True period shows really don’t get audiences

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, September 20, 2011 22:19 EDT
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Via Ta-Nehisi, an interview with Matthew Weiner about the new spate of TV shows set in the 60s, clearly influenced by the popularity of Mad Men

A lot of critics are saying that The Playboy Club and Pan Am are trying to rip off Mad Men. Do you think that's the shows' aim?

Define "ripping something off." I don't own the period. I see the whole experience as a vindication. The same people who are green-lighting these shows hated [the notion of a period drama] when I pitched it eleven years ago. It's a thrill that these same people now are seeing something commercial in it. I wish them the best. We're not competing. I lived through Far From Heaven, and people saying, "Oh, they did your [script]." So I can't worry about it. I'm not being magnanimous, either: I don't own the period.

People always seem to be skeptical about period shows working, especially on broadcast.

When I was growing up in the seventies, the two biggest shows were Happy Days and M*A*S*H. I kept saying,"Period shows can succeed." And people were like, "No, they can't."

I agree with Ta-Nehisi when he says that these shows are just running with the idea that people like looking at the clothes, adding that Mad Men is special because it's well-written and actually critical of the 60s.  And hell, maybe that will end up being true. It's important to remember that Mad Men doesn't actually get a huge share; it's not even AMC's biggest show and its rating compared to what the major networks expect is tiny.  I doubt there's a big audience for something as complex as Mad Men

With that in mind, there may really not be an audience for period shows.  Mad Men's relatively small but critically aware audience is able to get into the show because it reads like a novel.  They are classic niche marketing, straight at the teeny tiny audience share that actually reads challenging fiction and/or watches arty movies, and was thrilled to have TV shows that replicates that experience. Happy Days and M*A*S*H were successful in part because they minimized the cultural differences between the period they were covering and the period they were airing in. When an article I wrote about Mad Men was run at Jezebel, half the comments were from people who basically didn't like the show because it wasn't "relatable".  The way that literary novels are written and the way that most people watch TV are just very different; a lot of people watch TV to avoid being challenged and instead hang out with people they kind of wish were their friends. I don't relate to that at all—I don't like TV shows that pander by making previously interesting characters more "lovable", for instance—but I get that's what gets the ratings.  I suspect if these shows are successful, they will gradually and subtly modernize the clothing so that it seems less foreign, and they'll have the characters acting like they were people in 2011 instead of the 60s.  

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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