Sunday, October 3, 2010

Mad Men: An Inspiration for a Writer


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.

.  .  .

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.

17 comments:

  1. I loved Mad Men the first year or so. Then they took the show out to California for a few episodes and I got thouroghly confused by what they were doing with the plot and stopped watching. It sounds like I should start DVR'ing (yes that is a verb in my world) it again.

    I'd read how Matthew Weiner had so much trouble selling this show. What inspiration!

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  2. My husband adores the show. I haven't watched yet, but I loved hearing the backstory.

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  3. Thanks for the info. Now I can act like I know what's what when Mad Men comes up in conversation. And I can probably get a whole season on video and watch it without commercials!

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  4. I love this show. And hearing the backstory about the creators and actors is very inspiring! Thanks for sharing!

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  5. I knew none of this but found it fascinating and inspiring... especially the part about all the actors and the creator who were getting their asses kicked until this show went on the air. Gives hope to all of us in the trenches who are hoping that the same wheel of fortune stops on our names one day... Meanwhile congrats to you on all your book success. Onward!

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  6. Thanks, everyone! I think it would be hard to drop into the show now and appreciate it if you haven't been watching regularly. Yes, time to invest in DVDs of the previous three seasons! :-)

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  7. Everyone I know has been after me to watch Mad Men, but I was reluctant to add yet another show to my list of must-sees, so I never did see a single episode. But your post reminds me that great TV, from the writing to the acting, is so helpful for writers. I love the backstory too!

    Going to rent the first season. Thanks, Wendy!

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  8. As if worshiping Don Draper wasn't enough reason to adore this show. Now you tell me seven women are part of the writing team? How terrific. What an inspiring thing to know. Yes, I agree, the complexity of the storylines and characters as well as the incredible performances keep me glued to my sofa on Sundays. Thanks for the interesting post.

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  9. Thanks for the wonderful background on this fabulous, well written show. I totally love it. I agree that you can't drop into the middle of this series - start from the beginning. (Netflix offers instant downloads...)

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  10. Great story, Wendy. Thanks for sharing it. I haven't been caught up in the MM phenomenon, but I share some of your other favorites (Modern Family, 30 Rock, and House Hunters Int'L). I'm also a big fan of The Big C. I love watching shows with great, snappy dialogue (West Wing reruns are good for that too)--it helps me keep my ear tuned for when I write my own dialogue.

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  11. HulaMonkey, thanks for the tip about Netflix. I didn't know that.

    Melissa, I know how you feel about adding one more show to your list. Everyone wants me to watch "The Good Wife," but I just don't have the time. Maybe later. :-)

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  12. Wendy, this was great to read--so well-observed and pertinent. I haven't seen MM yet but, coincidentally, I just bought the first season on DVD last week, and can't wait to start watching.

    The "rags to riches" theme makes me think of another great success story I just saw in Delta Airlines' in-flight magazine, where Philip Seymour Hoffman tells how he slept on benches in Central Park between his night job as a waiter and his day job as a lifeguard.

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  13. I am in love with Mad Men and Don Draper! I didn't know that 7 of the 9 writers are women. Nor did I know about the rejections. I guess you have to fail a lot before you succeed and that reminder is always inspiring. Thanks!

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  14. Yay Therese! I hope you enjoy the show. Melissa, you'll have to fight me for Don. :-)

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  15. Wendy, I was gone through Monday and am just now catching up on posts, but I wanted to tell you I saw some of Mad Men one night and was really drawn into it. I hadn't watched any of it before, and that night I caught it mid-season, mid-episode, but was still definitely compelled. Must try to watch from the beginning ;).

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  16. Wendy,
    Lovely post. I am also addicted to MadMen. I think it is just plain brilliant. And having moved to Los Angeles from Georgia 16 years ago to follow my own Hollywood dreams, I know firsthand how difficult catching that big break can be. And sometimes, you just have to make your own break. Like you, I am self-publishing my first novel, Hollywood Ending. But I'm starting my own publishing company, and if I can, I hope to continue to publish other authors' works. So, I think the lesson (still to be played out for me, at least) is never give up on your dreams. You never know when that much needed break will come your way. But if you give up, you'll never catch it.

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