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Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner: The problem of a TV auteur

About the author

Ken Tucker is a writer and critic who contributes to the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and NPR, among others.

(AMC)

(AMC)

The 1960s-set programme has begun its final season on US TV. Its creator wants you to know how artistically important that is, explains Ken Tucker.

Another season of Mad Men has begun and it comes with the usual bouquet of questions and speculation. How will the show’s central Madison Avenue advertising executive, Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, last seen placed on leave from the advertising agency he once helped run, cope with the ever-changing times? Will the show’s most prominent female character, Elisabeth Moss’s Peggy Olson, become more central to the tale, rebuking the series title and turning Mad Men into Sane Woman? Will those characters who moved to Los Angeles last season have to fear the lunatic murder spree of Charles Manson’s cult?

Few TV series have been surrounded with more mystery than Mad Men. That’s because creator Matthew Weiner has made such a fetish of keeping details locked down tight. Critics granted access to the new season’s premiere episode were instructed not to divulge in which year the action occurs, Don’s employment status, or with whom he interacts. Fair or not, Weiner’s attitude toward reviews feels like this: don’t write anything that’s not empty gush with five-stars. That’s consistent with his emphatic micromanagement of the show at all stages, from production to broadcast to critical analysis.

Mad Men is Weiner's sole creation in a way that is almost unprecedented in TV history. Every classic show since I Love Lucy has incorporated the ideas of numerous writers, co-producers and actors. But on the evidence of the many interviews given by Mad Men's staff, the show is overseen entirely by Weiner himself.

A king on set

Much has been made in recent years of the TV show producer as a creative force on par with the great directors of cinema. The Sopranos’ David Chase, The Wire’s David Simon and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan – all of them have acquired acolytes in the media, in the viewing audience and the chattering classes. Weiner has managed to position himself as the King of the Auteurs – he’d like you to think that no syllable uttered on Mad Men, no suit, no dress, no ashtray, appears on-screen that he has not approved and deemed authentic. This exaltation of the TV creator as imperious monarch received a well-reported debunking in Brett Martin’s 2013 book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution. The book documents the inherently collaborative nature of TV storytelling.

With the departure last year of Breaking Bad, Mad Men is the last show still on air of what might be called the first wave of the TV auteur, and Weiner is making the most of his solo turn in the spotlight. He told New York Magazine, “We take events that happen on the show very seriously.” (That’s a textbook use of the royal “we,” to be sure.) He said of his show to Variety: “[Mad Men is] my identity at this point.” Over and over, what Weiner wants to convey is that this is a masterpiece that’s been fussed over so obsessively it barely requires actual viewers to complete its journey into the kingdom of great art.

Which rather misses the point of Mad Men itself. Namely, that it’s fun! It’s fun to be transported back to a time when men wore hats, and women wiggled into feminism wearing mini-skirts and go-go boots. It’s fun to see how confused a conformist drone such as Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell becomes when the times they are a-changin’ all around him. And it’s a true pleasure to see how joyously that spirit of the times is embraced by the show’s great silver fox, John Slattery’s Roger Sterling, who has eagerly dropped LSD to get comfy for a love-in.

Why so serious?

The tension between that sense of fun and that stifling seriousness of purpose suggests there’s something disjointed about the cosmos Matthew Weiner has created. He’s unleashed brilliant talents like Hamm and Moss, providing them an opportunity to become well-deserved stars. But he is constantly trying to undercut his actors by implying – often in the interviews he gives analysing them – that what really matters is his own gloomy view of history and human behaviour. To Weiner, Don will always be unhappy because he cannot settle on a self-image that allows him to find contentment. Christina Hendricks’s Joan will never be taken seriously for her brilliant mind because the era’s fashions won’t stop trussing her up in hourglass dresses that leave the show’s extras panting like wolves. There’s a predetermined pessimism that cuts off any feeling for what made the ’60s a swinging decade – and allows little room for other interpretations.

For King Weiner, heavy is the head that wears the homburg. He too carries a burden: how to finish his creation in a way that pleases himself and the audience that will ultimately judge Mad Men’s place in TV history? When the show leaves the air in 2015, praise or blame for the way the series concludes will rest upon a solution he alone has devised. Or at least that will be the popular narrative. Recently, the nine-season-long sitcom How I Met Your Mother took its leave with many fans dissatisfied by the long-promised answer to the show’s title – and venting their rage online. Other shows, from The Sopranos to Seinfeld to Lost, concluded with fraught endings that caused many viewers to rethink, reinterpret and re-evaluate those entire series.

So say a prayer for Matthew Weiner. He suffers for our pleasure. And while you’re praying, make a wish that he will lighten up a little and enjoy what he’s created.

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