Archive for July, 2010

1964: When ‘Mad Men’ collides with ‘Bewitched’

July 23, 2010

TV’S ORIGINAL MAD MEN: Darrin Stephens (Dick York, left) with boss Larry Tate (David White) on “Bewitched.”


NEW YORK, July 23, 2010 — Sterling Cooper Draper & Pryce?   Meet McMann & Tate.

As “Mad Men” opens its fourth season this weekend (Sunday, July 28, at 10 p.m./9c on AMC), the year is 1964 — Thanksgiving to be exact.

It’s a year after the assassination of President Kennedy and much has happened in the lives of the Sterling Cooper Mad men.  Their newly constituted agency — encompassing the names of partners Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) — is up and running in new offices in the then-ultramodern Time & Life building on Sixth Avenue, in the heart of midtown Manhattan.

In the real world of fall 1964, TV audiences were being introduced to another fictional ad agency, McMann & Tate, whose own Mad men were forever trying to lure and retain clients, while partaking in prodigious quantities of booze.

It was “Bewitched,” the ABC sitcom about one man’s effort to strike a balance between his home life in the New York City suburbs and his career in the pressure-cooker of the advertising business.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm, left) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) discuss the future of Sterling Cooper with Roger Sterling (John Slattery, seated). Photo credit: AMC-TV

He was Darrin Stephens (first played by Dick York), account executive at McMann & Tate.  Like Don Draper, Darrin was involved in a continuous struggle with clients.  Also like Don, Darrin reported to a white-haired boss, senior partner Larry Tate (David White).  Draper reported to white-haired Roger Sterling (John Slattery) until he, Draper, was elevated to partner.

The big difference between Don and Darrin is, of course, witchcraft.  Darrin’s wife, Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery), was a real witch capable of casting spells on neighbors and clients (or, more frequently, undoing the spells cast by her mother, Endora — played by Agnes Moorehead).

Don’s estranged wife Betty (January Jones) might seem like a witch sometimes to Don, but she isn’t one.  He gets no help from witchcraft in performing his responsibilities as creative director at Sterling Cooper.

Sure, “Bewitched” was a silly comedy (a popular one, though, that lasted eight seasons) in which Darrin would suddenly grow donkey ears, compliments of his mischievous mother-in-law.  But in its depiction of the life of a Manhattan ad man in the mid-’60s, it bears striking similarities to “Mad Men.”

The one thing most people cite when they recall “Bewitched” is the consumption of alcohol depicted on the show — something that would be considered politically incorrect to feature so prominently and casually in a prime-time sitcom today.  Back then, though, you probably couldn’t produce a TV show about businessmen in midtown Manhattan without acknowledging the role liquor played in their everyday lives — at lunch, in the afternoons and after office hours.

Liquor, as a plot device, first turns up in the fourth episode of “Bewitched” — in October 1964 — when a prospective client comes to dinner at the Stephenses and Samantha turns him into a dog after he drunkenly makes unwanted advances on her.

In an episode that premiered a few weeks later, in November, Darrin is suspected of making advances of his own — on a teen-aged girl who comes to his office to interview him for her school newspaper.  The enterprising reporter starts pouring drinks in his office and when Darrin tries to take a drink away from her it splashes all over his suit, leading to rumors that he was carrying on a drunken affair with her.  “Bewitched”?  That sounds like “Mad Men”!

The real question for “Mad Men”: Will this show acknowledge the existence of “Bewitched” as part of the AMC show’s 1964 time frame?  “Mad Men” is a show whose producers, writers and set designers are meticulous about the details they apply to establishing the show’s place and time.  They simply must have a scene that acknowledges “Bewitched” and the tribulations of McMann & Tate.  Perhaps Don will go visit his kids on a Thursday evening at around 9 o’clock and find them watching the show.

Or maybe the ABC sitcom will come to the attention of Sterling Cooper’s head of TV, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who might make a comment about the show during a meeting about a tough client.  “You know what would help us now?” Harry might ask.  “Witchcraft!”

Don Draper would likely reply dismissively, in a manner similar to Tony Soprano when he informed his crew that he was undergoing psychotherapy and one of them asked if it was like “Analyze This.”

“That’s a comedy!” said Tony, in an annoyed tone.  “This is serious!”

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ESPN, Lebron ‘overkill’ complaints are nonsense

July 9, 2010

ESPN’s Lebron Show: If everybody’s talking about it, how is it overkill?


NEW YORK, July 9, 2010 — So many complaints about one measly TV special, you would think ESPN had committed a capitol crime.

Sure, the Lebron prime-time special — an entire hour (and more, when you consider the wall-to-wall coverage ESPN devoted to the subject before and after) — was overdone.   Yes, everyone who labeled it “overkill” was correct — it WAS overkill.

But having said that, I have to ask: What’s the harm?

The overkill complaint is the same one leveled at TV and the rest of the media every time there’s a big story that everyone seems to cover at once from a dozen different angles.  That amounts to a lot of coverage, certainly, but on behalf of the entire media (which never asked me to act as spokesman), I have to plead not guilty to the overkill accusation.

