Historical Accuracy becomes Historical Actuality


In his New York Times blog post “On Mad Men, an Opening Scene Straight FromPage 1," Michael Wilson reveals that the opening scene of Mad Men’s fifth season was based on a New York Times article published on May 28, 1966. In the scene, ad executives from Young & Rubicam (Y&R) throw water-filled paper bags out of their office windows to hit African American, poverty-reform protesters below. The drama that unfolded between the ad men and protesters in the scene does not stray far from the actual events and dialogue reported in the 1966 article “Poverty Pickets get Paper Bag Dousing on Madison Avenue” by John Kifner.

Wilson’s article explores the connections between the scene and its historical inspiration, and references people involved in the scene’s creation and reception. He first states the initial, negative response of the show’s critics to the scene’s script and notes that the show’s writers did not actually create the dialogue in question. He then quotes excerpts of the 1966 article to show how strikingly similar the Mad Men writers kept the scene to the actual events. Mad Men’s head of research, Allison Mann, found the article and showed it to the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner. Weiner was “blown away” by Kifner’s article and decided to stay true to the conflict between the ad executives and protesters. Current Y&R chief executive, David Sable, responded with a statement that acknowledged the firm’s wrongdoing and condemned the behavior of those former employees. The article then includes the reactions of the critics to the fact that the dialogue in the scene was not artificially written. It concludes with Kifner’s reaction to his article becoming a scene on the television show.

I appreciated that Wilson’s article took a specific scene and gave the reader both a glimpse behind the making of Mad Men and a specific example of racial tensions in the 1960s. The article included many sources that offered different perspectives and insights about the scene. After reading the article, I am fascinated by Mad Men’s writing staff’s use of research, although this scene is exceptional in its use of Kifner’s article, and not all aspects of the show maintain the same level of historical accuracy. I also found the scene itself particularly interesting because it opened season five with a theme often brushed over in the series—race relations. The placement of the scene in the first episode foreshadows more exploration of race relations throughout the season. Overall, the article successfully offers brings new meaning to the scene as the reader learns about the adaptation of Kifner’s article for Mad Men.

The details provided in Wilson’s article illuminate a Mad Men scene that may otherwise seem unimportant. The scene’s almost exact resemblance to the article from 1966 incorporates the reality of race relations at the time of the civil rights movement and adds depth to the popular period drama.  

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