By Jaime Weinman - Monday, April 29, 2013 - 0 Comments
One thing that’s become even clearer than usual about Mad Men this season is how much of a soundstage-based show it is. Its claustrophobic, indoor nature is built into the material, of course; it’s about people in isolation from everyone around them, and offices where the outside world exists only in a tangential way (as a source of trends, or a place full of sales targets). Its emphasis on indoor filming is Continue…
By macleans.ca - Monday, April 29, 2013 at 5:44 AM - 0 Comments
‘Whoa, SPOILER ALERT, Mad Men. Thanks for ruining Planet of the Apes’
By macleans.ca - Monday, April 15, 2013 at 4:01 PM - 0 Comments
Who’s saying what about Season 6, episode 2
Re: Mad Men, Season 6, episode 2: The Collaborators
By all accounts, Trudy Campbell had the best lines and maybe even the best scene in last night’s episode of Mad Men. After cleaning up after her husband’s latest extra-curricular encounter, she put him on warning.
Trudy: We’re done, Peter. This is over. I refuse to be a failure. I don’t care what you want anymore. This is how it’s going to work. You will be here only when I tell you to be here. I’m drawing a 50-mile radius around this house, and if you so much as open your fly to urinate I will destroy you. Do you understand?
Pete: You know what? You’re going to go to bed alone tonight, and you’re going to realize, you don’t know anything for sure.
Trudy: I’ll live with that.
The short scene inspired plenty of post-show analysis. What follows is a recap of the recaps:
“The opening bit at Pete and Trudy’s party (Pete flirting with two women; two men flirting with Trudy, Playboy bunny cottontail Easter joke and all) led me to expect this episode would be about counterculture/Hair values infiltrating the suburban middle class — something along the lines of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice or The Ice Storm. But no, it was a traditional Mad Men setup, contrasting a man’s ‘boring’ suburban life at home and his ‘exciting’ ‘single’ life in the city. At least this somewhat tired subplot led to Trudy’s strongest scene ever.”
“Trudy, willing to accept Pete’s infidelity but not his indiscretion (upsetting, yet not surprising), unleashes years of pent-up fury the next morning, her steely voice matching her new set of balls (The Game of Thrones-esque ‘If you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you’ is one for the vengeance saddle bag). But it was all for naught as Pete retained the upper hand: He smugly informed Trudy she would be sleeping alone that night before he marched out the door.”
“Tru-dy! Tru-dy! Tru-dy! I can’t be the only one who stood up and cheered when Trudy Campbell laid into Pete after discovering he had slept with their neighbor. We haven’t seen anything that satisfying on this show since Lane Pryce (may he rest in peace) decked Pete in the conference room last season.”
“What if you came from a stable background and still turned out a selfish sexual sociopath? You’d be Pete Campbell! Trudy is such a prude that she’ll barely flirt with her neighbors’ husbands for even a moment, lest anyone derive some accidental pleasure from it. Last time we saw Trudy, she was trying to alleviate her husband’s depression by letting him rent an apartment in Manhattan, while we shook our heads at her innocence.”
“It seems to me things in Vietnam might have turned out differently for the United States if only we’d had Trudy Campbell fighting on our side. As I’ve long suspected and as Pete discovered in Sunday’s Mad Men, hell truly hath no fury like a Trudy scorned.”
“Hey, remember when you thought that Trudy was just a naive, wimpy little housewife who was always there to serve as a receptacle for Pete’s babies and a sounding board for his constant whining? Well, pull up a chair, my friend, because it is indeed time for you to sit down. Trudy told Pete that she had given him pretty much everything he wanted, which was true. Even from an outsider’s point of view, it looked like Pete had all that he could possibly desire. Yet he still wasn’t fully satisfied.”
“This fight has been a long time coming, and there’s really something gratifying about Trudy’s rage and her poise under pressure, even if her pride and her ego are mostly what’s at stake. Trudy may not be as sure of herself once Pete leaves, but she doesn’t break down and cry. She might handle her new reality reasonably well, but Pete won’t. But then, Pete has always been the sniveling child in this picture.”
“It’s always nice to see the words ‘Guest-starring Alison Brie’ in the opening credits and Brie gets to show off in a particularly fantastic scene in this episode, laying down the law on her wayward husband. Trudy has never been the unsuspecting wife obliviously tending the hearth. She’s as iron-willed and unambiguously ambitious as he is, and she’s been pushing him up the social ladder from behind for a long time. She and Pete have always been portrayed as partners in crime, and they treat his career like it’s their first-born child. We’ve seen her strategically rip an RSVP out of the slippery Don Draper, so it’s no surprise that she approaches this incident with a level head and steely determination. ‘I refuse to be a failure,’ she tells Pete acidly, informing him that she’ll be putting him on the short leash from now on. ‘I’m drawing a 50 mile radius around this house, and if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you.’ Holy crap. You go, Trudy.”
“When Trudy kicks Pete out of their house, it’s with the understanding that they will stay married for the sake of appearances — ‘I refuse to be a failure,’ she explains coldly — and that he’ll have to appear when called upon by her. It’s no longer a marriage, but another business arrangement. And is it any worse a situation, ultimately, than what’s happening in Don’s apartment building? Megan and Dr. Rosen may be in the dark right now, but this will come out, surely. And who gets bloodied then? Don? Rosen? Megan?”
