Mad Men gets a lot of well deserved praise for so accurately capturing 1960s America. Creator Matthew Weiner has an uncanny sense of the characters’ sensibilities, clothes, haircuts and language. But many people believe that the highly praised show falls down in the one area that defined the 1960s: race relations. Even before anti-Vietnam War protests heated up, civil rights was at the forefront of social change.(Remember, when it came to social-protest anthems, Bob Dylan wrote Blowin in the Wind in 1962, Neil Young wrote Ohio in 1970).
The online magazine Slate ran an intriguing piece on April 10 that began: “Much has been made of Mad Men’s tentative handling of racial tensions in the 1960s. The arrival of each new season brings the same anticipation that race may finally be brought to the forefront of the series.”
Actress Erika Alaxander, an actress in The Cosby Show and Living Single, wrote a 45-page spec script called “Uptown Saturday Night,” Slate tells us, which introduces black characters into Don Draper’s universe. Alexander wrote on her blog: “Why did I write an episode of Mad Men with negroes? And by that I mean with ‘negro’ characters in it,” noting that the show will never get made.
That’s too bad, though, because, judging by the Slate piece, the script packs a lot of the kind of tension and melodrama that Mad Men is so famous for. It centers on the question of how to market a whiskey to minority consumers, a definite challenge five decades ago. We find Don Draper well out of his comfort zone, going uptown to 125th Street in Harlem for a business meeting.
It would be fascinating to how Mad Men really developed the race issue, and not merely as a sidebar to the action of Don chasing women and the machinations of a powerful New York advertising agency. Mad Men would have to be careful, of course. A TV show this widely scrutinized has a lot to lose, if it messes up. Inevitably, bloggers and critics will shout from the rooftops that Mad Men went too far — or not deep enough. Mad Men can’t win in this kind of a situation. All it can do is present a compelling episode.
This debate is nothing new for a highly decorated show. Larry David poked fun at himself, as the co-creator of Seinfeld, in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry was accosted in a restaurant by a black actress who had auditioned way back when for a spot on Seinfeld but was turned down, for a white person. The woman gets quite belligerent during this comedy scene, making Larry stand there and listen to her tirade as he comically tries to defend himself and, by extension, the legacy of the Seinfeld show. It’s a funny scene, and quite believable to think that it might have gone down just that way.
Mad Men’s executives would hate it if the fans of the show in the media started whispering that it had a diversity problem. It would take some of the shine off a show that has scored as many points for realism as for entertainment.
Let’s give Slate the last word: “While it may be hard for Weiner and other white writers to wrap their heads around stories that seem far from their own, Alexander’s script should serve as an example that it’s entirely possible to remain true to a show’s creative vision while pushing outside its usual comfort zone.”
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do you think that Mad Men has a diversity problem?