Pittsburghers take notice whenever Heinz is mentioned on "Mad Men," and it has been many times in recent seasons. Now there's a former Pittsburgher writing for "Mad Men," although the Heinz mentions began before his arrival.
Shadyside native Tom Smuts joined the "Mad Men" writing staff for the show's current, sixth season (10 p.m. Sundays, AMC), and he co-wrote last Sunday's episode, "The Flood," with series creator Matthew Weiner. The episode was set against the backdrop of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. Smuts, a 1984 graduate of Oakland's Central Catholic High School, broke into TV writing with the Pittsburgh-set 2001-04 CBS drama "The Guardian." After that he wrote on CBS's 2005-07 series "Close to Home." Then the writers' strike happened, and Mr. Smuts didn't land another staff writer job but contributed scripts to "The Good Wife" and "Memphis Beat." He also wrote a pilot for HBO about Texas heart surgeons; "Mad Men" boss Matthew Weiner read that script and hired Mr. Smuts, 46, to write for his show.
"I had a hard time getting staffed over the last five seasons to the point that I was almost out of the business," Mr. Smuts said in a phone interview this week. "Matt hired me for 'Mad Men,' and I went from as cold as you could be to being on one of the greatest shows on television. ... From my point of view, it felt like magic; from the point of view of the business, it's just what happens."
A 1992 graduate of the University of Michigan, Mr. Smuts graduated from Harvard Law School in 1996 and worked in media and Internet-related businesses for five years before breaking into TV. He lives in Santa Monica, Calif, with his wife, another TV writer, Meredith Stiehm, creator of "Cold Case," who also has written for "Homeland" and "ER" and executive produces the upcoming FX summer series "The Bridge."
Mr. Smuts said working on "The Guardian" taught him the collaborative nature of TV writing and that the job of a TV writer is to serve the vision, imagination and process of the show's head writer, often called the showrunner.
He said most shows involve one of two approaches to creating scripts: Some programs have a writers' room where writers work together to bounce story ideas off each other, and then an individual writer (or pair of writers) goes off to write the script. On other dramas, there's no writers' room and writers work in a small group or directly with the showrunner on a script. "Mad Men" works differently.
Mr. Smuts said for the first month of season six production, the writers talked about history and philosophy in a wide-ranging discussion that included telling stories from their own lives. Then the writers were asked to bring 10 story pitches. Mr. Weiner and executive producers Andre and Maria Jacquemetton sift through the ideas and decide which ones to develop. From that, each episode story emerges with a 15-page outline that includes ideas for dialogue and a 50-page document full of ideas for the episode. With those in hand, the writer goes off to develop a first draft of the episode's script.
"The ['Mad Men'] writers' room is an amazing group of people and a very collaborative culture," Mr. Smuts said. "It's among the most collegial, open and honest writers' rooms I've ever been in."
Mr. Weiner is heavily involved in rewriting each script, which is often developed to build to a specific scene. In Sunday's episode it was Don Draper's late-in-the-episode monologue about being a father.
"I'm pretty sure that speech was pitched by Matt in the writers' room a couple of seasons ago," Mr. Smuts said. "There's so much raw material and so much history after five seasons that to some degree you're mining for diamonds."
Mr. Smuts says he gets back to Pittsburgh about once a year, including a trip home this weekend, to visit his two brothers and his mom, Marjorie Smuts Murray, who hosted midday TV talk shows in Pittsburgh in the early 1960s and worked doing demonstrations of Alcoa products.
When filming last Sunday's "Mad Men" episode, the scene of Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini) and her husband leaving New York for a trip to Washington, D.C., was particularly striking to Mr. Smuts.
"There's one picture, probably from 1965, in an advertisement for Alcoa where my mom is wearing long white gloves, and when Linda Cardellini was on set in that scene early in the episode, I took a picture of her and that old picture of my mom and put them side by side and sent them to [my mom]," Mr. Smuts said. "It was like a spitting image."
Comedians have been getting their own prime-time TV shows since time immemorial, but there's something kind of perfect about Marc Maron landing on IFC, formerly known as the Independent Film Channel. After all, he's best known for his work as an independent podcaster as host of "WTF Podcast With Marc Maron," where he interviews other comedians.