Here’s Twitter’s take on the scene:
By Jaime Weinman - Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 11:23 PM - 0 Comments
Although Mad Men creator Matt Weiner always makes a big deal about the year a new season is set in – it’s the first of the many things he asks critics not to reveal, or (presumably) face the wrath of AMC publicity people – the fact that Mad Men season 6 takes place near the end of the LBJ presidency is in some ways incidental to Don Draper’s life, maybe all the characters’ lives. One of the oddities of the show is that as it moves into one of the most familiar and visually distinctive eras of Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, April 5, 2013 at 10:55 AM - 0 Comments
Spoiler-crazed viewers scour the web for obscure hints of what’s going to happen on a show
Hardly anything happens in most episodes of Mad Men, but people are desperate to find out what it is. The AMC period drama, which returns for a sixth season on April 7, is famous for the refusal of creator Matthew Weiner to allow any “spoilers,” or advance information about the stories. “I haven’t worked on a show where the precautions against spoilers were as great as those on Mad Men,” says editor Leo Trombetta, who shared an Emmy nomination for his work on the show. The network doesn’t even reveal what year the season will be taking place in, and Trombetta says Weiner asks actors “that they not discuss their part or even the name of their character with anyone, including their agents.” But fans still look for whatever they can get: a promotional poster for season six, showing Jon Hamm’s Don Draper with a man who looks exactly like him, had the Internet arguing about whether this was a clue to the plot of the season or just a piece of symbolism.
Spoilers are usually thought of as something fans are anxious to avoid; there were stories about North American watchers of Downton Abbey being petrified of talking to people who had seen the show in the U.K. But other people actively search for spoilers online, and have been doing so for as long as the Internet has existed. Andy Page, who runs Spoiler TV and used to have a Lost spoiler page, says his readers “couldn’t wait to see clues from upcoming episodes such as scripts and set photos.” Hard-core fans want details “about things such as a major character death.”
It’s not just for serialized dramas. Leaks from reality shows have become so popular that the producers of The Bachelor filed two lawsuits against a spoiler collector, Steve Carbone, for interviewing ex-contestants and finding out who had been eliminated. And the sitcom The Big Bang Theory has fans who post summaries of the jokes they heard at live tapings.
TV insiders think viewers cheat themselves by looking for spoilers. “A large part of the enjoyment for the viewer is not knowing what will happen to each of the characters as the season progresses,” Trombetta says. But having this information may be a thrill for fans. The author of the now-defunct spoiler site Spoiler Fix, a Canadian named Isabelle who doesn’t use her last name in articles “just so that spoiler fans don’t hunt me down,” says that the process was “a sort of fun hide-and-seek game, or a type of hunt or chase.” And in the age of the Internet, it’s a game anyone can play: things that would once have been available only to show-business insiders, like casting information and script pages for auditions, are often posted online, where people can mine them for hints of stories to come.
That means it’s a challenge for producers to keep their work private before it airs. One way is to film mostly indoors. “Shows that don’t have external filming are quite tough to get spoilers for,” Page explains, and Mad Men is an example: most of the show is filmed in a studio, but when it shot in Hawaii for part of an upcoming episode, unauthorized photos leaked out. Even in the studio, Weiner has found new ways of limiting the knowledge of outsiders, even changing the names in scripts when actors audition. “The scene may be a conversation between their character and a man named Frank,” Trombetta explains, “but it won’t be until they get the part that they’ll discover that ‘Frank’ was actually Roger Sterling or Don Draper.”
That kind of clamping down on spoilers may make fans want them more. “Withholding information can definitely help something go viral,” explains Jonah Berger, author of the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, and Mad Men may prove it: though the show, unlike Breaking Bad or True Blood, has few big twists, Weiner’s crackdown has turned every piece of official information into news, even photos with no relevance to the plot. This may be a sign of, as Trombetta puts it, “how hungry fans are for even the tiniest scrap of information,” but spoiler fans say they’re not trying to ruin the shows. “Having run the Lost site and Spoiler TV since 2005,” Page says, “I’ve still yet to meet anyone who after reading a spoiler did not watch the next episode.”
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 7:36 AM - 0 Comments
If I made a list of the best TV shows of 2012 it probably wouldn’t be too different from most. A TV world where the best of the best are Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Parenthood, Louie, Girls and Parks & Recreation isn’t always my ideal television world (good as all those shows are), but they represent what current television does best. When it comes to “termite art” – shows that don’t have to be good, but are – television is not in a great place at the moment, but that may change. But this piece isn’t about the best of 2012, it’s about what to expect as we move into 2013.
Television is at a strange transitional stage in its history, the best of times and the worst of times: its business model is becoming obsolete, but its product – the shows themselves – is more prestigious than it’s ever been. What’s going to happen this year, as the shows continue be good and it gets harder to sell them? And which will give out first: will the business pressures on the industry make it harder for these prestigious shows to get made, or is the business on the verge of finding new ways to monetize its quality shows?
So here are some general predictions about what to look for in the television world of 2013. If any of them are right, I win. If any or all of them are wrong, hey, these predictions were free of charge and as with free broadcast TV, you get what you pay for.
1. More high-concept shows. There may not be any definite evidence that TV audiences gravitate to high concepts. But network executives have been stung by the failure of most of their recent shows and stunned by the success of The Walking Dead, by some metrics the most popular drama on TV. So they’re going to be under pressure to come up with show concepts that at least sound like the big, spectacular, boundary-pushing shows that everyone’s talking about on cable. That means not only more shows about monsters, which was starting even before Walking Dead; it means more shows about serial killers (at least a couple are in development, including a TV version of Hannibal Lecter) and more shows with epic historical hooks, like a planned TV series about Cleopatra. There are so many scripted shows on so many channels that it will be difficult for any show to stand out unless it has a really eye-catching premise.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, October 8, 2012 at 7:30 AM - 0 Comments
Cue the mutton chops and corsets—networks are crazy about period pieces
A new kind of reality TV is taking over our small screens: fictional shows in real historical settings. Thanks to series like Downton Abbey and Mad Men, actors are appearing in period pieces much more often, wearing costumes and makeup to match. Steve Buscemi has a carnation in his lapel and slicked-back hair on the 1920s show Boardwalk Empire. Tom Weston-Jones wears big sideburns and an even bigger 19th-century hat on the BBC America drama Copper. And on Vegas, a new show starring Dennis Quaid as a lawman trying to clean up the city in the 1960s, Michael Chiklis plays a gangster who dresses like a character out of Guys and Dolls. “There’s never been any time as accepting of period pieces,” says Copper producer Christina Wayne. The question is whether this glut of period dramas will strain that acceptance to the limit.
