Austin Film Festival: The Golden Ages of Matthew Weiner

Mad Men auteur enters the Twilight Zone

Matthew Weiner
Matthew Weiner

As his show has grown in reputation, tracing the literary lineage of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has become a popular parlor game among critics. Names like John Cheever, John Updike, and Richard Yates are often mentioned, as is Weiner’s mentor, The Sopranos showrunner David Chase. Rod Serling is not a name that immediately comes to mind.

And yet, in town to pick up his “Outstanding Television Writer” award from the Austin Film Festival, Weiner himself took time out to honor Serling’s The Twilight Zone as a major formative influence on his work. At a Friday afternoon screening, Weiner presented two favorite episodes of what he calls “the most cutting-edge, socially relevant, subversive show ever.” The initially obscure connection between his show and Serling’s became face-smackingly obvious from the start of the title sequence – ghostly music and spirals, the sense of falling through space. Then Serling appeared onscreen, a vision of Draper-esque mid-century poise, all chiseled jaw, practiced enunciation, and stiff hair.

“It’s A Good Life,” the more caustic of the two episodes chosen by Weiner, tells the story of a terrible monster who has utterly disrupted the life of a small Ohio town, reading the residents’ minds and murdering them or transforming them into grotesques if they don’t approve of him and think happy, cheerful thoughts. The monster is a six-year old boy named Anthony. His parents cower and give him whatever he wants, telling him what a good boy he is even as he kills the neighbor’s dog – and the townspeople all vehemently agree.

According to Weiner, the allegory should be immediately comprehensible to any writer of television. The infantile needs of the audience must always be served. Not least among these is the need to be told that life is good, happy, and pleasant. This is the “tyranny of the audience,” as Weiner puts it, duly reflected in the controlled thinking of studio executives, who, like the townspeople of Serling’s fairy tale, nod their heads vigorously at whatever dishonesty their audiences seem to demand. Weiner sees Serling as a rare voice willing to push against this mentality, albeit via veiled satire. When Weiner began developing a TV series set in Serling’s historical era, it was the darker, Twilight Zone vision of the 1960s that Weiner preferred to emulate.

“No one [in that era] thought Leave It to Beaver was a real family,” Weiner says. “People thought it was hilarious.” As for building his characters, Weiner says, “We did not look at the art of the time as the place to jump off. We looked at home movies. ... If you told Betty Draper she was like a Sirk heroine, she’d be overjoyed.”

The second episode selected by Weiner, “A Stop at Willoughby,” features several surface-level similarities to Mad Men. The protagonist is an advertising executive in New York who commutes home on the train. He’s unhappy in his fast-paced job and in his marriage. He dreams, literally, of disembarking in a fantasy town called Willoughby, a place out of time where boys walk barefoot with fishing poles and “a man can live his life in full measure.” When he finally goes there, he leaves his old life behind in more ways than one.

The protagonist’s office is the spitting image of Don’s in the most recent season of Mad Men, and his wife displays a mix of Betty Draper’s iciness and Trudy Campbell’s ambition. Weiner sees the episode as evidence of Serling’s interest in exercising basic, inclusive empathy through narrative, of “looking for the soul in the life of the guy on the train.” He sees Mad Men as following in this rare lineage, exploring “moral issues of regular people, not written in the first person, no guns.”

“If there is a message from The Twilight Zone, it’s aim high,” Weiner says. “They don’t all work, but they all aim high. They don’t think the audience is stupid. They believe in literary allusion.” Indeed, devoted Sopranos fans might notice an homage to “A Stop At Willoughby,” specifically the moment when the protagonist intentionally gives up his briefcase, which has his whole life inside of it.

“If you don’t get the reference, it’s okay,” Weiner adds. “You still get it.” The same could be said for the connection between these two epochal shows, from one golden age of television to another.

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Austin Film Festival, Matthew Weiner, Twilight Zone, Mad Men, Rod Serling, A Stop at Willoughby, It's a Good Life, Austin Film Festival 2014, AFF 2014

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