Another Way TV Has Changed

What does it say about me that I read Maureen Ryan’s long interview with Matt “Mad Men” Weiner and the quote that most interests me is this, on Mad Men‘s now-famous attention to accurate period detail:

MR: I guess it’s another instance of the details about the show being so pleasing. I generally find that if the details are right on a show, the big things are usually right too.

MW: Well, that’s been my philosophy too, but that can be a mistake as well. I got so overwhelmed [last season]. Also, you have to trust the people who are doing the details, and I was so involved in every single thing. I was at a wedding, the only day I had off during the season last year, and I met Stephen J. Cannell, who was David Chase’s mentor, he did “Rockford Files” and so many shows. I told him what was going on. And he said [puts on gruff voice,] “You’re worrying about stupid [stuff]!” [laughs]

That story kind of sums up one of the biggest changes that has occurred in television in my years as a consumer: attention to detail, once almost totally unimportant in TV, is now really important. Maybe Weiner, as he says, got a little carried away with it last season, not trusting his crew to get this stuff right; but he can’t afford to let the details slide; the accurate period feel is one of the strongest selling points Mad Men has, because that is a source of critical acclaim and because AMC is trying to sell the show based on its period feel. But it’s not just about accuracy (which is a good thing because otherwise this would be a repeat of a post I wrote a few months back), it’s about the sense of style, the look of the show. Today’s one-hour dramas are expected to have set design, special effects, and costumes that may not be on par with feature films, but will at least look good on the new fancy HD TVs.

Think back to when you first started watching TV, and you hardly ever saw that. (Shows that spent a lot of money on set design, like Batman or Moonlighting, were exceptions to the general rule and usually went outrageously over budget.) Even the big-studio shows followed the tradition of poverty-row movies, where the sets were all generic — only barely disguised from whatever they’d been used for already — and there wasn’t time to get small details right. Actors typically wore whatever clothes or, especially, hairstyles they wanted unless the scene called for something specific.

The hair issue is emblematic of how things have changed: it used to be that on a “period” show, there would be some anachronistic hairstyles, and as the show went on, more and more actors would grow their hair long. Happy Days. M*A*S*H. Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie. Or Stephen J. Cannell’s own WWII series, Baa Baa Black Sheep. You won’t see any of that on Mad Men; everybody has correct early ’60s coiffure. Back when television episodes weren’t intended to be viewed very often and were expected to be viewed on small, low-def sets, these things were considered relatively unimportant when you’re trying to get this week’s episode filmed. You wouldn’t find a show re-shooting a scene because a detail was wrong, as you would in feature films. But higher-quality television sets, more outlets for repeat viewing, and the internet — where the shows will not only be viewed repeatedly but where every botched detail will be pointed out — have all combined to change that. Now a show needs to be on top of the “stupid stuff.” It also needs to be a lot more expensive to produce.

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