Monday, January 12, 2009

Mad Men, Mad Money: An Open Letter to Matthew Weiner

The negotiations for the third season of Mad Men continue this morning, and you must have more leverage now, after winning a second Golden Globe award, despite the corrupt, debased and laughable nature of that prize, awarded by a 'foreign press corps' that ignores most of the actual foreign press and whose benediction can be purchased, in the immortal words of George Orwell, "over the counter, like so many pounds of cheese."

I know you're angry, Mr. Weiner. After all, you wrote the pilot of Mad Men more than a decade ago, only to have it rejected by everyone --including, most recently and scandalously -- HBO. I mean -- you were working for them, writing classic Sopranos episodes, and the script was virtually hand delivered to the bosses there by David Chase, the most significant creative figure in the cable channel's history. And they still rejected it!

Maybe you felt it was a come-down to broadcast the show on AMC; after all, they'd never done a dramatic program before and practically defined the two-bit, small-time identity of basic cable. Now the show's a hit and they won't give you the contract you want -- which really means the vindication, the acceptance and the love you want. So you're getting tough with them. It's understandable on one level -- we live in a free agency world where a Matt Cassell, who hadn't started as quarterback since high school, can come off a rookie season and demand whatever he wants as a free agent.

But there's a crucial difference. Lots of people watch football. Very few people watch Mad Men. We're talking fifty million people versus maybe a million, tops. AMC doesn't generate that much money from your show; even the lowest rated newtwork sit com gets more viewers. So this really shouldn't be about money. You make enough. It's a fact. Most of your elite, highly educated, fiercely loyal audience are wondering how they're going to make their mortgages next month and whether they'll even have a job next year. You can imagine how little sympathy they have for you. Many of them are creative, and the idea of actually getting their dream project on the air, with an audience of a million people and the creative freedom to realize it properly, is a fantasy they don't even dare to consider. You've been given this extraordinary opportunity, and made a masterpiece. A million bright, loyal, discerning people wait for the next installment like the crowds on the docks in Manhattan waiting for the next chapter of Little Dorrit. Some gratitude is in order. Maybe even a sense of obligation, to them and to yourself, to continue doing your best work, to maintain that unique relationship with so many perceptive, admiring strangers, and bring Mad Men to it's ultimate conclusion.

So, for everyone's sake -- yes even AMC's and Lionsgate's -- put your anger aside. Your grudges are childish. Your bitterness is unbecoming. Your work has a spark of genius. Get out of your own way and do it.

Everyone will thank you. Even your own characters. Even Ken Cosvgrove, who would kill for an audience the size of yours; or Harry Crane who would die for the kind of respect you command; or Freddy Rumsen, who frankly could just use a job right now.

Even Pete Campbel would thank you, whatever angle he was playing and however ulterior his motives. He might even blackmail you to take the deal. Don't let it come to that. Just do what you're good at and ignore the rest. That's what Don Draper does. He made partner. You're making something much better. You're making Don himself, and Betty and Sterling Cooper and everyone in it. You're making art.

If you stop for all the wrong reasons, you'll regret it forever.