For many television scribes, writing and executive producing what a fair number have heralded to be the best show ever to hit the air-The Sopranos- might have been enough. For Matt Weiner, it was just the beginning. Mad Men, the series now most associated with Weiner, began its life as a spec script Weiner wrote in 2000 while he was working on the CBS sitcom Becker. The script helped Weiner get his job on The Sopranos.
"I wanted to make a show that I wanted to watch," says Weiner of Mad Men. "I thought there could be a more realistic version of what it was like for adults to go through that period in our history. "I grew up in the '80s, and nostalgia for the '50s was looming very heavily over the country. The Boomers, the ruling age group, had reached the apex of their power and they were constantly reminiscing and talking about a world that didn't exist anymore. We were going through a very conservative period in America."
When The Sopranos wrapped in 2007, Weiner started thinking about turning Mad Men-a show about working in an advertising agency on Madison Avenue in the 1960s-into a series. Although it seemed like an obvious fit for Weiner's previous home of HBO, the premium network passed. So, too, did Showtime, leaving Weiner at a dead end.
Enter AMC. At the time, the network was looking to rebrand itself as the basic cable home for premium programming, and a series like Mad Men, from a producer with Weiner's pedigree, made it the perfect fit. The economics of the period drama presented a challenge because serialized series don't repeat well, and period pieces don't play internationally. But AMC fell enough in love with the script that it commissioned a self-made pilot. That pilot sealed the deal, both for AMC and for its production partner, Lionsgate.
"From a ratings perspective, Mad Men had a very modest first season," says Kevin Beggs, president of Lionsgate Television Group. "But when a show is working, and hitting on all cylinders and getting the critical acclaim that Mad Men gets, it's a long process but it's worth it."
Mad Men premiered on AMC in July 2007 to an average live-plus-same-day audience of not even 1 million viewers, but that audience has grown every season since. By last season, the show's fourth, it had an average audience of 2.3 million viewers, up nearly 150% from the show's humble beginnings. ! at doesn't include DVR playbacks that viewers watch days after each episode premieres, or views on iTunes. Mad Men also has a loyal following on Netflix, which last spring paid an estimated $800,000 per episode to acquire the show from Lionsgate.
The show's relatively small viewership-especially compared to its critical acclaim-is often attributed to its complexity. On a macro level, Mad Men is about the cultural dynamics of the 1960s, but it's also a deep character study of one man, Don Draper, played to chisel-jawed perfection by Jon Hamm.
When Weiner was originally pitching the show, "I only had one season worth of story. It was about this man's identity, and what it takes to be a man in America, and the mixed messages that go along with that masculinity. There is nowhere else on the planet where someone like Don Draper could exist."
To tell that story, Weiner had to take a leap of faith that audiences could get on board and stay there. But after producing The Sopranos, he had some evidence that there was an appetite for complex and nuanced fare.
"I always assume the audience is as smart as I am," says Weiner. "We try not to stick people's face in stuff and assume that they are too stupid to get what is going on. I've met teenagers who watch [Mad Men] and talk to their grandparents about it. Some people are there to watch Don, and others are there for the style. As an entertainer, I'm just excited that as many people are watching it as there are."
In the four years that Mad Men has aired, it has cemented itself as an iconic piece of pop culture. The industry has backed that perception, handing the show four consecutive outstanding drama series Emmys, along with nine writing nods and three wins for Weiner personally. The show's consistent excellence is due to Weiner's vision and guidance, not to mention his willingness-so say some of his cast members-to trust them.
"Matt respects actors so much," says Emmy nominee Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy Olson on the show. "He really thinks we know what we are doing or he wouldn't have hired us. There's a real true mutual respect there. That's the same thing he does with our audiences-he respects them, and believes they can understand things without him having to draw diagrams for everyone."
While Weiner may have entered the series with "only one season worth of story," watching Draper unravel has taken viewers through four seasons, and the much-anticipated season five is set to premiere in March.
Last April, after some closely watched negotiations, Weiner signed a deal with AMC and Lionsgate to produce two more seasons of the show-five and six-with an (assured) option for a seventh and final season. The deal means all rabid Mad Men fans can know they'll get to see how it all ends.
"Matt loves the show more than anyone, and that shows," says Moss. "He's all passion and no laziness. There's no taking anything for granted."
It's a work ethic Brandon Tartikoff himself would surely have appreciated.
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