December 28, 2008

Accuracy in Mad Men

The ninth episode of Mad Men's first season (titled Shoot) includes a couple brief references to Indians.

1) When ad executive Jim Hobart tries to lure Don Draper away from Sterling Cooper, part of his pitch goes like this:Television? Oh, you could be in that in a bigger way. You know that.

What, you want to sell corn? We do a show about Indians.
2) Later, Don's wife is reminiscing at the psychiatrist's office about how Don romanced her:Then three weeks later, the coat arrived at my apartment. Who knows what kind of Indian trading he had to do to get it?The first instance is one of Mad Men's few moments of inauthenticity. Who called a Western "a show about Indians" in 1960? Who'd assume that such a show would sell a lot of corn? Who even knew about the Indian connection to corn? The answer to all three questions is no one, basically.

This reference smacks of "political correctness" to me. I.e., "Let's have the actors mention Indians to show how much more aware we are today than people were in 1960." In reality, 1960's people probably went years without mentioning Indians in any context other than "cowboys 'n' Indians."

DVD featurette

Speaking of authenticity, perhaps the most interesting part of this DVD is the "Establishing Mad Men" featurette. The creators explain how they achieved the authenticity that has made the show a hit. Below is a key sequence of comments:Accuracy to the period is, like, of paramount importance to all of us. Because, you know, if it’s wrong, it’s embarrassing. And, you know, it looks unprofessional. And it compromises the ability for people to suspend their disbelief.

Scott Hornbacher, producer
For Matt Weiner, authenticity is the sort of penultimate thing in this show. And he has images in his mind that he constantly tries to convey to us so that we don’t go in a direction that he feels is wrong for the period.

Amy Wells, set director
I was very reality-oriented, and I kept pulling people back. I’m like, they’re like, this is Don’s car, a 1959 Cadillac, the most beautiful car ever made. 1960 Cadillac. I’m like, guys...I know, but no. You know, I don’t wanna do that. I want it to be like what I grew up with.

Matthew Weiner, executive producer
Matt, at one point, had asked that we put an Etch-a-Sketch, the toy, for a bunch of kids to play with in the back of the car. And when I did my research, I found out, even though our show takes place in April of 1960, the toy wasn’t released until the summer of 1960. And Matt wanted to keep true to the period, so we cut out the Etch-a-Sketch.

We do it for ourselves. It just allows us to be true to the time period, and the environment where we’re working in. Keeping the historical accuracy allows the characters to develop the way Matt wants.

Scott Buckwald, prop master
Comment:  It amazes me that I keep having to explain this to those who apologize for Native mistakes and stereotypes. You know, the people who say Apocalypto or Comanche Moon or Twilight is just a movie? Were these people raised on a desert island under a rock by a pack of wolves? Did no one ever explain the concept of verisimilitude to them? How dumb do they have to be not to understand why Hollywood strives for historical accuracy?

The creators of most reality-based dramas say they want their shows to be accurate. And many of them--such as the Mad Men staff--go to great lengths to achieve it. Why would they do this if doesn't matter? Have the studios entrusted millions of dollars to these creators even though they're obsessive-compulsive idiots? Or do these creators understand something about filmmaking that their "it's just a [blank]" critics don't?

What the apologists mean

Although the apologists can't or won't say it, we can guess what they're thinking. It goes something like this:Sure, I'd be upset if you portrayed me, my family, and my friends as drunks, savages, or animals. But we're real. People like the Quileute Indians in Twilight are different. They're just fictional characters. Who cares if a movie distorts or bastardizes their lives or cultures? Unlike me and mine, they don't matter.For anyone who remains unconvinced, here's what often happens when you strive for historical accuracy in movies and TV shows:

Mad MenMad Men has received wide critical acclaim, particularly for its historical authenticity and visual style, and has won numerous awards, including two Golden Globes and six Emmys. It is the second cable series to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series and the first basic cable series to do so.For more on the subject, see Why People Believe Movies and Educating Russ About Historical Accuracy.

P.S. If authenticity is the penultimate goal, I presume good storytelling is the ultimate goal.

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