On Mad Men: The Greatest Show for Writers Since, Well, You Know

Generally speaking, this blog is about the writing world, and the writing world is a large entity not just made up of books, magazines, and creepily specific dream journals. Within the confines of said blog, I try and talk about anything in that whole new world associated, connected to or living with good writing and sometimes those things involve television. To be fair, I don’t actually watch much TV. I watch most shows on DVR, and yes, occasionally dabble in the live action of The View…and my roommate and I tend to leave the MTV JAMS continuous stream of music videos involving  Beyonce on when we’ve been overserved, but all in all, TV isn’t one of my huge vices. But when I find something on the television to be passionate about (The Wire!), I feel the need to express my gratitude. And, friends, gratitude needs to be expressed via a show called Mad Men. Now the reason I’m writing this currently–the time hook, if you will–is because NY Times Mag just ran a cover story about the show, before the start of the second season, and I’ve realized that I need to get on the record about it before saying that you like Mad Men becomes synonymous with saying you like candy, rainbows or babies–in other words, just something that everyone takes for granted.

I came across this show when the Soprano’s was ending and I knew that one of their writers– a genius named Matt Weiner– had got his gig with Soprano’s essentially by showing David Chase the pilot he wrote for Mad Men, a show that HBO eventually passed on. The show is about the NYC ad world in 1960– a place filled with white dudes drinking martini’s and whiskey at lunch and making vaguely to explicitly offensive remarks about anyone who is not in their highly self-prized social bubble. The beauty of the show is the slice of history you absorb watching it–you feel like you’re watching a documentary from a time that feels just as dated as when Paul Giamatti is dressed in a wig on John Adams–and that definitely makes it cool, but the best part of it–as always– is writing characters that feel so, so real. There is a slimy Sales Rep from an old NY scion of power fam always trying to make moves, a 50s style beauty-queen wife who realizes she’s married a man strictly for his paper resume and doesn’t have any idea what she actually wants and a main character–Don Draper– so elaborately complicated as to be possibly be the human version of a Rubrik’s Cube. I watched the first season with a thirsty abandon I haven’t felt since, ahem, The Wire, and I encourage you to. But like anything I write about here, I think ultimately watching this show helps me become a better, more visual, more complex writer. And here are two excerpts from the NYTimes mag article, the first with Weiner discussing his process of writing and the second a cute section about the importance of his wife’s opinion when writing:

“I have a very good memory for dialogue and for conversation,” he said, “and if you tell me a personal detail about yourself I will never forget it and probably steal it. So a lot of me working out the story is me telling the story. My favorite people to tell the story to are my wife and Scott Hornbacher.” He is Weiner’s co-executive producer and creative partner. “If I can see their reaction, I can see what works and what doesn’t,” Weiner said. “That was not something I did on ‘The Sopranos,’ because it was so secretive, and I couldn’t bring in a stranger and dictate to them. But when I wrote the ‘Mad Men’ pilot seven years ago, I dictated it to Robin Veith, who is now a writer here. I wanted someone to be there so I would have to show up. I can write a huge amount that way if I have a good outline. Then I rewrite. That’s when I sit at the computer.”

Weiner married Linda Brettler, an architect, after he graduated from U.S.C. They have four sons. She supported him when he was broke, and she is now his most-important sounding board. “Every single script goes through my wife,” he said. “She inevitably says, ‘What is it about?’ We talk about it and I’m always angry when she’s talking.” He didn’t look angry, he looked glad, as he always does when he talks about his wife. “She’s chewing gum and taking her time,” he continued. “She went to Harvard, she’s really smart and I just stand there literally with my hands out like — ‘What?’ I argue with her, and I always swear I’m not going to show it to her again because I’m so defensive. I mean, my writers come up with lots of good ideas, but she is really something.”

Anyway, I guess my point is this: watch the first season, embrace and absorb the characters, their arcs, fears, and most importantly the way they talk, etc, read the article– especially the quote about Weiner not believing in bad guys–“Everybody has a reason for doing what they’re doing,” and then move on to the second portion of the play, which involves relaying your favorite bits of dialogue from books, mag stories, tv shows, anywhere you feel necessitates a shout-out. I want me some good dialogue. Dialogue–after all– is hep stuff.

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7 thoughts on “On Mad Men: The Greatest Show for Writers Since, Well, You Know

  1. Essay Writers

    Ah, dialogue. It’s my favorite part of reading, writing, AND watching movies and TV. Dialogue makes or breaks a movie for me. Even if the car chases are exceptional, the wardrobe is magnifique, and there’s a scene involving Christian Bale doing pushups (Batman Begins), if the dialogue is crap then the movie is docked a letter grade. Awwwwwe.

