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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mad for Mad Men...and for playwrights who write for TV

Playwright Keith Huff, also a writer for Mad Men
I am funny when it comes to television. And I mean funny-weird and not funny-ha-ha, because I tend to commit to a single show at a time, and go about watching it with gusto. This means I’ll watch a weekend marathon of a show I’ve never seen before and become completely obsessed; or I’ll decide to focus on one show, never missing an episode week after week. Some of the shows I’ve watched this way over the years: China Beach, Thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, The West Wing, Big Love, South Park (yeah, I know that one doesn’t quite fit in, but I have to admit I’ve always wanted to confess to the Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire that Eric Cartman is my favorite hero of fiction. But I digress.).

What do these – and many, many other – shows have in common? Many are/were helmed by, or rely largely on the talents of playwrights – Aaron Sorkin, Melanie Marnich, Gina Gionfriddo…and that’s just to name a few. Earlier this year WSJ ran an article on just this very thing. I think it’s exciting to see more and more playwrights make their way to television. It means I get to enjoy their work – in my pajamas. For free. (Or, at least, for the price of cable.) It means these talented people can simultaneously feed their families, my hunger for their work, and their own desire to write. It’s also an opportunity to study how each playwright adapts his or her own voice (or not) to a medium other than the stage. And, as a playwright, it’s another chance to root for what feels like the home team: “Ooooh look – Theresa Rebeck wrote this episode of Law & Order. Sweet!”

And so this brings me to the most recent object of my affection: Mad Men. Why do I love it so? First of all, it is set in what is arguably the most fascinating decade of the last century from a social and political standpoint, the 1960s. Second, the wardrobe (and hair – mustn’t forget the hair) is simply fantastic. But the real reason I didn’t miss an episode this season lies beyond the show’s finely-coiffed historical framework: the writing. Television being television, the trajectory of the storylines is different of course, but the show has all the things we identify as being essential to great theatre: complex characters, rich subtext, smart dialogue. These are believable people in real, even mundane – and yet still incredibly interesting – situations and the stakes are high. It’s the total package.

Here's something I've never done before, with any show: Every Sunday night during the season, AMC runs a new episode and then repeats the episode the following hour as an encore. About six weeks ago, I watched the new episode (the one where Don and Peggy stay at the office all night – titled “The Suitcase,” for anyone keeping score) AND the encore back-to-back. I literally didn’t move. Truly a “do that again!” moment. This week's season four finale? Flawless. I already can't wait to see what 1965 holds for my friends at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce...

[I also confess to having a strange crush on Don Draper, but I’ll save that for another post. Or not.]

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