What do people expect the media to do when there’s a big story — not cover it?  I hate to inform the entire world of this, but we have a lot of media.  It’s on television, it’s on the radio, it’s in print, it’s on the Internet.  Get used to it; it’s here to stay.

The Lebron story was big news for the simple reason that a lot of people were interested in it.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about it now — complaining about the ESPN show, railing about Lebron’s lack of loyalty to Cleveland and the state of Ohio, and everything else.

At such times, if you’re a news organization and you choose to not cover the moment’s big story, or perhaps under-cover it, then you’ve made a decision to drop out of the news media.

That’s not how it works, folks — at such times, everyone covers the Big Story or no one does.   There’s no in-between.  And in the case of ESPN in particular, this network is a sports-news network — of course they’re going to cover this Lebron story like it’s the inauguration of a president.  They’d be crazy not to.

It is true that ESPN’s quickie production was subpar — for reasons having nothing to do with the story’s relative importance.  The production of this show amounted to little more than a bunch of lights in an old gymnasium.  What irked me most was the time it took to get to the announcement, which took all of five seconds for Lebron to utter.  A day before the telecast, a top-ranking ESPN exec insisted the announcement would come 10 or 15 minutes into the broadcast.  Instead, it came about 22-25 minutes into it, which only goes to teach us once again how slippery the statements of TV execs can be.

But that’s not really news, is it?  What was news was Lebron James’ plans for his future, and what effect that would have on his new team and the market in which he decided to play (in this case, Miami).

Was it overkill?  Maybe, but just for one evening.  News stories come and news stories go.  Sure, ESPN devoted an entire evening (and the better part of a day or maybe even a week) to Lebron James.

It was, for a brief time in the scheme of things, the biggest story in the world, right up until the next one came along.

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Emmy nominations: Reacting to the reactions

July 8, 2010

No sweat: Ed O’Neill in “Modern Family.”


NEW YORK, July 8, 2010 — A couple of things about today’s Emmy Award nominations, based on all the overheated reactions that come flooding out from every misinformed corner of the universe when these things are announced every July:

1) On Ed O’Neill and Katey Sagal — co-stars so many years ago on “Married With Children” — somehow being “snubbed” (every critic’s favorite word this time of year) for Emmy nominations, as if longevity in the TV business is one of the criteria for recognition:

First of all, that’s not a criterion.

Katey Sagal in “Sons of Anarchy”

Second of all, Ed O’Neill is not exactly setting the acting world on fire in “Modern Family,” which happens to be an enjoyable TV sitcom but not some sort of landmark production in the history of acting, as you might imagine from seeing all the cast members nominated for Emmys this year.  Ed did some of the best work of his career on “John from Cincinnati” on HBO, a show that was completely snubbed (there’s that word again!) by the Emmys.

As for Katey Sagal, I’m sure it’s a challenge to play the matriarch of a brutal California motorcycle gang in “Sons of Anarchy,” but my guess is, this show was way too far out — in its violence and extreme subject matter — for the TV Academy to shower it with nominations.   Plus, this show doesn’t receive the kind of buzz that can sometimes trickle down (or maybe up) to the TV Academy voters and help them “decide” which shows are worthiest of recognition.

2) On the significance of Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” being nominated for four Emmys and Jay Leno’s ill-fated prime-time show getting none:

Well, for one thing, NBC has to be embarrassed over seeing a show whose host the network humiliated so publicly get nominated for some of the TV industry’s highest honors — nominations based on the quality of the show’s production, which NBC didn’t feel was valuable enough to preserve.

But before all the Team Coco-heads start hooting and hollering about how their guy is better than Jay (sorry, I guess I’m too late for that), it’s worth mentioning for the umpteenth time that the quality of writing and directing — as judged by some obscure jury based on a couple of individual shows — doesn’t mean much in the long run if the show can’t draw viewers.

Now, in hindsight, with Leno’s “Tonight Show” declining in the ratings early this summer, you might conclude that NBC should have stuck with Conan.  Well, maybe — but hindsight’s always 20/20.  It remains true that NBC will have to replace Leno eventually, and that means they are challenged more than ever to cough up a replacement, though no one in particular seems to be warming up in the on-deck circle (I love a baseball metaphor, don’t you?).

3) On the Emmys being meaningful: Well, sometimes.  For instance, if Conan O’Brien wins one or more Emmys this September, it will be a great and fortuitous way for him to launch his new late-night show on TBS, lessening the risks, at least somewhat, for a venture that is fraught with them.

Generally speaking, the Emmy nominations are a great p.r. boost for TV in the dog days of summer.  It gets everyone talking about television — on television, on the Internet, in newspapers, and amongst each other.  As always, people will argue about who is most deserving, basing their arguments mainly on which shows and performers they happen to prefer personally.  But the Emmys aren’t about that — these awards, like the Oscars and others, are about an industry rewarding its own based on production criteria and aspects of craft that are generally indiscernible to us outsiders.  This is why the nominations often strike the general public as incomprehensible and endlessly debatable.

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