There’s no doubt networks are more interested in period shows now than they were even a few years ago. BBC America chose Copper, set in New York following the U.S. Civil War, as its first U.S. production (though it’s filmed in Toronto). Former HBO head Chris Albrecht is trying to bring some attention to a different channel, Starz, with a show set in 1959 Miami called Magic City, while Mad Men network AMC has the downbeat anti-western Hell on Wheels, about the journeys of a former Confederate soldier. Greg Walker, who co-created Vegas for CBS, says far from being nervous about the cost or the setting, the network “has been really aggressive in pushing the period elements. They obviously like the sexiness.”
It’s still not clear whether audiences will find period pieces sexy on a weekly basis. Most of the successful ones have been stand-alone movies or miniseries, like the recent hit Hatfields & McCoys, which won Kevin Costner an Emmy for best lead actor. When a period show tries to get us to tune in for 22 episodes a year, it often bombs, like The Playboy Club or the ’60s stewardess soap Pan Am. “It’s untested territory whether there is a big-tent audience for a period show,” says Walker, whose Vegas got off to a good but not spectacular start on CBS and Global. “I don’t know what Mad Men’s numbers are on a season finale, but I’m fairly confident it wouldn’t get you three weeks’ run on CBS.”
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at 2:56 PM - 0 Comments
The thing about this “Mad Men Performs Never Gonna Give You Up” video that jumps out at everyone (and jumped out at you, if you’ve already seen it) is the superb editing. The creator had to go through all the episodes to find the necessary clips, which is as much a part of editing as actually joining the bits together, and then assemble them in a way that fits in with the rhythm of the song. I think my favourite bit is the unexpected use of “good spy” instead of “goodbye” at one point; the fact that every other word is perfectly matched up in sound makes that one different sound really funny.
The other thing I noted is that I’ve always thought “Stock Aitken Waterman” would make a great name for an advertising agency, so it was about time they joined forces with Mad Men. Now we just need to find a show that can be mashed up with Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky. I wonder if “Luck” would work?
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, August 29, 2011 at 10:20 AM - 1 Comment
Characters on ABC’s new show will be flying high—but they won’t be able to light up.
You can show anything on network television these days—except lighted cigarettes. The producers of ABC’s new show Pan Am, about stewardesses in the 1960s, have announced that the network will not allow them to show the characters smoking. Producer Thomas Schlamme told Entertainment Weekly that this is “the one revisionist cheat” in a show that will otherwise try to get period detail right. Though TV characters on shows like Two and a Half Men are sometimes shown smoking cigars, cigarettes have become taboo on broadcast television due to what Schlamme calls the “impressionable element,” the fear of influencing viewers. (It doesn’t help that, unlike liquor, cigarettes can’t be advertised on TV, so the networks can’t make money plugging the products.) But shows on cable have no such fear of bad influence: the characters on Mad Men light up all the time. Of course, it helps that hardly anyone is watching.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, August 8, 2011 at 10:00 AM - 1 Comment
Bright young actors, not aging stars, are grabbing up the hottest roles this fall
When CBS announced that Two and a Half Men had signed Ashton Kutcher to replace Charlie Sheen, the executives were probably hoping it would be a unique piece of news: a young movie star, who had just made a successful film with Natalie Portman (No Strings Attached), coming back to television. But it simply became part of a larger story about the new fall season. Instead of the usual tactic of snapping up aging movie stars—like William H. Macy on Shameless, or Glenn Close on Damages—the new U.S. shows for the fall season are full of feature-film actors in their twenties or early thirties. Actors normally graduate from television to movies, but many young actors this year seem to be realizing that, as Variety TV columnist Brian Lowry puts it, “TV can be extremely helpful to an actor’s career, and quite lucrative in its own right.”
And so when Canadian networks fought over who would get to simulcast other new U.S. shows this fall, they were fighting over shows starring these young movie people. Citytv snapped up 2 Broke Girls (which CBS executive Nina Tassler touted as her “highest-testing pilot ever”) with Kat Dennings from the summer blockbuster Thor. The same network took The New Girl (touted by its own production company as one of its “highest-testing pilots ever”), in which Zooey Deschanel will go from playing adorably quirky movie characters looking for love to playing an adorably quirky TV character looking for love. CTV got the ’60s period drama Pan Am, one of several attempts to copy Mad Men (even though Mad Men doesn’t get many viewers); it will star Christina Ricci of The Addams Family fame.
It’s no surprise that television networks want to get movie stars to headline their shows. Though there has been a lot of talk about TV being better or more prestigious than movies (“TV is replacing movies as elite entertainment,” wrote critic Edward Jay Epstein last season), no one really seems to act like they believe it: “On the food chain of entertainment,” wrote sitcom writer and blogger Ken Levine, “it goes like this: movies, television, street performing, radio. Movies look down at television. Television looks up at movies with awe.” When Sheen was fired from his show, TV Guide said that the producers felt the only possible replacement would be someone bigger than a mere television star: “They were going after movie stars,” an anonymous insider told the magazine’s Michael Schneider.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 4:22 PM - 3 Comments
Something I didn’t say in my previous post on the Matt Weiner vs. AMC fracas: As usual, there’s a lot we don’t know about what’s really going on in these negotiations. Especially since most of the leaks appear to be coming from one side – Weiner’s. And frequently, from Weiner himself. He gave an interview saying that contrary to initial reports, the network wants to cut not just two characters but a total of six, two a year. “A person familiar with the negotiations” gave the same story to another outlet, but the person is clearly on Weiner’s side and for all we know could be Weiner himself. Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 11:21 AM - 10 Comments
The latest twist in the negotiations over the long-delayed fifth season of Mad Men is that most of the issues between the network and studio have been worked out, but the deal has now gotten stuck over advertising and budgeting. The network and the studio want to cut the show’s budget by reducing the size of the cast, and also incorporate more commercials through strategic product placement and, most controversially, a shorter running time (which might also reduce the budget a little). Matt Weiner, a man not known for being laid-back in his dealings with the network, is not taking this lightly. But neither is the network: They’ve announced that they will be doing a fifth season of the show in early 2012, many months after it was originally supposed to come back. They don’t have a contract with Weiner yet, so this is essentially the network saying that the wacky Draper antics are coming back with or without him.
