#TypesTuesday – Mad Men and Power of Truth

mad_men ETB Screenwriting

Here’s how AMC describes the show on the official website: “Returning for its second season, the Golden Globe®-winning series for Best TV drama and actor will continue to blur the lines between truth and lies, perception and reality. The world of Mad Men is moving in a new direction — can Sterling Cooper keep up? Meanwhile the private life of Don Draper becomes complicated in a new way. What is the cost of his secret identity?”

That’s a description of a classic Power of Truth story.  Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is a classic Power of Truth protagonist.  Note the tagline of the series:  “Where the truth lies.”

These kinds stories are about issues of loyalty and betrayal. They ask: What exactly is loyalty? What is betrayal? How do we betray ourselves? How do we betray others? Can you be loyal to someone and betray them at the same time? When should you let go of old loyalties and move on?  How is the ground shifting beneath you?  What is real and what is an illusion? Who or what can you trust?

All these issues were front and center in the first season.  They had a real urgency and the potential for disastrous consequences.

Over the course of initial 13 episodes we learned Dan Draper isn’t who he seems.  He is leading a secret life on a number of levels.  He stole another man’s identity in Korea (by switching dog tags with a dead officer).  He is cheating on his wife.  He is a slick master of illusion in an industry that thrives on selling half-truths and the manipulation of perceptions.  As the season progressed we worried and waited for hammer to drop.

Mad Men has authenticity working for it in even the smallest details.  Everything on the sets, in the background, what the people wear, how they talk, what they talk about is absolutely true to the period. As important as authenticity is, a series can’t survive on authenticity alone.

The story also needs a sense of urgency.  It’s this urgent dramatic thrust that is missing in the second season. Don seems to have settled into a feeling of utter weariness and discontent.  He’s increasing disenchanted with his job.  He seems bored and depressed (taking the afternoon off to stare laconically at a French New Wave film at the cinema).

This doesn’t make for compelling or urgent viewing. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the second season opened to a series high of 2 million viewers.  People were curious after all the Emmy nominations.  But a significant percentage didn’t stick around to see a second episode.  Viewership plummeted to 1.3 million the following week.

My prediction is that if the pace doesn’t pick up, if Don isn’t in real danger of his lies and shady past catching up with him, viewers just won’t care.

Right now, Don just seems depressive and cynical.  If he doesn’t struggle harder to conceal his secrets, if he doesn’t start paying a price for his double life, if we don’t see more active stories about loyalty and betrayal (with dire consequences) I predict the show will drop viewers.

Another example of a Power of Truth character and show is The X Files and Fox Mulder.  That show’s taglines were:  “The Truth Is Out There,” “Deny Everything” and “Trust No One.”  These slogans with a slightly different context  could also apply to Don Draper.

You will find dozens of other examples and a full explanation of this Character Type in the Power of Truth eBook.

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