Last week, we finally got to see an episode of Mad Men that we’d all been waiting for – the JFK assassination episode. Ever since Roger’s daughter set her wedding date for November 23rd 1963, it was clear that the defining moment of 1960s America was going to play a major role in this third season, the only question being whether Matt Weiner and Co would handle it with the same class and sophistication as the rest of the show.
The answer was, of course they would. The news came as a hammer blow to most of the characters, as they found out through archive news clips, and it serves as a catalyst for some major storylines, more of which we’ll no doubt see in this week’s grand finale. But, while Mad Men got it exactly right, the collision of fact and fiction isn’t always so successful.
For example, current Robert Pattinson vehicle Remember Me has been heavily criticised for using 9/11 as a plot device towards the end. Using a genuine tragedy for cheap tear-jerker purposes has to be frowned upon, though other films have managed to incorporate this century’s ‘JFK moment’ slightly more successfully, like Spike Lee‘s The 25th Hour and Reign Over Me, while Paul Greengrass managed to handle the heroism and horror of flight United 93 with sensitivity.
But while these films all chose to focus on 9/11, it was such a major event that many American TV shows had to make a decision in 2001/02 about how they would deal with it. The Sopranos and Sex And The City both removed shots of the Twin Towers from their opening credits in episodes shown after it happened, and while neither of them showed fictionalised versions of that day, the spectre of terrorism is there in the former, while the latter became even more a love letter to NYC than before.
The West Wing had a tougher decision to make, with 9/11 clearly not something that could be addressed literally in the Bartlet administration, as it would have completely changed what the show was about. Instead, Aaron Sorkin inserted a one-off episode at the start of the third series, which was shown in early October 2001, which saw a terrorism alert at the White House, with the staff members discussing the issues surrounding 9/11 without explicitly mentioning it.
However noble the intentions, it was a fairly clunky episode and was certainly one of the weakest of the show’s run. But, of course, wrapping fiction around a horrific loss of life only a few weeks later is very different to incorporating something like the murder of JFK into your TV series almost 50 years later.
- Mad Men Q&A: John Slattery on Directing and the JFK Assassination Episode (VIDEO) (tv.com)
- HBO Releases Trailer for Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’ (screenrant.com)
- Truth and Fiction in Mad Men (bigthink.com)