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Lunch with Matthew Weiner is not at any of the Midtown Manhattan watering holes frequented by characters from Mad Men, his acclaimed 1960s-set television series about New York advertising executives. Instead, he has chosen Café Boulud, a smart French restaurant on the Upper East Side near the corner of Madison Avenue. It is a mile or so uptown from the cradle of the US advertising industry but it feels appropriate to be so close to the long avenue that inspired the title of Weiner’s show (the Mad in Mad Men refers to Madison) and which continues to serve as home to many agencies.
A lunch true to the spirit of the show would involve us downing several martinis before staggering back to our respective offices for a nap. But the most I can do when Weiner arrives is to persuade him to have a glass of wine. Unlike his handsome hero, the advertising genius Don Draper, Weiner isn’t a hard drinker, nor does he appear to be emotionally broken. Today he is all smiles and rapid-fire chat. He introduces himself as Matt, and is a bundle of energy in a dark jacket, white shirt and a dark V-neck sweater, white flecks of stubble on his face.
We are meeting because Mad Men is coming to an end. On Sunday, eight years on from the first televised episode, the seventh and final season will air on the AMC cable channel in the US (the last episodes will be broadcast in the UK on Sky Atlantic from Thursday) and a chapter of television history will close.
Viewers have followed the characters from the suburban ennui of the early 1960s through the turmoil of 1968, a span that includes the introduction of free love, mind-expanding drug use and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The show has pulled no punches in its depiction of this era and its attendant sexism, smoking and drinking — not to mention the jarring, politically incorrect discourse that was common at the time. The show’s various narrative strands are held together by the existential struggles of Draper (Jon Hamm), a Freudian enigma and the most complex study of masculinity, ambition and anxiety seen on TV since Tony Soprano.
As a former writer on The Sopranos, Weiner knows both characters intimately and, while we study the menu, he explains how it was his pilot script for Mad Men — an idea he had been nurturing for several years — that got him on the writing staff for the HBO show about the New Jersey mafia. It was 14 years ago and he was a sitcom writer working on Ted Danson’s Becker when he sent his first Mad Men script to David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, who was sufficiently impressed to offer him a job.
“That would have been plenty,” Weiner says. “To be a half-hour comedy writer and getting on that show . . . I can’t explain to you what a leap that was for me.”
Four and a half years later, his reputation enhanced by The Sopranos and the critical acclaim it garnered, he returned to his Mad Men pilot and sold it to AMC, a channel that, at the time, was better known for showing old movies. With an eye on the success of HBO, AMC wanted to get into original series and commissioned Mad Men, which premiered in the US in July 2007, a month after The Sopranos came to an end.
Mad Men did not fit any particular television genre — it was not, like so many recurring series, a police, legal or hospital drama (known in Hollywood as a “procedural”) — so I ask Weiner why he chose the 1960s advertising world as the backdrop for his story.
It was a time of explosive growth in US consumer culture fuelled by the birth of a new advertising age that was defined by television and the newly affluent postwar generation. Advertising, says Weiner, “was very sexy and it had been forgotten and misunderstood, to some degree. I also felt that people didn’t realise that human life has not changed that much. You know? That’s sort of the philosophy of the show. That basic human interaction — jealousy and, the positive, love — those things don’t change.”
A waiter arrives at the table with a basket of mini-baguettes and we each take one. Weiner explains that he loves the movies of the 1960s — his parents’ era — and says he wanted to challenge the conventional narrative about the decade that had taken hold. Plenty of people did not experience the freewheeling, liberal 1960s as the decade has come to be defined: he himself grew up in the Reagan era when baby boomers were “at the wheel of the car in terms of interpreting history . . . you were getting a version of it that was based on their childhood perspective.”
He wanted his show to explore the issues of the past and resonate but also jar with viewers. “You’d be following [the story] along and rooting for the hero and then he would say something like, ‘I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like that.’ Or, when asked if he employed any Jews, say, ‘Not on my watch’ [a line Draper utters in the first series]. And you’d be like, ‘Oh right! People used to talk to each other like that.’ ”
Born in 1965, Weiner spent the first 11 years of his life in a suburb of Baltimore. He is one of four children; his father, a doctor, worked at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in the city but eventually moved the family west to Los Angeles, where he built the neuroscience department at the University of Southern California.
“My wife” — the architect Linda Brettler, and the mother of his four sons — “always says that Los Angeles doesn’t offer itself up to you. You have to look for it. And my parents were always looking for it,” says Weiner.
His mother, a lawyer, and his father were “progressive, liberal people”, he adds, taking a bite of his bread. They didn’t allow him to play with war toys, and he recalls befriending a boy just so he could play with his BB gun. Still, his parents introduced him to cinema, taking him to see lots of old movies and foreign films at cinemas around the city. “Manhattan came out when I was in high school. Annie Hall; Play It Again, Sam. I had seen Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and, on Christmas Day, we would go and see Gone with the Wind, every year.” He adds, grinning: “This is what Jews do.”
Ironically, given where he ended up professionally, he rarely watched television as a child. “I wasn’t allowed to watch during the week. I didn’t see M*A*S*H during its first run, I didn’t see Happy Days because it was on a school night. Because I was such a crappy student my punishment would be no TV at the weekend.”
He made up for it when he went to Wesleyan University, Connecticut. “My second year I got a TV and I swear I spent more time watching it than I did going to class.” He giggles. “I’ve seen every episode of Quincy,” he says referring to the series about a crime-solving coroner that ran from 1976 to 1983.
Being deprived of television clearly influenced his appreciation of it. “People say they zone out when they watch TV but I never do. It’s still a treat for me to the point that I don’t like to talk too much when I watch. I’m in an active state of wonder.”
