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Matthew Weiner: A Gent, Provocateur

1/23/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

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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