Moving on the second main problem, the author tries to compare two different situations. One is, if you don’t know this, studios firing directors (Welles and Von Stroheim) because they couldn’t follow the movie studios’ directions regarding the finished product. Again I’m simplifying the various stories, but suffice it to say that in the Magnificent Ambersons’ case, the studio reedited the pic without Orson Welles’ knowledge.
On the other hand, are AMC execs displeased with Weiner’s work on the series? Are they reediting episodes? Are they firing Weiner because he’s just messing up what Mad Men ought to be?
Weiner is asking for a better salary given the show’s enormous success.
Not the same thing, at all.
This is not a studio fight; this is just a monetary dispute.
And, last but not least, comparing Von Stroheim and Welles to Weiner is an embellishment of the biggest magnitude.
I think I have now covered the main problems of this article. Handy is hovering between utter admiration towards “the greatest writer in TV history,” David Chase Matthew Weiner, and this perfect series that is The Sopranos Mad Men.
A final case in point:
The dialogue is almost invariably witty, but the silences, of which there are many, speak loudest: Mad Men is a series in which an episode’s most memorable scene can be a single shot of a woman at the end of her day, rubbing the sore shoulder where a bra strap has been digging in. There’s really nothing else like it on television.
If only shows such as Six Feet Under, The Wire, Breaking Bad or Carnivàle were on television…
Okay, I have to admit, I love underrated stuff. The aforementioned shows are in my mind the true series that should be imortalized.
The Wire and Six Feet Under got, in their entire 5-year runs, only 2 writing noms (no wins). As for Breaking Bad and Carnivàle, I’m still waiting.
When a single series occupies 80% of all writing nominations despite obvious worthy contenders, when Times Square dedicates a whole evening to said series’ season premiere, when virtually everyone declares it the best series of the year, no matter how good the show actually is, that’s Mad Men.
And Mad Men is being overhyped.