Two years ago the network also wanted to cut the running time of Mad Men, which now runs about 48 minutes per episode — in other words, the length of a TV episode from the ’80s, but without all the stock footage and long shots of people driving cars. Though the network pulled a similar stunt, threatening to go on without him, Weiner stood his ground and got the network to accommodate the longer running times. This time he’s doing a similar thing, holding out to do the show without length or budget cuts, and hoping that the network will back down again. As a fan of long running times for episodes who is frustrated by the ever-shorter amounts of time broadcast and basic-cable shows have to tell a story, I salute him.
Will the network back down this time, though? Mad Men is more popular now than it was then, but AMC is also a more successful network now. Weiner was negotiating from strength two years ago because his show almost single-handedly created his network’s new brand, and because they couldn’t just fire him and do the show without him. (They’ve done that to other shows, as have other networks, but Weiner has made himself famous enough and essential enough to Mad Men‘s reputation that the network would instantly lose all its prestige if they went ahead without him.) He’s still in a strong position because he knows, and AMC knows, that any other network would be happy to have him now. But AMC could argue now that Mad Men is not their biggest hit, let alone the biggest hit on basic cable, and the longer its fifth season is delayed, the more the network can claim it doesn’t really need Weiner.
I still think the fifth season will probably be done on Weiner’s terms, but it doesn’t seem as certain as it did two years ago. The whole “creator as god” meme, which prestige networks depended on in the Sopranos era, seems to be fading away just a little bit. Not every prestige network is like Showtime, where creators seem to be virtually anonymous or submerged by the overall brand of the network. But even HBO creators don’t get as much ink as they used to, and networks are increasingly going for properties that reduce the influence of the showrunner a little bit, like adaptations.
Look at AMC’s recent shows: one show where they fired the creator and replaced him with someone more pliable (Rubicon), an adaptation of a pre-existing property (The Walking Dead) and a remake of a European show (The Killing). Yes, showrunners are still important to them, and producers still want to bring them ideas. But they no longer depend mostly on attracting veteran TV writers with the great ideas they can’t sell to regular networks, like Weiner with Mad Men or Vince Gilligan with Breaking Bad. If they do a fifth season without Weiner and lose their reputation as the place for showrunners to have absolute freedom, then that doesn’t hurt them much any more. At least it doesn’t hurt them as much as letting Mad Men fall off the schedule.
The budget and commercial issues also offer another reminder of the difficulty basic cable networks have in the current environment. They’ve already proven that they can compete with pay TV creatively or surpass it. But they don’t have as much money as networks that get their viewers to pay them directly. This leads to cost-cutting, shorter running times, shows that have to be canceled even though the network likes them (most recently Lights Out on FX). It also means a basic cable network can’t bombard us with promotion as much as the big pay-TV networks do. I’m skeptical that promotion was what did in the recent flops on FX and AMC, but look over at Showtime and you’ll see a network with an incredible promotion machine. So-so shows, but tons of promotion.
Finally, I couldn’t begin to guess how the delay will affect the revival of How To Succeed In Business With Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe, which was clearly mounted as a response to Mad Men mania (from the same director who brought a Mad Men vibe to a revival of Promises, Promises) and which normally would have been a couple of months into its run when Mad Men started back up.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, November 4, 2010 at 1:21 PM - 0 Comments
The maker of this YouTube video has figured out the secret of Matt Weiner’s success in writing Mad Men: have your main character say “What?” as often as possible. Of course this may all be part of his multi-season master plan leading up to the big revelation: Don Draper needs a hearing aid.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
Recovering car companies are turning to big-name actors to voice their latest ad campaigns
Want more proof that the U.S. auto industry is starting to recover? There are more celebrities than ever lending their voices to car commercials. Jon Hamm, the star of Mad Men, recently lent his perfect advertising-man voice to a commercial for a Mercedes-Benz hybrid vehicle, which he assured us would lead to a “cleaner, safer future.” Not to be outdone, Ford hired Hamm’s Mad Men supporting player, silver-haired John Slattery, to do a commercial for its Lincoln line of cars. Last month, General Motors announced that Tim Allen will be “the new voice of Chevrolet,” while Jeff Bridges continues to do voice-overs for Hyundai, though an arcane Academy rule forced them to pull his voice from a commercial the night he won an Oscar.
Which stars are picked for which cars? That depends on whom the company is trying to reach. Mad Men, which has a small viewership but an older and more affluent one, is perfect for selling expensive luxury vehicles. Ford marketing director Matt VanDyke told the New York Times that his company picked Slattery because he “represents the potential customer” they’re seeking—men in their 40s and 50s with a lot of money to spend. Chevrolet’s Cruze, a compact car, needs a star with broader appeal: Allen, whose voice is recognizable all over the English-speaking world thanks to Toy Story, is the perfect choice to tell us that we should spend what little money we have on a car.
What we’re not seeing much of, yet, are commercials where the actors appear in the flesh, like Ricardo Montalban selling “Corinthian leather.” Slattery is the only one of these celebrities who does his selling on-camera, wearing glasses and looking pensively at us while he drives. This may be not in spite of the fact that he’s less of a star than Hamm, Allen or Bridges, but because of it: car companies worry that people, as opposed to voices, may be too associated with their characters, whereas with Slattery, VanDyke said, “Whether you know him from Mad Men or not, it doesn’t really matter.”
