At the Museum of the Moving Image's new exhibition, Matthew Weiner's 'Mad Men,' the costume displays are fabulous and the set design is immaculate, but the most important section is a hallway devoted to the show writers who built the sprawling seven-season narrative.
"What we hope that people take away from the exhibition is something that enriches their experience of television in general," Barbara Miller, MoMI curator of the collection and exhibitions, said during a speech. "What I'm most proud of that you'll be able to see is the formulation of the ideas that are behind the show, not just to talk about the ideas, but to display them."
The exhibition stresses the ideas behind the show from the very first moment, opening with a big, glass display table covered inch for inch in executive producer Matthew Weiner's hand-written notes about the show's big ideas and little details. Yellow legal pads, scraps of paper, envelopes, and the occasional crisp leaf of official Mad Men stationary record Weiner's spur-of-the-moment thoughts about character development, plot structure, and set design. His chickenscratched letters describe anything from an inscription inside a fortune cookie to all the possible plotlines he explored for Pete Campbell's inability to drive. "Client? Breakdown? Accident? Learning? Driver's ed?" reads note, scrawled hastily in orange ink.
More papers are hung on a wall to the table's right, but they aren't from the writers' room, they're Weiner's original ideas from his first crack at planning the show back in 1993. "I have one month to complete this estimable project," he opens one page. "I'm 50 pages in, my character is still 12 years old, and I have no idea how the thing is going to end." His journey from writing for the sitcom Becker, to working under David Chase on The Sopranos staff, to finally producing his own show is apparent in the three steps between the two pieces of paper.
This journey seems even more momentus during the next section, a complete recreation of the writers room as it was while the staff wrote "Waterloo," the last episode to air until Mad Men returns on April 5. "We found the writers room! It's still there!" MoMI director Carl Goodman recalls a curator emailing him while they gathered props and costumes from the studios where Mad Men was shot in Los Angeles. This meant the museum staff could recreate everything from each character's index cards, to the toys and knick knacks strewn across the massive central table, to the extensive research library the writers built up for inspiration. The history of the room is still present: Weiner reigned over this domain as he planned ad after ad, affair after affair, and whiskey after whiskey (after whiskey).
Past the writers room stand mannequins wearing costume designer Janie Bryant's most iconic outfits, two complete sets from the show, and literally more props than the curators could count (we asked). The artistry, research, and aesthetic prowess involved in reviving 60's America for the small screen is incredible, but the narratives woven in Weiner's writing room are what tie the whole show together.
"I think [Mad Men] is a singular example of the highest level of thought, of meticulousness, of creativity that goes into making moving image content for the screen, but it's also a cultural touchstone," Goodman points out to The Creators Project. "When you have President Obama referencing Mad Men in a press conference, you've gotten somewhere with culture."
Matthew Weiner's 'Mad Men' opens to the public on March 14th, and runs through June 14th, 2015.