’Mad Men’ meets ’NewsRadio’

The reason why ’Mad Men’ is so enjoyable this year: the writers are writing what they know

I don’t know if this is the best Mad Men season yet, but so far it’s certainly the one I’ve found most entertaining. The cold, distant tone and anthropological feel have given way to more complete involvement with at least some of the characters, and because the show is going so fast through the mid-’60s (apparently in a hurry to get to Nixon, which Henry’s Republican Party connections will presumably bring in somehow) it creates a sense of momentum and individual episode identity. And another thing I like, perhaps perversely, is that the show is becoming less and less about an advertising agency and more about the business the writers know — television writing.

That’s what I meant by the weird subject heading, because NewsRadio is the only show I can think of that sent out more signals that it was really about a TV writers’ room, no matter what it was ostensibly about. That show just more or less admitted it — taking stuff that happened to the showrunner and making them happen to Dave Foley — while Mad Men is leaving room for doubt. But when Don and Peggy had their argument  about whether she’s getting enough credit, it was hard not to think of Matt Weiner and his famous tendency to put his name on every script, or of the young assistants that he promotes to co-writer status in the least flattering way possible. Here’s Weiner talking about those assistants:

There’s sort of the tradition that if they work the whole season, I will let them write the finale with me. It’s not a given, and they know that. There are certain things I learned as the process went on. This may make me sound like an old person — I don’t know if it’s generational, but I’ve found that with a lot of people between 25 and 35 there’s sometimes this real sense of entitlement, a real sense of “Why don’t I have your job?”

And here’s Don saying basically the same thing to Peggy:

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When we have Peggy herself, whose situation makes sense in any workplace but seems particularly informed by TV writing, which is still a man’s world and where the issues she’s dealing with — how to assert authority over men without living up to negative stereotypes of women in power; how to handle the treatment of lower-level female employees — are reportedly as big as ever in some rooms. And the main Peggy situation in last night’s episode had her dealing with the lewd, frat-boy “humour” of her colleagues, which is so redolent of the questions that arise in TV writing rooms that you don’t even need to be an insider (I’m not) to see the connection.

If you want some evidence that things have changed in the last decade and a half, these metaphorical issues are being handled differently than they were on NewsRadio, where the episode “Jackass Junior High” — one of the weaker episodes of the generally stellar fourth season — was pretty much a 21-minute justification for the writers’ refusal to hire women writers (you’ll recall that it was about Maura Tierney asking the guys to act as if she weren’t a woman, upon which they start acting, well, exactly like an all-male TV writing staff).

I may be reading things into the Mad Men workplace dynamic that aren’t there, of course, but I think it is the case that the show is more about workplace dynamics in general. It still has advertising-specific plots, of course, but I feel like it also has more moments that could not only take place at any office, but in any time — and not just because it’s a few years later. This sort of thing is common to nearly all workplace shows except for crime-solvin’ workplaces (and sometimes even then): they tend to focus less on the specific work being done and more on what happens when people work together. For one thing, the characters are now well-defined enough that throwing them together tends to resonate beyond whatever work they happen to be doing: I sometimes find my mind spipping over the advertising talk as if it’s Treknobabble, the better to focus on Don and Peggy and the rest.

This is more noticeable in comedy where NewsRadio stopped being about a radio station after about six episodes , but it happens all over the place. The writers run low on stories about the job they don’t know (or, in the case of 30 Rock, the job they used to know but don’t have any more). But what they do know is what most of the viewers know: the experience of being in the workplace. So the workplace show incorporates more of the writers’ own experience, generalized so it can fit the experience of the characters, as well as the experience of the average viewer.