Handling the Truth

April 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

We can’t handle the truth.  We want all the facts to fit with our picture of the world.

The “Mad Men” scripts (see last weeks post ) use words and constructions unknown to real 1966 ad men.   These anachronisms sound “right” to us despite their historical inaccuracy.   And historical facts may sound wrong. 

The Times TV critic saw the “Mad Men” season opener and complained:
The themes of civil rights and equal opportunity thudded into view in a couple of unfortunately ham-handed scenes, one involving the scamps at Young & Rubicam dropping water bombs on picketers (“And they call us savages!” an indignant protester exclaimed) . . .

Bad scene, bad line.  “It’s a terrible line that should have been red-penciled,” said the New York Magazine critic.”  The only trouble is that it’s all taken directly from a 1966 news item in the New York Times.

(This is a screen grab.  To see the full 1966 Times story – and if you saw 
the episode of “Mad Men” you must read it – go here. )

Far from being disarmed by the facts, the critics stood their ground when informed of the historical accuracy.  The Times critic still insisted that the scene was bad and that the line, a true quote, “just rings so false.”

The critics are right, of course.  All the news that’s fit to print does not make for good drama.  A scriptwriter or novelist has to select and shape the facts and edit the language.  What fictional people do and say must not clash with character. 

This preference for a coherent story, a perfect congruence of character and action, becomes a problem when we use it to filter reality and then think that this filtered reality is “the truth.”  But that’s another story.

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