IT’S 1963 as the third season of “Mad Men” on AMC gets under way next Sunday night. And its creator, Matthew Weiner, hopes the show stays on the air long enough to string out his story through the entire turbulent decade.
“What I always wanted to do,” he said in a phone interview from his office in Los Angeles, “is to take this classic American archetype of the late 1950s, with all the trappings of that time, and see how he ends up in 1970 or ’72.”
This archetype is Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), creative director at a midsize Madison Avenue ad firm, who has a nice house, a blond wife and two kids in the suburbs, and a life that’s unraveling.
In the first season, two years ago, we saw him having stormy affairs with exotic brunettes — a Greenwich Village artist, then the daughter of a department-store owner. And we learned that his whole life, not just his job, is built on deception. During the Korean War, a fellow soldier was blown up in an attack and our hero stole his identity, to escape his own dead-end life, and he’s kept it a secret ever since.
“We live in a culture where people can transform themselves,” Mr. Weiner said. “We have a phrase: ‘Find a job, then become the person who does it.’ Don is one of those people. It’s a hard thing to swallow, because you’re never really secure about yourself. For our hero that insecurity makes him especially good at understanding what people want and why they want it.” And that makes him a perfect ad man.
In the new season we see this ultimate self-made man of midcentury America — outwardly confident but hollow at the core — smacked, like the culture he embodies, by the earthquake of the ’60s. “I started off writing the show as a scathing analysis of what happened to the United States,” Mr. Weiner said. “But the more I got into Don, the more I realized this is an amazing place. Something really did change in those years” — the late ’50s and early ’60s. “What would it be like to go to that place?”
He continued: “I’m interested in how people respond to change. Are they excited by the change, or are they terrified that they’ll lose everything that they know? Do people recognize that change is going on? That’s what the show’s about.”
“Mad Men” has become one of those shows whose cultural weight exceeds the size of its audience. Despite an average audience of just 1.8 million viewers for each episode last season, it garnered more Emmy nominations this year (16) than any other series besides “30 Rock” (which had 22). It has spawned countless newspaper and magazine articles on cocktail culture. Banana Republic is even featuring window displays inspired by its fashions and is handing out a “Mad Men” style guide.
In the wake of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” “Mad Men” seems to fill a hunger for shows with grown-up themes, snappy (but not too snappy) dialogue, compelling multiple story lines, realistic settings, high production values (it’s shot on 35-millimeter film) and characters, whether they’re attractive or loathsome (or both), who have entirely credible motives.
Mr. Weiner is notoriously secretive about new plot developments, an attitude that he acquired as a writer for “The Sopranos,” whose creator, David Chase, firmly prohibited leaks.
But when asked if the season will touch on, say, the Kennedy assassination, he hesitated, then replied, “We’re going to handle everything.”
The first season ended on Thanksgiving Day 1960, with Don’s marriage in tatters and the soundtrack blaring Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” a song that didn’t come out until 1963. “I didn’t know if the show would be picked up,” Mr. Weiner explained. “I was saying: ‘Here’s this song. This is what’s coming.’ ”
Season 2 ended in October 1962 with the peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis and the tentative restoration of Don’s marriage.
For many Americans the missile crisis, was “a near-death experience,” Mr. Weiner said. “There was a tremendous anxiety that did not go away. People were unsettled by something. You can see it in all the accounts of that year.”
Season 3 is about this anxiety. Without going into details he laid out some of the themes that serve as backdrops: sexual openness, urban renewal, fear of technology (especially atomic technology), environmental decay and overheated consumerism.
Mr. Weiner listed some of the best-selling books of that time — Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed,” Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique,” John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Affluent Society” — and said, “The themes of these books come into the show and affect the characters’ lives.”
Matthew Weiner is 44, meaning the first three seasons of “Mad Men” take place in a time before he was born. But, he said, he’s long been “obsessed” with that period. During his teenage years, in Los Angeles in the 1970s and early ’80s, pop culture was drenched in ’50s nostalgia — bowling shirts, rockabilly, “American Graffiti,” “Happy Days.” It also formed the real-life culture of his parents, who were married in 1959 and who filled their home with the era’s artifacts.
So young Matt devoured “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Catch-22,” sat glued to reruns of “The Twilight Zone” and read histories about the Beats and the Hollywood blacklist. “I saw the late ’50s and early ’60s as this golden age,” he recalled. “The pop culture was so sophisticated.”
Before receiving an M.F.A. at the University of Southern California’s school of cinema and television, he studied philosophy, literature and history at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. And he would later weave much of what he read there into “Mad Men.”
Mr. Weiner had never heard of Yates when he wrote the “Mad Men” pilot in 2000. “ ‘Revolutionary Road’ was given to me three years after I wrote the pilot,” he said. He says if he had read the book before, he wouldn’t have had the nerve to write the show: “Yates was there. This is what he was writing about.”
Beyond its literary references and themes “Mad Men” has been most lavishly praised for its meticulous period detail.
“I read a lot from the period — memoirs, novels, histories,” Mr. Weiner said. To get the look of the time he collected personal photos and home movies, and watched the era’s few films that were shot in the streets of New York, especially “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) and “Shadows” (1959).
Bob Shaw, the production designer for the “Mad Men” pilot, noted that magazine ads from an era are misleading sources of how people actually lived at the time. “The first premise I had,” he recalled, “was that no period exists purely as itself. People don’t discard all their clothing. Very few people update their homes.”
As a result Henry Dunn, the pilot’s art director, said, “Our choice of sets, furniture and clothes was based on research as much from the early ’50s as from the late ’50s.”
So the pilot’s first scene took place not in a “cool ’50s bar,” as one producer suggested, but in a bar with an Old New York style. The Drapers live not amid high-modern décor but in a colonial home. “Don Draper is someone aspiring to an established lifestyle,” Mr. Shaw said. “He’s not breaking new ground.”
If the series lasts as long as Mr. Weiner hopes, will Don finally break that “new ground,” or will he settle grumpily into the ’70s backlash of Nixon’s “silent majority”? Will Sal come out of the closet after Stonewall? How will Peggy reconcile her career with motherhood?
Mr. Weiner said he doesn’t know right now how his stories end. Or at least he isn’t saying.