Our waitress has returned and we open our menus. “You go first,” Weiner says. “Let’s see some commitment.” We both choose the Treviso salad with goats cheese croquettes to start. He asks the waitress if another starter — the onion soup — is “significant” and, when she says yes, he grins again. “I get to eat a lot of cheese, so I’m happy.” I go for the leg of lamb with fresh mint and yoghurt.
As a young boy he knew he wanted to be a writer and he wrote poetry. “It’s a great way to work with language and images . . . the demands of a lyric are small,” he says. “I always understood what was between the words.”
In high school he read John Cheever, whose chronicles of mid-20th-century repression in suburban America clearly resonated and can be seen in the themes tackled in some of the storylines in Mad Men. “I decided: this is how I want to write.” Cheever, too, was “very poetic.”
Movie studios would often shoot films in the affluent Hancock Park neighbourhood where the Weiners lived. “They made a movie at our house when I was growing up,” he recalls. It may have only been the teen comedy The Chicken Chronicles but “there was a movie going on! How could you not be excited by that?”
His real film education, however, began at university and he describes seeing David Lynch’s 1986 dystopian nightmare Blue Velvet as a key moment. “I decided: I want to do that. It was so . . . meta and so personal.” It inspired him to apply to USC’s renowned film school, where directors ranging from George Lucas to Robert Zemeckis studied, and he used an analysis of Lynch’s film as the basis of his application essay. He was accepted and got a complete grounding in cinema, studying Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, Josef von Sternberg “and lots of Billy Wilder”. Wilder’s The Apartment was a particular favourite. “I knew that I could make a TV show from that period. I just felt like I knew it.”
Our salads arrive and we tuck in. The restaurant, a favourite of well-heeled Manhattanites, is filling up with elegantly dressed women, who would not look out of place in a Mad Men episode, dining with rather less elegantly dressed men.
Given his clear love of cinema I want to know why he built a career in television. He puts down his fork. “I don’t have that hierarchy in my head. That’s why this ‘golden age of TV’ thing irritates me. It’s insulting to the past. You heard me talk about M*A*S*H. Do people think they can do better than M*A*S*H? Or The Twilight Zone? Or Hill Street Blues?”
But something clearly changed in television, I say. The programmes being made in 2015 are infinitely more challenging than in decades past. He doesn’t disagree and says contracts struck by the unions representing actors, writers and directors paved the way for US cable television to experiment with different types of dramatic programming. The unions negotiate central contracts, which set limits for pay and benefits paid to people working on television shows. “But they made allowances for basic cable [channels] which made it very, very cheap and encouraged them to make shows which would have cost three or four times as much. So they only needed a small audience to succeed.”
This change is reflected in how some of the biggest critical hits of recent years have emerged on basic cable channels: AMC, for example, also first aired Breaking Bad, which became another acclaimed global hit.
With Mad Men, Weiner has stuck to his guns throughout the show’s seven series, crafting, with his writing team, complex storylines and characters that never follow convention. Consider the audience’s introduction to Betty Draper in the first series, when she berates her daughter for wearing a dry-cleaning bag over her head, not because she might suffocate but because she might spill the clothes on the floor.
“We’ve stuck with that from the beginning, saying that, if we like it and understand it, there’s a chance the audience will like it.” David Chase, he says, showed him how important it is to stay true to your principles. “David didn’t like people having contempt for the audience,” he says. “Half the time they’re watching it and may not be able to put it into words . . . but they understand it.”
The plates cleared, our next courses are delivered to the table. My lamb, with roasted carrots and sprouts, is tender and delicious while Weiner’s soup is, indeed, significant and appears to have been served in a cauldron. I press him on the clear link between Mad Men and The Sopranos — the existential crisis suffered by the leading characters in each programme. “It’s the only question,” he says. “I think it’s what people seek from entertainment: who am I and why am I here?”
He hints that he has, at an earlier time in his life, experienced the inner turmoil and melancholy that so consumes Tony Soprano and Don Draper. “I was there,” he says, flatly. “I would ask myself, ‘Why do I feel the same way I did when I was 18?’ ” Despite a family he adores and professional success, the personal doubts would linger. “And I would ask, ‘What’s wrong with me? Is that it?’ ”
Do The Sopranos and Mad Men resonate with audiences because viewers, to some extent, have the same doubts about life? “You like to think so,” he says. “But sometimes they see something in a character, and it upsets them. Because they recognise themselves.”
The waitress has returned and suggests we order profiteroles filled with chocolate mousse. “That’s going to happen,” Weiner says, emphatically. We duly order a portion.
I wonder if he will miss the show that he created and that has been his labour of love, and he tells me a story that suggests that he will. When he was working on The Sopranos, he would spend long periods in New York away from his wife and children in Los Angeles and admits to missing them terribly. He stayed in New York when he cast the Mad Men pilot and, suddenly, his mood changed. “I was seeing all these characters like Don and Peggy walking down a hall, people who had been in my imagination for so long and I was so happy.”
His family were due to visit him and for one moment, he admits, he wondered if he had actually died. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is what heaven is going to be like. I got to do what I wanted to do, I’m waiting here for my family. I’m going to be OK.’ That’s how happy I was at realising this fantasy in three dimensions.”
And now it is all coming to an end. He says he wants to take a break “to recharge and re-enter society”. The show has taken up a large chunk of his life: he was 35 when he wrote the pilot, 42 when it went on the air and is 49 now. “Existentialism,” he says, grinning again, “is a young man’s game.”
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s global media editor
Illustration by James Ferguson