By Jaime Weinman - Saturday, September 18, 2010 at 11:00 AM - 0 Comments
HBO is hoping its new period drama can beat the one it turned down
HBO has lost some of its prestige lately: none of its continuing series won major Emmys last month. So Boardwalk Empire, the Prohibition-era crime drama premiering this Sunday on HBO Canada, isn’t just a new series with big names (like star Steve Buscemi and pilot director Martin Scorsese). It’s HBO’s chance to beat the period drama it turned down, Mad Men; when that show won its third consecutive Emmy for best drama series, San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman wrote that “maybe next year HBO can get up there for Boardwalk Empire.” Creator Terence Winter describes the show as “a history of Atlantic City from when it was a mosquito-infested swamp until today”—it may prove that the only way to outdo Mad Men is to go back 40 years earlier.
Not that Boardwalk Empire is a Mad Men clone. With Buscemi playing Nucky Thompson, a man who helps the bootleg alcohol industry flourish as long as he gets a cut, the show has all the crime and violence the more sedate Mad Men never offers. But Winter is a colleague of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner (they both wrote for The Sopranos), and they both love using TV to recreate a whole era of U.S. history. Winter told Maclean’s that “the success of Mad Men makes me happy because I know there’s an audience” for a drama that “assumes a level of knowledge about history,” and he’s trying to live up to Weiner’s example in “making it as true to the period as I can possibly do it.”
By Andrew Potter - Monday, September 13, 2010 at 3:28 PM - 0 Comments
Mad Men has now officially replaced The Wire as the most footnoted and overanalyzed…
Mad Men has now officially replaced The Wire as the most footnoted and overanalyzed television show going. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
As usual, The Awl’s Natasha Vargas-Cooper leads the charge with her Footnotes of Mad Men. I don’t think this is her best effort though — the Cheever references were bouncing around the Twitterverse last night, and her report doesn’t add much to that, while neglecting some of the more important themes in the show. Gawker’s usually solid replay of the previous night’s episode hasn’t been posted yet is here, and Slate’s trio of Julia Turner, Michael Agger and John Swansburg have weighed in starting here. I think Agger’s is the best of the three.
Meanwhile, our own Jamie Weinman argues that the show has become a show about television writing, while over at my other blog, I advance the thesis that last night’s episode marked the turning point in the series, from a show about the alien fifties to one about the all-too-familiar sixties.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, September 13, 2010 at 1:12 AM - 0 Comments
I don’t know if this is the best Mad Men season yet, but so far it’s certainly the one I’ve found most entertaining. The cold, distant tone and anthropological feel have given way to more complete involvement with at least some of the characters, and because the show is going so fast through the mid-’60s (apparently in a hurry to get to Nixon, which Henry’s Republican Party connections will presumably bring in somehow) it creates a sense of momentum and individual episode identity. And another thing I like, perhaps perversely, is that the show is becoming less and less about an advertising agency and more about the business the writers know — television writing.
That’s what I meant by the weird subject heading, because NewsRadio is the only show I can think of that sent out more signals that it was really about a TV writers’ room, no matter what it was ostensibly about. That show just more or less admitted it — taking stuff that happened to the showrunner and making them happen to Dave Foley — while Mad Men is leaving room for doubt. But when Don and Peggy had their argument about whether she’s getting enough credit, it was hard not to think of Matt Weiner and his famous tendency to put his name on every script, or of the young assistants that he promotes to co-writer status in the least flattering way possible. Here’s Weiner talking about those assistants:
There’s sort of the tradition that if they work the whole season, I will let them write the finale with me. It’s not a given, and they know that. There are certain things I learned as the process went on. This may make me sound like an old person — I don’t know if it’s generational, but I’ve found that with a lot of people between 25 and 35 there’s sometimes this real sense of entitlement, a real sense of “Why don’t I have your job?”
And here’s Don saying basically the same thing to Peggy:
When we have Peggy herself, whose situation makes sense in any workplace but seems particularly informed by TV writing, which is still a man’s world and where the issues she’s dealing with — how to assert authority over men without living up to negative stereotypes of women in power; how to handle the treatment of lower-level female employees — are reportedly as big as ever in some rooms. And the main Peggy situation in last night’s episode had her dealing with the lewd, frat-boy “humour” of her colleagues, which is so redolent of the questions that arise in TV writing rooms that you don’t even need to be an insider (I’m not) to see the connection.
If you want some evidence that things have changed in the last decade and a half, these metaphorical issues are being handled differently than they were on NewsRadio, where the episode “Jackass Junior High” — one of the weaker episodes of the generally stellar fourth season — was pretty much a 21-minute justification for the writers’ refusal to hire women writers (you’ll recall that it was about Maura Tierney asking the guys to act as if she weren’t a woman, upon which they start acting, well, exactly like an all-male TV writing staff).
I may be reading things into the Mad Men workplace dynamic that aren’t there, of course, but I think it is the case that the show is more about workplace dynamics in general. It still has advertising-specific plots, of course, but I feel like it also has more moments that could not only take place at any office, but in any time — and not just because it’s a few years later. This sort of thing is common to nearly all workplace shows except for crime-solvin’ workplaces (and sometimes even then): they tend to focus less on the specific work being done and more on what happens when people work together. For one thing, the characters are now well-defined enough that throwing them together tends to resonate beyond whatever work they happen to be doing: I sometimes find my mind spipping over the advertising talk as if it’s Treknobabble, the better to focus on Don and Peggy and the rest.
