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Robert A. Mills

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LUCKY STRIKE GREEN
8/14/2010 5:28:46 AM
The 2010-11 TV season is under way-—AMC’s “Mad Men” jumped the gun by kicking it off as early as July 25. It may now be safe to suggest that in just a few short years the summer hiatus will, as we know it, be a thing of the past. Hopefully.

Not a bad idea, when you stop to think about it. The usual summer “replacements” and re-runs are a heavy and dreary burden not only for the networks but for viewers as well.

Economically, there is no sound reason for most studios to suspend production from Memorial Day to Labor Day. With sponsors lining up to pay the absurd tab and throw cash at producers and with TV sets now ranging from hand-held gadgets to 56-inch flat-screens in resort suites, as many eyes will be glued to the tube in August as in January. Staggered vacations by casts and crews could become the norm.

If quality were the sort of criterion it should be, year-round first class TV would continue to attract viewers no matter what the season.

Of course, the argument still predominates: what are the overall best (and worst) shows on TV? Some will say “Mad Men” wins hands-down. Others lean toward “Friday Night Lights” and “Whale Wars”. The nod also goes to “Brothers and Sisters”, the original “CSI” and now defunct “Law and Order”—not to overlook “The Good Wife”, “Modern Family”, “The Office” and a half dozen others that come in well ahead of the lot. The rest, admittedly, are also-rans, culled from Newton Minnow’s “vast wasteland,” led by 99% of the reality and game shows (except “Jeopardy” and “The Apprentice”—-all right, “Survivor” also squeezes by, barely.
)
Were it not for Discovery, History, AMC, CNN, (C-Span?), HBO, PBS, some sports’ coverage and a few other cable offerings, Goodwill would be inundated with abandoned sets. Time has proven ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC cannot carry the burden alone—or even in tandem.

Because AMC’s prestigious “Mad Men” captured the gold this year for early exposure, I was particularly interested in Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column in a recent New York Times Magazine. In it he said: “No show in American television history . . . has ever put so much effort into maintaining historically appropriate ways of speaking — and no show has attracted so much scrutiny for its efforts. . . . Among recent small-screen forays into historical fiction, only “Deadwood”. . . [enjoyed] remotely comparable discussion about the authenticity of its language. (Commenters . . . tended to focus on whether its torrents of colorful, modern-sounding cursing were out of place for a South Dakota mining camp in the 1870s — which they almost certainly were.”)

Mr. Zimmer goes on to say, “[Speaking] with Matthew Weiner, the creator, executive producer and head writer of ‘Mad Men,’ he [said] that goofs sneak through on his show. He . . . regrets allowing the character Joan to say ‘The medium is the message’ . . . four years before Marshall McLuhan introduced the dictum in print. But he defends Joan’s year-end valedictory, ‘1960, I am so over you,’ by pointing to the Cole Porter song ‘So in Love’ from ‘Kiss Me, Kate.’ Scholars . . . might disagree, seeing a nuance between Porter’s use of the adverb so, which quantifies the extent to which the character is in love, and the later Generation X-style spin on the word as an intensifier meaning ‘extremely’ or ‘completely’ without any comparison of relative degree.”

The debate goes on ad nauseum. What seems to be overlooked is that AMC is not the History Channel. Although many erudite purists will argue their cause with enthusiastic justification, who really cares if the characters’ lines are anachronistically incorrect, so long as the clothes, hairstyles, automobiles, sets, morals, etc. are somewhat in keeping with what we believe were the visual aspects of the time portrayed? Realistically, the vast percentage of viewers were not even born by 1960 (and most of those born previously cannot remember the idioms of the day, anyway.)

The plot of “Mad Men” is, like life itself, convoluted. For example, Draper's real name is Dick Whitman: he assumed the identity of Don Draper during the Korean War after the death of his lieutenant, taking the dead officer’s name to escape from the war. Go figure how that works.

Then there’re the gross habits of the characters. I, for one, care less what Draper and his cohorts smoke and drink on the show. Lucky Strike is his ad agency’s major client. Originally, it was packaged in a green pack with a large red spot; during World War II, “Lucky Strike green [went] to war” and never came back. The green was permanently replaced with plain white surrounding the huge circle of red (that spot is perhaps symbolic of what was to appear on many smokers’ lungs decades later.)

Lucky Strike quickly regained dominance with the auctioneers chant “L/S/M/F/T—Luck Strike means fine tobacco!” (augmented in high schools across the country by the pseudo-sophisticated juvenile refrain “Let’s Screw, My Finger’s Tired!” ) Hard liquor, by gentlemen’s agreement, was not commercially promoted on radio and TV until much later.

During filming, none of the actors actually smoke or drink. California’s tobacco laws require performers to “smoke” herbal cigarettes while on set; their “whiskey” is tepid tea, apple juice, watered-down root beer or plain aqua. Ugh!

However, judging by the chain of cigarettes and gallons of whisky allegedly consumed on “Mad Men”, at least 70% of the characters contracted lung cancer, emphysema and/or cirrhosis of the liver before retiring—incidentally, Draper/Whitman, if he were still alive (highly unlikely, considering his penchant for self-destruction) would celebrate his mid-eighties this year. With some luck, he has survived at least three divorces, four career changes, a total restructuring of lifestyle, prostate cancer and a couple heart-bypass operations. Today, he could be experiencing the first symptoms of geriatric dementia (“What the hell is my real name?”

In watching these TV dramas, most of us expect to be basically entertained, not subliminally educated (not that that would be a bad thing.) If the storyline is historical fiction, it should be written and acted as such, according to the producer’s ability, with enough natural authenticity to be believable. While the characters are required to speak in a language we, as today’s audience, can readily understand and react to, what does it matter the veracity of the idiom so long as the jargon is concise, clear and moves the story along?

Emmys and Oscars are not awarded for the genealogy of dialogue as much as for dramatic impact and substance. If someone says, “Hey, man, what’s shakin’?” rather than “Hello—-can I be of assistance?” it may jar the purists’ sensibilities-—but so what?

“Mad Men” is a wonderful show for people like me to watch. I spent my formative and adult years immersed in the broadcasting and advertising world. I totally identify with the fantasies and idiosyncrasies of Don/Dick, Betty, Joan, Peggy, Roger et al—as well as everyone with whom they are associated. I know precisely where they are coming from and where they are going-—even if they don’t.

The only difference is, I remember those halcyon years in the time frame of today. I don’t have to re-read “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or hang out in New York hotels waiting for Holden Caulfield to find his manhood-—nor do I have to watch an Alfred Hitchcock festival-—to know from whence the characters evolved.

And I don’t need to be inundated with accurate 1960-ish gibberish, which will only confuse my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren—and me. Mostly me.

What Ben Zimmer fails to mention: Matthew Weiner himself was born in 1965; despite his trophy cabinet of Emmys and Golden Globes-—not to mention his bald pate—-he was not even around, or barely, at the time we mad men roamed the earth.

When my kids ask “Grandpa, what was it like for you back in the Dark Ages of 1960?” I want to reply, “Just like on TV, chilluns; just like on TV.”

Copyright© 2010 by Robert A. Mills


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