Mad Mzansi: Mad Men and what the Mzansi industry can learn from the show

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In 2007 Hollywood was abuzz about a new show, it was cleaning up at the awards shows, new unknown stars were born, fashion trends were inspired, the name of the show was “Mad Men“.

When Hollywood raves about a television show, it’s usually something special, the last time there had been that kind of buzz was with the hit Mystery Drama Lost (TV Series 2004-2010) so my eye brows were raised. When I started catching snippets of the show I found out it was a period drama set in the 60′s about Manhattans Advertising Men, now you need to understand, as a twenty something black male from the townships I started having doubts about whether this show would appeal to me and whether it really was as good as they were saying.

Curiosity got the best of me and I jumped into the first season to explore this critically acclaimed and much hyped about show by Mathew Weiner. Forward 3 years later, Mad Men has become one of my favourite shows of all time, not only did I watch season 1-6 but I re-watched the seasons in anticipation of the final 7th season which I impatiently wait for but ¬†accepted the emotional, bitter-sweet feeling that it’s going stir up when it is broadcast on our local screens later this year.

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Jon Hamm as Don Draper

I write this article not only to express my deep appreciation for this phenomenal piece of art, but to use it as microscope to ask deep questions about the South African industry and the kind of content we produce.

Do you think we can produce a Mad Men and if so why are we not?

If I look at my other all time favourite shows like Lost, Breaking Bad and Entourage, it can be argued that their budgets are too ridiculous for South Africa to ever be able to produce something on that scale; but Mad Men doesn’t have the huge sets, explosions, action sequences etc.

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A scene from Mad Men

What it offers is great writing, great acting, great costume, set design and brilliant directing. The story doesn’t leave you on cliff hangers, suspense or all the other television tricks used to make you want to come back for another episode. What I love even more about the show is that the actors were and to a large extent still are relative unknowns, the show created layered characters that the talent could sink their acting talents into and become the stars that they are today. When you walk into “Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce”, as if you were one of their clients, you become sold on a product, the product being the characters, their lives and the business of advertising.

Having worked in the local South African television industry, I can already predict what would happen if a South African wrote Mad Men for a local channel, it wouldn’t get commissioned. Why you might ask? They would be met with the following response from channel..
1. There is no market for this kind of show
2.There is no budget for this kind of show.

How long are we going to keep making soapies and talk shows? Our industry has been churning out the same content for over 20 years, how do we expect to ever launch our television shows onto the global scale? There are some great shows that have emerged in recent times, Isibaya, The Wild, Rockville, these have somewhat strayed away from the soapie feel and a production quality that is far superior than the rest of the local content, but these are still “safe” shows.

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A scene from local hit show “Isibaya”

I’m not saying we need to make a period drama, what I’m saying is we can make a narrative based show that focuses on dialogue and human psyche. Let’s give our local talent rich layered characters for them to explore, to push their craft and intrigue viewers. Yes, being a developing country means that the majority of our TV viewers are uneducated (especially on free to air channels), so viewers might not respond to a highly intellectual sophisticated characters like Don Draper and the SCDP team.

But the mere fact that Mad Men is on our screens means that there is a market who enjoy it, I would’ve never known I needed a show like Mad Men in my life unless I gave it a chance. So, I urge Mzansi producers to stop making content that they think the audience wants, and start making content the audience doesn’t know that they want.

Just to put things into perspective, I’ve watched 12 Seasons of Mad Men (if I include the re-watches), but I have never watched more than 1 season of a local TV series, that really saddens me.

I look forward to the final season of a great show that has brought some dynamic, intriguing and entertaining characters. The final season is certainly going to be emotional, but I will celebrate the 7 years of joy and inspiration Mathew Weiner has shared with us. I hope that the next time I write a tribute article for a show, it will be for a Mzansi series making waves in Hollywood.

Mad Men Final season premiers in the US on Sunday 13th April 2014, local release in South Africa will be later this year.

Written By: Kgosana Monchusi

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