Steal This: Mad Men

Portrait of a marriage: Don and Betty

Portrait of a marriage: Don and Betty

Show: Mad Men

Tenure: 7 seasons, 2007-2015

Prime property:

  • Mad Men may be one of the best recent examples of show, don’t tell storytelling. Matthew Weiner’s narrative style is a yin to the yang plot twists and OMFG moments on, say, a Shonda Rhimes show. When Don and Betty’s marriage went sour, we didn’t have to be told. There were no scenes of Betty saying, “My marriage is falling apart!!” We were shown their day-to-day relationship, right from the very first episode. We saw the turn of the story in a dozen dinner table scenes, or the way they reacted to their children.
  • Characters had an incredibly defined arc. I can’t think of a character who has been more thrilling to follow than Peggy Olson; the place she began and the place she ended up was a long journey, but while she changed and evolved, Peggy was still the same essential person.
  • Mad Men may be a drama, but there was a healthy dose of humor threaded through nearly every episode. We rooted for nearly every character – even Don, who could be unbearable and profoundly hard to handle at times – because they were able to laugh at themselves, and didn’t take themselves too seriously. I mean, ROGER STERLING, folks.
  • Strong men, strong women. And strong men who didn’t have to be a mobster, parent/child killer, or hit and run driver to achieve that distinction! Imagine that.

Potholes to avoid:

  • We know Douglas Marland’s rules, which include: don’t shove a newbie down the audience’s throat, and give the audience time to adjust. Weiner ignored this rule of thumb when he elevated Megan, a character that had previously been seen pouring someone’s coffee, to become the new Mrs. Don Draper – and then turned the following season into the Megan Draper Show. Fans had strong feelings, often negative ones, about Megan as a result.
  • Diana the mournful waitress of death. See above.
  • One of the central themes of Mad Men, as discussed in the press as the show ended, was the thesis that people essentially don’t change. It’s a truth that lends authenticity to characters, but it’s a tough balancing act to show that onscreen without making the audience run for the exits. Don making the same mistakes over and over, sometimes in ugly ways, made sections of the show hard to bear. In general, I loved that the show did show the warts-and-all side of each character, but it had a tendency to beat a dead horse from time to time.

I think I’ve talked about the early days of the new production model at Guiding Light, and there was a feeling of “too much reality” in some of the early episodes. Opening a jar of pickles is, unfortunately, not a storyline. But I think GL might have been reaching for the kind of thing I’m getting at here, where the subtext is really telling the story.

We know that there were a bajillion warring factors at work re: GL, but I think a current show, or a new one, could do this with the right concept and the right guiding hand, and Mad Men would be the perfect show to steal from in terms of ideas, concepts and execution.

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