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A Maddening “Half-Correction” and Other “Mad” Thoughts

 

One of my favorite stories from my days as a newspaper critic came out of a press conference before the premiere of the long-running NBC series “L.A. Law.”

Mad Men

Mad Men

My memory is that TV critics expressed their support for the pilot during the session, but one critic had an issue with the casting. He thought the idea of a very tall, attractive female lawyer being married to a very short male lawyer didn’t make any sense.

Steven Bochco, the co-creator of the series, was amused. He explained that the actress playing the female lawyer, Jill Eikenberry, and the actor playing the male lawyer, Michael Tucker, were married in real life. The questioner felt pretty foolish.

That was quite a lesson. You know, how criminal lawyers are taught never to ask a question they don’t know an answer to. Well, the Eikenberry-Tucker story made me realize that critics should never question certain creative decisions without checking if they are based on real life.

Which brings me to Jeff Simon’s column in Tuesday’s Buffalo News on the season premiere of “Mad Men.” Simon has an interesting mind. He had several opinions that I agree with. He called the series “well-made,’ “clever” and “cannily-written.”

He also said it was “foolishly overhyped.” I must admit I was astounded by how much attention the “Today” show gave it before its return after a 17-month hiatus. It doesn’t get that many viewers to deserve all that attention but it does get the most desirable viewers (the wealthy) and it has won four straight Emmy awards as best drama. As I’ve written before, the series is an acquired taste and many people haven’t acquired it because the pace is so much slower than most TV and there’s not much traditional TV action.

However, there were several things that Simon wrote that I disagreed with. That isn’t unusual. When I worked there, we often disagreed and I thought that served the reader well.

Simon views “Mad Men” as “a weekly flattering of Manhattan’s media world – a brilliant massage of its essential narcissism by glamorizing its inhabitants.”

Glamorizing? The male characters all lie, cheat, drink excessively and work in a business that has a goal of making people buy things they don’t need.

Simon added Tuesday that he thought “Mad Men” “is the most ridiculously overrated TV phenomenon of our time.” He added he “dislikes” it because “(creator Matthew) Weiner and his buddies continually and annoyingly got it (the 1960s) all wrong.”

His point might be lost on people who view “Mad Men” as entertainment and not history.  However, to make his point about getting it all wrong Simon cited the bookends of the premiere dealing with civil rights. In an early scene, young employees of an advertising firm called Young and Rubicam (Y&R in the trade) dropped water bags on civil rights demonstrators.

Simon didn’t deny that ad agencies back then “didn’t have their share of dimwits so stupid and insensitive that they’d think it funny” to do such a thing. But he added “no one is going to convince me that by then there weren’t … secret Bohemians and political types… in even the stuffiest strongholds who were already hugely sensitive to the glories of the civil rights movement. Their existent would have made it clumsy, at best, to be so insensitive.”

When I read that statement I immediately thought of Eikenberry and Tucker. I Googled Young and Rubicam and 1966 on the hunch the incident was based on fact. My hunch was partly based on the use of Young and Rubicam, a firm that still exists today and certainly might protest the reference if it wasn’t based on fact. It also was based on Weiner’s well-known attention to detail. It didn’t come up on Google on Tuesday.

It did Wednesday when The New York Times ran a piece that said the scene was based on a real water bag incident in 1966 and that Weiner didn’t even have to write the scene. The dialogue in the scene came entirely from quotes in a 1966 front page story in The New York Times about the incident.

The Times ran the 1966 story about the incident Wednesday in addition to an interview with Weiner about the scene. Here is part of what Wednesday’s Times story said.

“Poverty Pickets Get Paper-Bag Dousing on Madison Avenue,” the headline read. The article described more than 300 people picketing the Office of Economic Opportunity, between East 40th and 41st Streets, the day before, chanting, “O-E-O, we’ve got the poverty, where’s the dough?” Executives upstairs at Young & Rubicam, half a block from the building, shouted at the protesters, and hung up signs saying “If you want money, get yourself a job.”

“I was blown away,” Mr. Weiner said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I just loved the level of outrage from the participants in the protest. It was so eloquently said, and it struck to the heart of the conflict. They were being lampooned. This was a very serious issue for them and a joke to everyone else.”

The Times reported that Weiner quickly decided to keep the reporter’s dialogue.

“His story was such that I thought it inviolable,” Mr. Weiner said. “The way that quote-unquote ‘average person’ got to the heart of it was way better than any writer could have made up. If I had concocted the story, I would have never written that. It was a great capturing of the lack of respect, which is to me what a lot of the show is about.”

In other words, the extraordinarily-detailed Weiner made a creative judgment based on real life that spoke to the insensitivity that bothered Simon. In fairness, Simon updated his Tuesday column online on Wednesday with what he amusingly called an “important half correction.” (Maybe he’ll even find it important enough to address in his Friday TV column). He wrote after “exhaustive research” that the scene was based on real life, but he stuck by his initial criticism of the scene.

I’m assuming the words “exhaustive research” was meant as a joke because anyone who knows how Simon works knows those words don’t belong in any sentence he writes. I would guess his “exhaustive research” consisted of someone showing him the Times article Wednesday.

Even more amusing was the term “half correction.” It is sort of like bring “half pregnant.” When you are accusing a show of getting it “all wrong” the last thing a writer wants to be is wrong about anything. Simon also thought Sunday’s show was set in 1965 and not 1966. Details, details. Who needs them?

Simon is entitled to his opinion, even if it is based on information that was “all wrong.”

Now it is time for what I am tempted to call my own “half correction” as a joke.

I got an email from another movie critic in town, Michael Calleri, with the headline “In Defense of Jeff Simon.” Since I know that Calleri and Simon aren’t exactly buddies, I found the headline amusing and interesting.

Calleri was reacting to a comment I wrote a few weeks ago about The News quietly but noticeably decreasing the number of movie reviews it does locally and running wire reviews instead.

The comment was accurate. However, Calleri explained that movie distributors have severely cut down on the number of screenings available in Buffalo now that its market size is out of the Top 50 and that The News still reviews every movie that is pre-screened here.

Good to know. However, there is nothing preventing The News from reviewing high-profile movies after they have run for a day or two here even if they weren’t pre-screened for critics.

After all, Simon reviews TV shows like “Mad Men” all the time days after they have premiered. I’d rather read a local film review a few days after a movie has premiered than a national review the day it does premiere. Even better, I’d rather read a national review the day of the premiere and a local review a few days later.

pergament@msn.com

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/28/on-mad-men-an-opening-scene-straight-from-page-1/

 

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1 response to "A Maddening “Half-Correction” and Other “Mad” Thoughts"

  1. Libation says:

    What do you expect from Simon, he was born and raised a Geek. He even wore a suit to Woodstock!

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