By Wendy Nelson Tokunaga
I don’t watch a lot of television, but I confess that I’m addicted to Mad Men. I’ll admit to falling hard for the charms of Jon Hamm who plays the enigmatic, complicated and tormented cad Don Draper, a Madison Avenue adman from the 1960s with a deep, dark secret in his past that has just begun to unravel. And I adore the obsessive attention to detail and high level of historical accuracy that seems unprecedented for a fictional TV show, as well as the pitch perfect casting and acting.
But I suppose that the main reason why I’ve devoured and analyzed every episode is because of the inspiration Mad Men gives me as a writer. The show has garnered Emmys for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Drama Series every year since 2008, which is understandable because this is probably some of the best writing on television, if not the best. Instead of cookie-cutter and predictable, the characters are complex, flawed and always doing unexpected things that surprise us, all while still being believably human. The quality of the writing elevates storylines and arcs that on paper might appear as tired melodrama or soap opera (unplanned pregnancies, unwed mothers, infidelity, infertility, misogyny, marital rape, etc.) to novelistic proportions along the lines of John Cheever, Anne Tyler or—dare I utter the name—Jonathan Franzen.
Also inspiring is that seven of the nine members of the writing team, led by show creator Matthew Weiner, are women, who are largely under-represented in the world of prime time television. These writers draw a lot on their own experiences and perspectives in creating a charged, emotional honesty in a world where women are under the control of men, but who are just beginning to realize and question the injustices of their inequality in the workplace and at home.
Another thing to take inspiration from as a writer is the theme of rejection that surrounds the creation of the Mad Men. After graduating from film school at USC, Weiner was supported by his architect-wife as he wrote script after script that garnered nothing but rejections. A few stints as a joke writer for some TV sit-coms were unfulfilling. The pilot script of Mad Men, which he’d been working on since 1999, finally got him a gig as a writer on The Sopranos in 2003, but when he pitched Mad Men to HBO they turned it down and Weiner took it personally.
Many of the major players in Mad Men, who are now in hot demand and who have received Emmy nominations, were unknowns. Hamm had been kicking around Hollywood for 10 years in small parts and more often working as a waiter. The year before he auditioned for Mad Men, he’d tried out for seven TV shows and was rejected for every one. January Jones (Betty Draper) was going nowhere in her career as a model and actress, her only noteworthy credit a part in the third installment of American Pie. Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson) and Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell) were child actors with only meager success as adults. Christina Hendricks (Joan Harris) had done a few commercials. When she landed the part on Mad Men her agents dropped her because it was on AMC, a network that showed old movies and had no network shows.
So take a look at Mad Men. You’ll not only wind up being entertained, you’ll be inspired to do your best writing and never give up.
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Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels, LOVE IN TRANSLATION (2009) and MIDORI BY MOONLIGHT (2007), both published by St. Martin’s Press. Her novel, NO KIDDING won the Literary/Mainstream Fiction category in Writer’s Digest’s Best Self-Published Book Awards in 2002. Wendy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of San Francisco and offers manuscript consultations and teaches writing workshops. She is currently teaching a class in writing women’s fiction at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and is working on her next novel. Wendy lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her surfer-dude husband and her cat Meow. In addition to Mad Men, she also enjoys Modern Family, Cougar Town, 30 Rock, House Hunters International, Turner Classic Movies and Frasier reruns (Hey! I thought you said you didn’t watch much television!) Follow her on Twitter (@Wendy_Tokunaga) and friend and fan her on Facebook. Find out even more at: WendyTokunaga.com.