This is more noticeable in comedy where NewsRadio stopped being about a radio station after about six episodes , but it happens all over the place. The writers run low on stories about the job they don’t know (or, in the case of 30 Rock, the job they used to know but don’t have any more). But what they do know is what most of the viewers know: the experience of being in the workplace. So the workplace show incorporates more of the writers’ own experience, generalized so it can fit the experience of the characters, as well as the experience of the average viewer.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 11:29 AM - 0 Comments
I don’t think this is a golden age of TV drama. For one thing, I don’t believe in golden ages as a general rule. For another thing, I think there are other eras that have a claim to be as good as the ’00s or the current period, if not necessarily better — particularly in terms of sheer variety. (Even with cable, the good dramas often seem to cluster around certain rules for tone, style and particularly story structure.) But it certainly is a golden age for shows that are taken seriously enough to be the subject of in-depth critical discussion. This is partly due to the internet, of course, but when the internet first got popular, TV discussion was to some extent dominated by fandom: people who liked (or even hated) a particular show gathering to talk about it. Such discussion could, and often did, include episode reviews and in-depth discussion, but there wasn’t exactly a TV critical community per se.
Now, with the decline of newsgroups and the lower profile of individual TV show fan clubs (they’re there, but you don’t hear about them as much as you did about, say, the Buffy fans of the ’90s), much online TV discussion revolves around TV in general, or at least more than one show: people who a decade ago might have picked one show to focus on are instead talking about several. Some of this is about TV criticism migrating from newspapers to the internet, but some of it has to do with the emergence of the individual episode review as the main unit of television discussion. Many of these reviews are still referred to as “recaps,” which Myles McNutt, one of the best-known online TV critics, has been trying to change. But while the term “recap” is now inaccurate, it reflects the fact that most individual-episode discussion used to be looser and less analytical, something like the Television Without Pity pieces where the writer would — literally — recap the story of the episode while throwing in snarky comments. Now each episode of a show is discussed as if it’s the latest book in a never-ending Lord of the Rings series; there’s an amount of in-depth criticism of, say, Mad Men episodes that even The Sopranos didn’t get in its prime.
Not only has there been a welcome explosion in the number of online TV critics, both professional and amateur, but they’re congregating around more shows (particularly in the drama field) than ever before. The semi-decline of HBO, and the rise of other networks as a competing force for Appointment Television, has made it possible for almost every network — whether broadcast or cable — to have a couple of shows that fit the criteria for online critical favourites. (These include, but are not limited to, ongoing storylines that provide room for argument about what’s going to happen to characters and what the next twist will be; some kind of grounding in a particular genre, but with a twist on its own genre so it doesn’t just seem like another mystery/spy show/soap.) If you look at the shows that The AV Club will be covering this fall, the thing that’s most fascinating is just that this is a long, long list, even though it leaves out a bunch of very popular shows.
As I said, I don’t personally think the number of great shows is at an all-time peak. (FX is certainly doing well in generating buzz for its shows, but except for Louie and the gripping Sons of Anarchy — which returns tonight — I find that many of their shows apply a coating of “edge” to stories that would work better without the FX brand beating down on them; Sons of Anarchy works because it’s a show perfectly calibrated for that brand, but some of their shows are as obviously compromised as any network show that is forced to be lighter and sweeter.) But the number of critically respectable shows is definitely at an all-time peak. Small cable networks like AMC make shows that they specifically think critics will like, since they need critical buzz to stay alive; I don’t personally think Rubicon is a good show, but it has been injected with everything a show needs to be discussed as a good (or potentially good) piece of television. Even a provider of lightweight fun like USA makes sure to put high-class elements into most of its shows, so we won’t be mistaking them for disreputable, disposable entertainment. Almost every drama features the serialized elements that lend themselves to modern TV analysis, so that critics can discuss where the characters have been and where they’re going, rather than just talking about the episode. During most eras of television, critics tended to try and identify the few “quality” shows in what was considered a Vast Wasteland otherwise. Now it’s reversed; not all shows are considered great, but the shows that have the signifiers of Quality may actually outweigh the ones that don’t.
The big, glaring exception to the new critical respectability, as that AV Club link notes, is the straight-ahead murder mystery — well, they’re called “procedurals” now but I’m going to just call them by the old name. Though I’ve stuck up for NCIS at times, I don’t watch that show nearly often enough to review it (and I personally don’t feel inclined toward the episode-review format, though I certainly love to read the work of many people who do) or even to consider myself a fan. But do feel like there’s a bit of a hole in the critical community that shows like these aren’t discussed all that often. Not because they’re popular, but because there’s actually some validity in the approach they use — essentially, to have certain rituals and patterns that occur week after week, and build viewer loyalty to the characters not through development but through subtle variation. (This probably should be another post, but I think one reason why shows with unchanging characters are often the most popular is not just that they’re comfort food, but that they may strike viewers as more true to life: the amount of change characters go through on Breaking Bad is quite extreme, while the premise that people do more or less the same things most of the time is the way most people really live their lives.) One show that managed to use that approach and break through to critical respectability was House, Fox’s canny variation on the modern mystery format, a show that had the same plot every week and, like most successful shows in that vein, kept audiences guessing about what the slight twist on the formula would be this time around. But apart from that, there’s not a lot of talk about the aesthetic of the so-called procedural and how it gets the audience invested in the characters and themes.
This is not said to chide critics for not covering those shows. (If I, a real booster of the episodic format, am not reviewing those shows, I don’t see why serially-inclined critics should force themselves to say something different each week about episodes that are more or less the same.) Just that while I’ve been able to learn a lot about serial and semi-serial shows thanks to the great work of online critics, there are certain types of shows that are a bit mysterious to me. That’s why I’m going to try and search through The Google to see if I can find some amateur critics who do good, in-depth reviews of the NCISes and CSIs and the like; they’ve got to be out there.
Though I think that in the case of some of these shows, the gap in criticism is filled by that old standby, fandom: much discussion of your CSI-type shows seems to take place on message boards and the like, where fans congregate to discuss their favourite characters, when the show went downhill and whether it can get back on track, and so on. It may just be that these shows lend themselves better to fan arguments than criticism, since their impact is cumulative (watching enough episodes to notice the little variations on the formula) and somewhat inaccessible to people who don’t watch regularly. Paradoxically, it’s easier for newcomers to get the appeal of Sons of Anarchy, because even if you aren’t aware of all the twists that have taken place in the past, the spectacular and shocking twists will still play as spectacular and shocking (you may not know why they’re supposed to shock, but you’ll sort of get that they are). But the episodic formula shows seem to play much deeper for people who are devoted fans than for people who aren’t.
