The meaning behind American TV show titles

The meaning behind American TV show titles

Some demystification of the titles – poetic, comic or just weird – of some of the popular US television shows we love.

American television is no doubt one of the USA’s biggest imports. In the 1980s ad 1990s, Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier and Friends were comedy series which became hits worldwide. Since then, shows like Lost, The Sopranos and 24 were also big hits in the late early 2000s. American television series have monopolized television schedules around the world – its actors are huge stars, and the catchphrases are known the world over.

And, whether English is your native language or you are learning it and using TV and English-language media to boost your skills – some television series can be a little confusing. We might love the stories, but Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland – why do these series have these titles?

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a modest chemistry teacher who learns, at the beginning of the series, that he is slowly dying of cancer. The show, which runs over six series and recently finished to much hype and acclaim, charts the last two years of his life, in which this sweet everyman becomes a criminal overlord. How? Well, Walter chooses to use his chemical knowhow to create and sell methamphetamine until he makes enough money to ensure that his family will be financially secure once he dies. (Needless to say, it doesn’t turn out quite so simple as that…)

But what does ‘breaking bad’ actually mean? Creator Vince Gilligan, who also made the X Files, defines the phrase as meaning ‘to raise hell’. To raise hell loosely means to create trouble, to generate unrest and difficulty, often driven by a feeling of indignity, rebellion or injustice. One thing that makes this interesting in relation to the series Breaking Bad is that the seemingly sweet protagonist Walter White, who first tries to ‘raise hell’ for moral reasons to do with helping his family, seems to become a bit of a devil himself. Without spoiling it for anyone, the series asks whether it is Walter who has become the criminal?

Mad Men

This hugely successful ongoing series from ANC tells the story of a number of advertising executives in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. Centred around the enigmatic, damaged addictive personality of Don Draper – a seductive, brilliant advertiser who struggles to be a good man to the women and family in his life – it has won 15 Emmys, 4 Golden Globes and numerous other awards.

So what does the ‘mad’ in Mad Men signify? Well, as you might guess, it doesn’t mean ‘insane’. Don and his contemporaries may have their vices (a vice is a little sin – a bad habit), from heavy drinking and smoking to sleeping around, but they don’t seem to be insane. That’s what makes them so intriguing – it would be easy to dismiss their actions if they were ‘mad’. No.

The ‘mad’ in Mad Men is actually just one more neat historical reference which the impeccable-dressed series does so well. ‘Mad men’ was a name which the New York advertising execs gave themselves in the 1960s, in a typically smart piece of self-advertising. Mad refers to Madison Avenue, the huge boulevard which runs from North to South in Manhattan, which was the home to these huge advertising agencies.


This series from the producers of 24 – a very popular series whose 24 episodes told the story of one very action-packed day, hour by hour – has been one of the most popular United States exports of the last few years. It stars Claire Danes and British actor Damian Lewis in a story of intrigue, terrorism and corruption set in the CIA in Washington and Virginia. It is shown in countries like Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland and Switzerland. But why ‘Homeland’?

Well, the series is actually a remake of an Israeli series, named Hatufim, by Gideon Raff. Hatufim does not mean Homeland, but ‘Abductees’, or Prisoners of War. Like Homeland, it tells the story of a prisoner of war, returned to his land, suspected to have been turned into a terrorist by those enemies who had captured him. The change of title for the US version to Homeland reveals the changes in emphasis that American producers made to the show.

In America, the word ‘homeland’ is most famously associated with the Department of Homeland Security – the organization in charge of border security and antiterrorism amongst other things. Homeland almost certainly refers to this.

30 Rock

Another successful US export in a long line of comedy shows has been 30 Rock. Created by Tina Fey, a comedienne who made her name on Saturday Night Live, one of the US’ most famous comedy variety shows. It also stars Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan and has won several primetime Emmy Awards.

30 Rock tells the story of Liz Lemon, a writer for a ficitional sketch comedy TV show TGS with Tracy Jordan, played by Fey. Tina Fey was head writer and a performer on Saturday Night Live, and her experiences at the show feed directly into the satirical world of 30 Rock. Alec Baldwin plays her megalomaniacal, sociopathic wealthy boss and head of the station, who seems to have little real interest in the show’s content apart from making money.

And the title? 30 Rock refers to the address of the television station’s centre: 30 Rockerfeller Plaza, where the fictional TGS is filmed.

Image credit: AMC Networks

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