Tuesday, November 3, 2009

When Accuracy Goes Wrong

Ad Age posts a rant from an ad exec mad about Mad Men and claims it totally misrepresents the period. Some of his complaints are ticky-tack, one of his complaints misreads the show completely (and interestingly), and some are totally on-point. In this, the backlash season, it’s become increasingly popular to nitpick historical claims that Mad Men makes, and it has had a few. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that…

But I can’t help but think that this is a serious error on Mad Men’s part. They were the ones who began the claims of near-infallibility on historical accuracy in the first place; open every profile of Mad Men and you will see an (often entertaining!) anecdote of creator Matt Weiner’s OCDness re: the 60s. After the third or so profile hitting this point, you have to suspect that this is more than the author’s critical eye but a concerted media strategy. And that’s fine for them; you’ve gotta market your show somehow. But I suspect also that Weiner actually believes or is trying to create an absolutely faithful depiction of life in that time period.

That’s a bit more of an interesting aesthetic perspective to grapple with. My personal feeling is this: since details are selected, they cannot really be of an absolutely faithful realism; we are biased and prejudicial in our selections in trying to shape the story for our own purposes, and we sometimes want to discard boring, inconvenient facts for equally plausible, richer fictions. (A good example is one of the complaints lodged by the Ad Age exec: he complains that the “Limit Your Exposure” campaign would never have been approved to run by the censors. Well, a) there’s no evidence that the campaign was ever followed through on since b) the whole point of the campaign was Don’s coded way of sending a message to Salvatore that it’s OK if you’re gay, just limit your exposure. Since b) holds, the actual possibility of its being accepted in real life at that time doesn’t really matter for me: it is plausible enough to the audience for them to accept and it serves the writer’s purposes. Good enough.) The goal of fiction is not to be journalism or a tape recorder; it’s to tell an entertaining story. Part of the entertainment of Mad Men is the thrill is that “this is as it once was” and its historical liberties only count against it insofar as it shatters the illusion; small liberties can be excused.

At any rate, that thrill of perceived recognition at our atavistic yet glorious past is the core of both the entertainment of Mad Men and its message. It’s often said that the show has a duality at its core: it’s about the gorgeous times and designs of the characters, but also about their spiritual and emotional needs that are unmet—by those same times. Critics often say that this is a contradiction—our Ad Age exec writes that “They're turning those dinosaurs into rock stars”—but it is, in fact, not a contradiction, or, if it is, the contradiction is the point. The point is that by making the design, the clothes, the women, the booze and all that utterly seductive, the audience is sucked into admiring it and wanting it for themselves. (Hence the stuff about Don Draper being named Men We Admire by GQ or something like that; Jon Hamm, himself, on a Bill Simmons podcast noted that when he met some professional athletes, their favorite scene was Hamm fingering Bobbi near the Ladies’ Room). In presenting the seductiveness of the riches and decadence, it shows how difficult it is to change, to pry yourself away, to move away from the conventional wisdom of the culture. I don’t want to spoil Season 3 for anyone, but it reveals that fact pretty dramatically. The seductiveness of wanting riches and wanting approval is a temptation that’s too great to bear for most of the characters, which is the tragedy of the show.

Note that this doesn’t require absolute historical accuracy, merely enough to demonstrate that these are changing times and that the tides are shifting. In fact, as a matter of history you could claim that the fifties were an underratedly happening decade and the show could have very well taken place then; the same kind of story could have been set in the eighties, with bankers, in the nineties, perhaps with the Internet boom, in the aughts, with bankers again (is this a sad commentary on our history or what?).

One place where accuracy fails, of course, is the absolutely disgusting The Blind Side adaptation (and such a good book). What is absolutely complex about the story is transformed into easy archetypes. And unlike the archetypes of Mad Men, which are worthy if sometimes overused, the archetypes of the adapted Blind Side are actively harmful. The claim that people will make about the adapted Blind Side is that it needs better facts; the claim they should be making is that it needs better archetypes.

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