By Jaime Weinman - Sunday, August 29, 2010 at 11:01 PM - 0 Comments
It’s frivolous and pointless to try and impose a theme on a whole night of awards, but everybody does it, and the theme of this year’s Emmys seemed to be “New blood.” (As opposed to True Blood, which didn’t win much. Luckily for HBO, they proved once again that their real domination is in the field of miniseries and TV movies, where they brought home all the Emmys that they lost in the continuing series categories.) There were some old-guard shows and performers that won: Bryan Cranston kept up his basically well-deserved streak, while Edie Falco won best actress in a comedy because her show isn’t a comedy (as she herself pretty much admitted) and the voters can’t resist the chance to vote for Real Acting in that category. Plus the Best Actress in a drama category didn’t have any non-veterans except January Jones, and few people were upset that she didn’t win. And Mad Men won again because, as I said, it hits the Emmy voter sweet spot — but how strange is it that it’s dominated to this extent while never winning an acting award?
But many of the winners were newish. The biggest surprises of the night were in the drama supporting categories, where two relatively unfamiliar performers beat out a number of more familiar competitors. Aaron Paul, who won for Breaking Bad, is the archetypal young Hollywood journeyman who has been acting in TV in small parts since he was 19 years old, and became a fine actor without hardly anybody noticing until it became unavoidable. And Archie Panjabi, the biggest surprise by far (as well as the only hint of ethnic diversity in the acting awards), was not the youngest person in her category but is a relative newcomer to Hollywood. I sometimes wonder if this might be a case of two other young performers — Moss and Hendricks from Mad Men — splitting the vote for their show, allowing Panjabi to get a prize for a show that is much admired in the business, particularly among older voters. But since most of the other winners were for showy parts, it’s good to have one winner who had to make an impact with mostly non-showy material (and made much more out of her character than might have been expected).
Jim Parsons, obviously, is an example of the young guy making good (and, like Jane Lynch winning for Glee, allowed the Academy to recognize a phenomenon without giving it many other prizes). And Modern Family, whatever my reservations about it and its sledgehammer moralizing, is a new show that took lots of awards including the big one, and the narrative before the show was based on the question of whether it would win or if another freshman show would take it.
There was a feeling for much of night, but reaching its peak with those supporting prizes, that there was a reaction against the relative predictability and familiarity of the last couple of years’ winners. And in general, the show — at least those parts of the show not involving Jewel — felt looser and less button-down than usual; the banter between the presenters was mostly bad as usual, but Fallon once again demonstrated that he’s become a pretty decent host by more or less embracing the fact that he’s not all that funny. However, the first part of the show felt much more entertaining and fast-paced than the second, because the awards in the second half (loading all the HBO mini and movie awards into it, for example) caused the pace to sag.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, November 10, 2009 at 10:46 AM - 29 Comments
Unlike other crime procedurals, this No. 1 show doesn’t waste time on how it happened
Why is one episode of NCIS, a forensic murder mystery with a military setting, more popular with young viewers than an entire season of Mad Men? The JAG spinoff, in which Mark Harmon investigates crime in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps (Tuesdays on Global at 8 p.m.), has seen steadily rising ratings since it premiered in 2003; this season, it became the No. 1 show on TV and launched its own spinoff, NCIS: Los Angeles. But it’s also in the top 10 among the 18 to 49 age group, and gains an extra two million viewers from new-media formats. Shane Brennan, who runs NCIS and created the spinoff, says that there are even “college parties where they sit and watch NCIS reruns.” How did this show become cool when no one was paying attention? Maybe because it’s not a procedural like CSI; one of NCIS’s stars, Michael Weatherly, described it to the Los Angeles Times as a throwback to Barney Miller. NCIS is secretly a sitcom with dead bodies.
Brennan, who has also worked on CSI: Miami (as well as the teen drama One Tree Hill), says that other procedural shows spend a lot of time “putting the clues together in a scientific way.” NCIS spends less time on science and therefore has “more time to develop character.” The mysteries on NCIS are sometimes perfunctory or pointless. A recent episode had Agent Gibbs (Harmon) solve the crime at the last minute without explaining how he figured it out; the culprit was a guest character who had only one scene in the episode (and who, inexplicably, confessed right away). Brennan says that on NCIS, “it really doesn’t matter so much what the story is: it’s how the character reacts.” That makes it different from shows where the characters are secondary to plot twists, or procedurals like Law and Order, where topical issues dominate. NCIS has more in common with young-skewing comedies like The Big Bang Theory, which also has simple plots. Like those shows, NCIS is an excuse for viewers to hang out with characters they love. Continue…
By Andrew Potter - Monday, November 9, 2009 at 9:04 AM - 15 Comments
UPDATE: Go now and read the Daily Beast’s interview with Matthew Weiner. He’s unquivocal…
UPDATE: Go now and read the Daily Beast’s interview with Matthew Weiner. He’s unquivocal about the fate of some of the characters, unsure of some others.
I gorged on Mad Men and meatballs last night, making supper while catching up on three previous episodes before the second showing of the season finale on AMC…
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, November 2, 2009 at 4:34 PM - 1 Comment
This is not something that’s worth a whole lot of attention, but someone pointed out something I find interesting about the credits on Mad Men: Matt Weiner, the show’s creator and showrunner, takes a co-writing credit on most episodes. Creators normally take a lot of writing credits in the first season and then fewer as the show goes on and the writing staff gets larger, but this season has had Weiner as one of the names after “written by” on almost every episode, including last night’s Kennedy Assassination Spectacular. In many cases, when a showrunner has a co-writer credit most weeks, it means that he assigns the script to one or more staff writers, rewrites their work extensively, and then adds his name to the writing credits (presumably having written enough of the script to satisfy Writers’ Guild requirements for such a credit). It could also mean that the episodes are written in the room by several writers and that Weiner is usually one of them; I don’t know.