In "Maron" (10 tonight, IFC), he plays a version of himself. It's a comedy-of-the-uncomfortable series, like "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where the lead character is prone to making terrible, embarrassing decisions.
In one episode, Mr. Maron stalks a detractor who mocks him on Twitter. Like many of the show's plots, it's based on a real-life incident and then embellished for entertainment value.
"But life experience is a little myopic in that sometimes life experiences are insulated," Mr. Maron said in a teleconference with reporters last month. "You've got to flesh it out and make it a little bigger."
In real life, Mr. Maron's troll was not on Twitter but a smaller website.
"The method I used to find him, to figure out his real identity, was very similar to what happened in the show," he said. "I ended up engaging that guy, and it went on for months. But it happened all online. That story took a different direction [on the show]. We had to figure out, well, let's get me outside, let's get me out in the world and go track this guy down, and create a character for this guy. That's the way that changed, but the root of it and how I engage with trolls, if I do, and how extreme that can get, was very real."
As broadcast networks prepare for their upfront presentations to advertisers later this month where they'll announce which shows they are renewing, they sometimes get a jump on the process with early renewals.
Late last week NBC renewed five dramas, including the beloved "Parenthood." Other winners in the Peacock renewal lottery were "Revolution," "Chicago Fire," "Grimm" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
The CW also added to its renewals by picking up "Hart of Dixie" and "Beauty and the Beast" for another go-around. (Still in limbo at The CW: "Nikita" and "The Carrie Diaries.")
CBS picked up "Two and a Half Men" with stars Ashton Kutcher and Jon Cryer signed to return, but half-man Angus T. Jones, who criticized the show last year, is not yet on board. CBS says it is negotiating to get him back on a recurring basis, which is pretty much what he's been this season.
Meanwhile, ABC will burn off a series it already has canceled. The remaining nine episodes of "Zero Hour" will air starting June 15. And NBC's quickly scrapped "Do No Harm" will roll out its 11 unaired episodes starting June 29.
BBC America renewed its original drama "Orphan Black" for a 10-episode second season to air in 2014.
Comedy Central has renewed "The Jeselnik Offensive," hosted by 1997 Upper St. Clair High School grad Anthony Jeselnik, and "Nathan for You" for 10-episode second seasons. "Jeselnik" will be back in July; "Nathan" returns in 2014.
Sundance Channel ordered a 10-episode second season of "Rectify" to air in 2014. HBO ordered a third season of "Veep" for 2014.
And, as expected, TNT has ordered a 15-episode third season of revived '80s soap "Dallas" to air in early 2014.
NBC's "Saturday Night Live" (11:30 p.m. Saturday, WPXI) will finish up its 2012-13 season with Zach Galifianakis as guest host this weekend with musical guest Of Monsters and Men, former "SNL" player Kristen Wiig returning to host May 11 with musical guest Vampire Weekend, and Ben Affleck hosting May 18 with Kanye West as musical guest. ... FEARbet now has a date for that "Reaper" reunion special: 9 p.m. May 28. ... National Geographic Channel's "Locked Up Abroad" looks at the real story behind Oscar-winning movie "Argo" at 10 p.m. Sunday. ... For its final episodes, Fox's "New Girl" will begin its episodes at 8:58 p.m. Tuesday and May 14. ... Chris Hardwick ("The Nerdist," "Talking Dead") will add a Monday-Thursday talk show, airing at midnight on Comedy Central this fall, cementing his status as the Ryan Seacrest of nerdom. ... CNN's latest morning show effort -- "New Day" anchored by Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan and Michaela Pereira -- will launch June 10. ... Three of the four Democratic candidates for Pittsburgh mayor -- Bill Peduto, Jack Wagner and Jake Wheatley -- have confirmed participation in a one-hour debate to be televised Monday at 2 p.m. on PCNC and moderated by Channel 11 anchor David Johnson. ... All four Democratic candidates, including A.J. Richardson, will participate in a live mayoral debate 7-8 p.m. Tuesday on WTAE.
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Breaking Bad," "Smash" and reruns. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Rectify," "Inside Amy Schumer" and "Nashville." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about "The Good Wife," "Arrow" and "The Following." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news. First Published May 3, 2013 4:00 AM