    So here’s are two of my favorite dialogue books/movies:

    movie- The Apartment with Jack Lemmon and Shirley McClane.

    book- The Catcher in the Rye. Not only is the actual dialogue good, but it’s conversation style so the whole thing reads like dialogue. Well done.

  2. Tom

    Genevieve,
    I have seen The Apartment! "Gracious living-wise" is one of the phrases I’ve never forgotten from that movie. I remember a friend and I used to quote that one, as the dialogue really stands out.

    I did go check out the site for The Wire as well, and I started to watch one of the episodes. However, downloading with a standard DSL connection is still extremely slow, and I haven’t had time yet to really sit there and let it load. It seemed to me like it was going to take longer to download it than it was to view it. Sadness.

    As for my own favorites in dialogue writing, the only person I can think of off the top of my head is Christopher Moore. His work in books like "Dirty Job" and "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal," is outstanding stuff. Matter of fact, I should probably go back and look through both of those when it comes time to do a little rewriting on my own stuff.

  3. Kristan C.

    Genevieve, I got as far as "a scene involving Christian Bale doing pushups (Batman Begins)" and I couldn’t go any farther. I’m sure you have something very articulate and meaningful to say, something about dialogue and witticisms and being able to really capture an individual voice on the page, something that doesn’t involve descriptions of rippling biceps and a chiseled jaw … but I’ll be darned if I can read that far to figure it out.

  4. casey

    you talk about movies and television shows more than you do actually books. you never even mentioned what short stories you like when you asked everybody else. Read much, Kevin?

  5. Stacey

    To follow Genevieve…

    Movie – Finding Neverland, which is about J.M. Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan. It goes really slow, but it’s great, especially for writers. I also liked The Pursuit of Happyness, although I vaguely remember the dialogue. And I thought the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie had really witty dialogue. Honestly, the dialogue may not have been the best, but whether it’s good or not, it’s just so memorable. Certain movie lines are just hard to forget.

    Book – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It doesn’t have as much dialogue as modern books, but there are some pretty memorable lines in it. When I was reading it, some phrases just made me smile for no reason. I think that the ending of the book is so well-written and absolutely perfect. To Kill a Mockingbird has the best dialogue that I’ve ever read, and it’s also my favorite book, so okay, I may be a bit biased. But really, there’s just so much truth in what every character says, and when I read it, I could really feel the conviction behind everything. I didn’t only enjoy what the characters said, but there was just something about the way they said it that really made it so worthwhile to read.

    And like Weiner had mentioned, I also find myself stealing bits of dialogue from personal conversations. Sometimes I just overhear things that are just so perfect… 🙂

  6. Genevieve

    Argh! Kristan and others of the grammatically-sensitive persuation please forgive all the grammatical mistakes that I never notice until I’ve posted my comments.

  7. Genevieve

    Ah, dialogue. It’s my favorite part of reading, writing, AND watching movies and TV. Dialogue makes or breaks a movie for me. Even if the car chases are exceptional, the wardrobe is magnifique, and there’s a scene involving Christian Bale doing pushups (Batman Begins), if the dialogue is crap then the movie is docked a letter grade. So I will take your advice about "Mad Men" both because it sounds intriguing and because I was moved about what the guy said about his wife. Awwwwwe. Oh, and you guys were right about difficulty finding "The Wire." Tom, did you find out about the website you can download it from?

    So here’s are two of my favorite dialogue books/movies:

    movie- The Apartment with Jack Lemmon and Shirley McClane. This is a GREAT movie. Do not be discouraged because it’s over fifty years old. It’s chracter driven dark comedy and dude…its got Jack Lemmon. What more can I say?

    book- The Catcher in the Rye. I know it sounds cliche to say that, but I can’t deny it. Not only is the actual dialogue good, but it’s conversation style so the whole thing reads like dialogue. I mean, I like books that are crazy out there like Kurt Vonnegut, poetic like Ernest Gaines, and heart wrenching like Alice Sebold. But the books that really get me are conversation-style because it’s like gathering around somebody who’s telling story. It’s like the narrator is singing to me and I block out everything else but that voice. That’s why writers like Hemingway don’t really get me, although I admire his talent. He’s a good writer, but I don’t feel anything for any of his characters and I’ve read four of his books and some short stories. I’ve TRIED to like him because writers that I admire like him, and because my Grandpa really wants me to like him. But his characters are all assholes. They don’t care that I’m reading the story, they’re not even looking at me, and I’m not narcissistic or anything but I’m their audience, damn it. Communicate something! Have you ever been to a play where all the actors have their backs turned to you the whole time? No, you haven’t! You would either leave or keep watching because it’s weird. Now, Holden Caufiled is a jerk too but I have compassion for his character. I root for him. And he speaks to me, man. Well done, J.D. Salinger. Well done.

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