This does not mean that Weiner does more writing than another showrunner who isn’t credited with writing a lot of scripts. David Milch or Joss Whedon don’t normally take script credits unless they assign the entire script to themselves, but no matter who’s credited, the voice of the show is largely theirs and a lot of their writing is in the script. (On Buffy, the dialogue in the early episodes as well as later ones like “The Zeppo” is largely Whedon’s, while he and co-showrunner Marti Noxon wrote the bulk of the scenes in the final season’s “Conversations With Dead People” episode without credit.) Script credits on any show with a writing staff can be misleading, obviously, since there’s so much rewriting that goes on, and since everything is ultimately filtered through the showrunner. The episode is usually credited to one person or team for various reasons: royalties, acknowledgment of the important work involved in writing the first draft of the script. But obviously, except for individual lines or jokes, it’s extremely difficult to tell anything about individual writing styles based solely on the episodes someone was credited with scripting.
The practice of showrunners or head writers adding their names to the episode, even if they did do a lot of rewriting, is generally frowned upon. One writer told me — this was ten years ago; no current show involved in this anecdote — that two senior writers on his show were prone to what he called “credit hopping,” taking a co-writer credit for the standard rewriting that goes on in any episode. He felt this was an insult to the hard work of the original writer, and didn’t seem to look kindly on the writer-producers involved in the practice. It might be different on Mad Men, though, because the show is serialized and therefore it’s hard to tell where one episode begins — and therefore where one script begins — and ends. A traditional assignment of one writer, one script might not even work. In any case, the point remains that someone who has only a handful of writing credits on his show may in fact write just as much of it as someone who’s credited as co-writer every week; it really all depends on how the credits are doled out, and has little to do with the actual contributions.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 1:06 AM - 5 Comments
While my anti-Elmo position prevents me from saying much about Sesame Street – though considering that I grew up considering the third Gordon to be the “real” Gordon, it would be pretty hypocritical of me to chide today’s kids for considering Elmo the star of the show — I must embed this clip.
Also note that there’s a lot of interconnectivity going on around here: Jon Hamm appeared on 30 Rock, which not only did a Muppet-themed episode and featured Muppet references in two of his episodes, but is itself a secret remake of The Muppet Show. All of this leads me to believe that the secret arc of Mad Men is that the whole show is leading up to an important historical event: the creation of Sesame Street and Don Draper’s previously-unknown role in selling it to America. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the current season takes place in 1963 — the same year Jim Henson moved to New York? (And what was he mostly doing with his Muppets? That’s right: advertising.) No, the writers have a plan for the series, and this is clearly it.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, September 21, 2009 at 5:20 PM - 6 Comments
Well, there isn’t a lot to say about them, since they mostly gave the awards to the same people as last year. I keep thinking that the Emmys’ preference for Mad Men and especially 30 Rock signifies a certain preference for hard-hearted coldness on the part of the Emmy voters. For some, Mad Men is easier to admire than to love, and encourages a certain amount of audience distance from the subject, characters and time period (though there’s a very valid counter-argument that the distancing effects don’t actually preclude emotional involvement, they just make us look at the issues in a more clear-eyed way). And 30 Rock is sort of a technocratic comedy, where the joke writing is on a high level, but almost every character is a cartoonish lunatic. The closest thing the show has to a human being is Jack, who — and I’m sorry for repeating myself — has become the show’s straight man and voice of sanity as Liz has become a complete psycho. Its lack of mainstream success is no more surprising than that of Arrested Development, another extremely well-crafted comedy that didn’t have a lot of characters who bore much resemblance to human beings.
I think Mad Men deserved its repeat win, 30 Rock, not so much (its inability to grow, and the fact that it’s let certain holes get bigger like the almost complete wasting of several characters/actors, suggests to me that it’s an entertaining show that peaked in its second year, and isn’t really going to get anywhere near being a great show). But taken together, we can get a sense that Emmy voters, and therefore the majority of TV industry people, don’t worry too much about the emotional temperature of a show; for a show to have a reputation for coldness or lack of charm is not a problem at the Emmys. You could say that dramas have had this going on for some years now, in that the Emmys love showy displays of pure technique like The West Wing, and rarely give the Best Drama award to a show about regular everyday human beings. In fact, by that standard, Mad Men may be more down-to-earth and relatable than most of the other recent winners. But the Emmys used to have a strong bias toward comedies with an element of charm or sentiment, which is one explanation of why Seinfeld and Arrested Development only managed one win each. (And both pulled off their wins before the characters became complete monsters.) Now 30 Rock seems destined to win every year. I don’t know if this is a sign that Emmy voters have now equalized their standards for comedy and drama, or if Emmy voters hate people more than they did a few years back.
By Barbara Amiel - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 6:04 PM - 8 Comments
Don and Betty Draper in Mad Men: Amiel remembers buying the original Relax-A-Cizor exercise machine talked about on the show
Last weekend was a nostalgia rush and all things considered I prefer yesterday’s madness to today’s. More challenge, more style. First, I took in Julie & Julia, the ﬁlm biopic of the great American TV cook Julia Child set in the sixties. The lobster scene brought back my own ghastly attempts at being a murderess. “You can keep live lobsters in the refrigerator at around 37 degrees for a day or two,” Mrs. Child advised us all on PBS—now there’s a thought—and after the kill, “locate the stomach sac with your fingers, twist out and discard . . .”
Something of a shame, I thought, as Meryl Streep’s Julia Child plunges her knife into the writhing lobster, that she and Martha Stewart couldn’t have met, two splendid women wielding cleavers—probably on one another as they wrestled for camera position. On Sunday came the premiere of Mad Men’s third season about advertising men in the early sixties, when everyone smoked, wore uptight clothes and political correctness was being on the right rather than the left. Continue…