In the second of the KCRW/NPR Cultural Conversations called UpClose, KCRW’s Elvis Mitchell (The Treatment) spent a fascinating hour with “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner. That it was fascinating to me is saying something since (shhhh! don’t tell anybody!) I’ve only seen a couple early episodes of the show. I know, I know, I’m insane.
Elvis is a great showman with an absolutely frightening knowledge of popular culture. Weiner was thoughtful, open, passionate and funny. Everyone seemed transfixed by their witty and insightful repartee.
But my detachment from the subject matter allowed me to appreciate a remarkable phenomenon that might have been missed by the more Don Draper obsessed in the audience…and let me tell you, there were some serious fans there.
Had I not known that last night’s conversation was about fictional TV characters, I might have thought we were hearing about Weiner’s authoritative biography of some historical figures (imagine David McCullough and “John Adams”). At first, it struck me as a bit comical that the two intelligent men on stage, and many in the audience, were taking these fake people so seriously…carefully dissecting their psychology as if they lived, breathed…and mattered.
But I got caught up, too. At one point, Elvis asked what the Elizabeth Moss character did before she worked at the agency. So convinced that we were hearing about real people that I was stunned when Weiner answered that he didn’t know. I was a little angry at him; it was like he didn’t know his own child’s birthday. How could he not know!?
Of course, Peggy Olsen didn’t “do” anything before Sterling, Cooper, et. al. She isn’t real.
I think its safe to say that one of the reasons shows like “Mad Men” are so popular is the satisfying “realness” of their characters, and that is a result of their “realness” in the minds of their creators. Weiner chuckled at himself when he proudly quoted Don Draper…only then realizing that he was, in fact, quoting himself. But this wasn’t hubris; Draper is real to audiences because he is real to Weiner.
At the end of the evening, Weiner described his first visit to the office set of “Mad Men.” It was clear from the quiver in his voice that it was very moving to finally experience something that up until then had only existed in his imagination. And I had a strange thought; in a way, there is nobody in the real world that is as close to Matt Weiner as Draper and his well-coiffed cohorts…it must be frustrating, in some weird meta sense, not to be able to chat with them on the phone.
And I’m sure that same frustration is shared, to some degree, by the audiences of great TV shows. More than film characters, who introduce themselves to you and then abandon you in a fleeting few hours, TV characters come into your home week after week, year after year. You feel you know them; you want to meet them. And that’s why last night’s event must have been satisfying for fans of ”Mad Men.” Because to see Matthew Weiner was to see Don Draper in the flesh, but with a little less hair.
The season finale of “Mad Men” is this Sunday.