Monday, March 5, 2018

Matthew Weiner, "MAD MEN" and Issues


This article was first written around late Season Four of the AMC series, "MAD MEN"


Ever since the characters Roger Sterling and Joan Harris were mugged by an African-American man in the Season Four episode of "MAD MEN"(4.09) "The Beautiful Girls", the topic of race in the series reared its head again. The ironic thing is that many of the series' fans and the media still refuse to criticize the series' creator, Matthew Weiner, for the series' minimal exploration of race. Instead, they believe that Weiner will gradually get into the issue by the time the series focuses upon the late 1960s. 

Matthew Weiner reminds me a lot of the creator of "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER", Joss Whedon. The had engaged in a good deal of in-depth exploration of feminine issues during that series' run. Yet, it barely touched upon race issues. The same seemed to be happening in Matthew Weiner's handling of "MAD MEN"

He tried to deal with the race issue with the character of Shelia White back in Season Two. Sheila was the girlfriend of Sterling Cooper copywriter Paul Kinsey. But eight episodes following her first appearance, Sheila's character ended up being dropped in a very unsatisfying manner. Instead of showing the audience the circumstances that led to her and Paul's breakup, Weiner merely had Paul reveal the news to his fellow co-workers, upon his return from a trip to Mississippi. And Weiner portrayed Carla, the Drapers' maid, as the wise and dignified "Negro" - someone who turned out to be not very interesting. Poor Carla became one of those cliches that have permeated Hollywood for so many decades. In her case, she became the "dignified Negro".

I really do not see why Weiner could have approached the issue of race from a perspective not shown before - an African-American character that also happened to be an advertising executive. Most people do not realize this, but African-Americans began being employed by advertising agencies as far back as the mid or late 1950s . . . and not as service employees. Weiner had plenty of opportunity to approach this topic in the past two to three seasons. There is no need for him to wait until the series is set in the late 1960s. 

One of the few critics of Weiner's handling of the race issue had expressed mild contempt. This critic pointed out the the FOX series, "24" had an African-American character as President of the United States . . . six years before Barack Obama became the first person of African descent to be elected to that office. If the producers of "24" (who were known for harboring conservative political beliefs) could do this, what had prevented Weiner from including a major African-American character as an employee of Sterling-Cooper after four seasons? Especially since there had been a small number of Black Americans who worked in advertising. 

I also thought Weiner would deal with gay issues with the character of Sal Romano over the series. In the end, Weiner backed away from that subject, as well. Some claim that Sal's story had simply ran its course. I disagree. Weiner had plenty of opportunity to continue Sal's story. He had barely touched upon the issue of Sal's marriage to Kitty, before he had Sal's character removed from the series in the Season 3 episode, (3.09) "Wee Small Hours". I found this decision to get rid of Sal very disappointing.

I suspect that like Whedon, Weiner will eventually approach the topic of race . . . but at the last minute. Hopefully, there will be a television series or movie that will be brave enough to give equal time to the topic of gender, race and gay issues.


Season Five of "MAD MEN" featured the introduction of Dawn Chambers, Don Draper's new African-American secretary. I wish I could say that with the introduction of Dawn, Weiner was finally able to explore an African-American. Unfortunately, poor Dawn was treated as a recurring character whom viewers barely got the chance to know. Dawn received a promotion to office manager in Season Six. However, her character remained unexplored - especially outside of the office. Not even the introduction of another black secretary, Shirley, could improve Weiner's portrayal of race in the series.

I discovered something even more disturbing. Remember the Coca Cola commercial that included the song, "I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing"? The very ad that ended the series? Guess who really created the jingle for the ad? It was an African-American music executive named Roquel Billy Davis. Ironically, Davis not only worked for McCann-Erikson, the advertisement company that had purchased Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce; he eventually rose to Senior Vice-President and Music Director for that agency. Don was credited for Davis' work. The series featured another one of Davis' work involving the Miller Brewing Company account in early Season Seven. Apparently, Weiner had no problem with appropriating accounts associated with a real life African-American ad executive for the series. But he seemed to have problems featuring African-American ad executives, even when they DID exist during the show's time period. 

I recently learned that Sal Romano's departure from "MAD MEN" was the result of actor Bryan Batt's decision to leave the series for personal reasons. However, the topic of homosexuality was never really explored following Batt's Season Three departure. It had a chance to do so through the character of junior account executive Bob Benson, portrayed by actor James Wolk. Unfortunately, Weiner used the Bob Benson character as a mystery and as a plot device regarding Pete Campbell and Joan Harris' character arcs; instead of someone used to further explore LGBT issues. What a waste.

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