Writing for Mad Men Helped Mrs. America’s Creator Avoid TV Period Piece Clichés

Dahvi Waller on picking the right ’70s brands and ads to create an ‘immersive’ world

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America
FX on Hulu's Mrs. America, starring Cate Blanchett, will debut Wednesday, with three episodes available to stream. Sabrina Lantos/FX
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Key insights:

While several of spring’s biggest series have been delayed due to COVID-19, some of the most highly anticipated new shows are sticking to their April and May premiere dates. That includes Mrs. America, FX’s nine-episode limited series about the ’70s movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and the conservative backlash led by Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett).

The show also spotlights the feminists who were at the forefront of the ratification movement, including Gloria Steinem (played by Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduda), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks).

Mrs. America was developed for FX but will instead stream on FX on Hulu, as the company expands its brand beyond linear TV with a new branded hub on its Disney sibling’s platform. Its first three episodes will debut Wednesday, with a new episode streaming weekly, as part of FX’s new scheduling strategy across all its platforms.

Creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller spoke with Adweek about how her two seasons as a writer and producer on Mad Men helped prepare her for Mrs. America, making the unexpected switch from FX to FX on Hulu, and how she picked the ’70s brands and ads that are interwoven into the show.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Adweek: Having a cast led by Cate Blanchett and all those other big names is a great way to break out in the Peak TV era.
It is. There’s so many television shows. I remember when I started in the business, I knew all the television shows that were on. Now I’ll hear of a show, and I’m like, “Oh, did that premiere this year?” And it’s in its fifth season. [laughs] So it definitely helps a lot as a writer to have a cast like this, just to get the word out.

What was your reaction when you heard the show would be part of FX on Hulu instead of premiering on FX?
I sold this show to FX in 2015, and it was in development for a couple of years. At that point, we were part of the Fox family. When we went into production [last year], we knew that they were being bought by Disney. Then, [FX Networks chairman] John Landgraf called all of the producers on our show and told us, “You’re going to be premiering on Hulu.” I’m like, “Wait, what is happening?” He walked us through the whole thing and why, and it was really quite exciting.

Why was that?
I cut the cord years ago, so I actually have Hulu, and that’s how I watch a lot of my television. And with all the subscribers to Hulu, I thought it was a great platform for the show, so I was quite pleased.

Three episodes will debut April 15 with new episodes premiering weekly, which for a show like this seems like a better way to have viewers watch it as opposed to a binge-release.
That was my first question, because we talked in the writer’s room about how you break story for a show that is going to be binged versus a show that’s going to be shown linearly. We broke all the story and wrote the scripts with the idea that it would be once a week. So that was my first question to John is, are we still once a week? I was very happy.

I think it’s great to drop the first three, because it’s really when you get to episode three that you get what the series is about, and the structure of the series. So I’m really happy about that. I’m glad we’re going to keep the conversation going for a few more weeks rather than it [comes] all at once and then everyone’s done by Monday, and onto the next thing.

You weave in a few brands and ads from the time period in the show. Were there specific ones in mind that you wanted to include, or did the production designers come up with them?
To me, everything in the show is always driven by story. So for instance, that Fresca ad at the very top of episode two—I liked the idea of Fresca because it’s so ’70s and anything that is specific that brings you back to that time period is always really great. But really, it was what the ad was saying about what was being advertised to women at that time period that really excited me about putting it in the script. It reminds the audience that, yes, this is 1972 and the women’s movement is on the rise and women are making advances, but look, they’re still being told to drink diet soda and be invisible, so that was why I chose that ad.

I think you’re right that the brands from that time period really sell the time period, especially the brands are no longer with us, or the idea of cigarette smoking. All those things really put you in a time and place in an immersive way. They help make the world feel lived in.

"Don't pick the low-hanging fruit. Don't go for the things that are super obvious, like Tab soda. Go for Fresca."
Dahvi Waller

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.