They Called Him Mad!

A reader wants to know if I have any thoughts on The New York Times Magazine‘s big piece on Matt Weiner and Mad Men. I don’t have very many thoughts that could be considered original. It’s a good piece on a good show, though obviously it follows the same pattern as most in-depth reporter-on-the-scene articles on cable TV shows. That’s not meant as a criticism of the writer, Alex Witchel. These articles follow the same pattern because the shows follow the same pattern behind the scenes: there’s this guy, this writer guy, who has been kicking around network shows for years, wasn’t happy with many of the shows he worked on, the major networks wouldn’t let him in the door to pitch his stuff, and finally <fill in name of network> took a chance on his dream project despite the offbeat concept and apparently unlikeable characters, and now he’s the hottest writer in town, but he’s still an iconoclast who doesn’t fit into the whole Hollywood scene. The name changes from “David Chase” to “Alan Ball” to “Matthew Weiner” but the pattern is the same.

There’s one big difference in the pattern here: instead of reading about how the show was turned down by the major broadcast networks (see Sopranos, The), articles about Mad Men note that it was turned down by HBO, the network that used to pick up the awesome ideas the broadcast networks didn’t want. The article doesn’t go into much detail about it, and HBO executives wouldn’t comment on why they turned it down, but she does get someone to note, off the record, that HBO had a bad case of resting on its laurels — what we might call NBC’s disease:

No one at HBO was willing to speak on the record about why the network passed on “Mad Men.” Off the record, I heard plenty about the insularity of the previous regime, flush as it was with the success of “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under.” One employee summed up Weiner’s situation this way: “David Chase says the guy’s incredible, he’s writing shows for your iconic hit and you don’t shoot the pilot? Line up 10 people in show business and ask if that makes sense.”

There are a couple other reasons why Mad Men might not have been seen as a great fit for HBO, starting with the fact that it doesn’t have a lot of sensationalistic elements. On HBO it would have had more swearing and sex than on AMC, but the story simply doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for that kind of thing; Weiner has said that when he wrote the pilot in the first place, it had only one swear word in the whole script. HBO is very much a high-concept network, and part of the high concept is to pull viewers in with stuff that would be censored on most other networks: language, nudity, violence. Three very good things, don’t get me wrong, but Mad Men may have been a tough sell to HBO because you could actually do most of it on a network. (Not that any broadcast network would touch it, but Standards and Practices would be fine with most of the pilot because, in the great prudish tradition, the camera pans away the first time two characters are about to have sex.) It can’t be good for HBO to have one of their graduates out there saying that he doesn’t mind the tighter content restrictions of other cable channels.

Also, Mad Men may be a better fit for AMC because it shows more old movies than HBO. Compared to what it once was, and some of us still remember seeing great uncut movies on AMC before TCM even existed, AMC is a sad case; most of the classic movies are chopped up by commercials and relegated to the morning slots. However, it still shows old movies, many of them from the same period that Mad Men takes place in. HBO mostly shows current or very recent movies, so it needs shows that fit in with the kind of movies it gives us. AMC shows a lot of period movies, so a period piece like Mad Men works for them, just as AMC’s much-missed Remember WENN was a good fit for the good old days of AMC.