HBO’s Biggest Mistake? Passing On The ‘Mad Men’ Pilot
— Updated on 29 January 2023

HBO’s Biggest Mistake? Passing On The ‘Mad Men’ Pilot

— Updated on 29 January 2023
Garry Lu
Garry Lu

Few shows birthed during the current Golden Age of Television define prestige content as much as Matthew Wiener’s Mad Men, and yet for some inexplicable reason, HBO didn’t even bother giving its pilot script a read.

The first draft was penned by Wiener during his time as a staff writer for Becker, and would eventually land him a gig under the legendary David Chase for his equally-legendary HBO tentpole: The Sopranos (maybe you’ve heard of it).

“It was lively and it had something new to say,” David Chase said of the draft.

RELATED: We Spoke With ‘The Sopranos’ Creator David Chase

“Here was someone who had written a story about advertising in the 1960s, and was looking at recent American history through that prism.”

Towards the end of The Sopranos‘ run, Wiener attempted to get his passion project off the ground with the full support of Chase, who apparently “urged everyone at the network to give it a look.” But despite this resounding vote of confidence, as well as the narrative strengths of said pilot script, both Wiener and the nascent period drama we now refer to as Mad Men were “snubbed” by then-HBO President Carolyn Strauss.

“It was very disappointing to me, as I pushed the rock up the hill, that they did not notice me. Because I was part of the family,” Matthew Wiener recounted in It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO, an oral history of the network.

Eventually, AMC – which would later add other prestige series’ to its lineup such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead – gave Mad Men the greenlight.

Starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, and more, across its seven-season / 92-episode run, it garnered an impressive 16 Primetime Emmy Awards from 116 nominations (including Outstanding Drama Series on four separate occasions).

“I’m an unabashed fan of Mad Men,” former HBO CEO Richard Plepler revealed during a panel session at the Paley Centre’s International Council Summit circa 2014; Plepler has since named passing on the opportunity as his #1 professional regret.

“You know I love the show. I think Matt is a gifted writer and producer. I was a big fan of the show all through its incarnation.”

Carolyn Strauss added: “That’s been Richard’s bugaboo forever. Tell me a programmer who hasn’t passed on something. If you want to hold that as my grave, original sin… guilty.”

HBO Passed On Mad Men

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Incidentally, Strauss – who departed her position as network president in 2008, an entire year after Mad Men hit the airways – is also somewhat famous for passing on Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives, a soapy suburban drama directly inspired by HBO’s Sex & The City and Six Feet Under.

Forced to look elsewhere, Cherry would sell Desperate Housewives to ABC, packaged as a “network version of what an HBO show is,” where it would trounce HBO’s The Wire every Sunday night in the Nielsen audience ratings.

Suffice it to say, aside from letting David Benioff and D.B. Weiss butcher the Game of Thrones mythology during its eighth and final season, giving Mad Men a miss goes down in history as HBO’s biggest mistake.

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Garry Lu
After stretching his legs with companies such as The Motley Fool and the odd marketing agency, Garry joined Boss Hunting in 2019 as a fully-fledged Content Specialist. In 2021, he was promoted to News Editor. Garry proudly retains a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, black bruises from Muay Thai, as well as a black belt in all things pop culture. Drop him a line at [email protected]


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