Archive for September, 2010

‘Mad Men’ 9/26/10: The high price of secrecy

September 27, 2010

PAJAMA GAME: Sanctimonious Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) ruminates on the consequences of deception in this past Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men.” Photo: AMC


NEW YORK, Sept. 27, 2010 — Talk about your mid-life crises!  The men of ‘Mad Men’ were mired in the muck of their own self-made messes on Sunday night’s episode of the AMC drama series.

The episode – titled “Hands and Knees” – was the 10th installment of the ongoing fourth season.  It began and ended with the Beatles.  At the outset, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) phoned daughter Sally (Kienan Shipka) some time during the work week to tell her he’d scored two tickets to the Beatles’ concert at Shea Stadium the following weekend.  Sally’s reaction?  She screamed, and probably continued screaming all the way to Sunday (Aug. 15, 1965), when the real-life Beatles concert drew 55,000 fans to the home of the New York Mets in Flushing, Queens.

At the episode’s conclusion, we heard an instrumental, ’60s-style, lounge-music version of the Beatles’ hit, “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” a very appropriate choice of music given the many secrets both revealed and concealed on the show.

Over-riding the entire episode: The possibility that Don’s big secret would finally come out as the result of a government background check set in motion by his application for a security clearance.  It had to do with an agency client, North American Aviation, a defense contractor involved in the sensitive business of providing aircraft and missile systems to the Department of Defense.

Don’s secret, of course, is that he was once Dick Whitman and adopted the identity of a dead lieutenant named Donald Draper during the Korean War as a way of getting out of the war.  As a result, “Dick Whitman” is still considered a U.S. Army deserter.  Few people know Don’s secret – among them, wife Betty (January Jones), ad agency colleague Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), agency senior partner Burt Cooper (Robert Morse) and, as of Sunday night, Don’s current squeeze, demographer Faye Miller (Cara Buono).

Incredibly, nobody squealed – not even Pete, who could have used the information to ruin Don and elevate himself in the agency hierarchy.  And even though Pete railed to wife Trudy (Alison Brie) about people who keep secrets, we all know Pete has one himself – that he had an illegitimate child with Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) in Season One.  Pete kept Don’s secret, even though it cost the agency this crucial client.

If Don was facing the possibility that a lifelong secret was about to upend his middle-aged life, then two of his partners faced mid-life crises of their own.  Roger Sterling (John Slattery), apparently already bored with his much-younger wife, has once again set his sights on Joan Harris (nee Holloway – Christina Hendricks), with whom he formerly carried on an affair.  She informed him Sunday night that she’s pregnant with his baby, stemming from their sidestreet tryst in the previous episode.  She went to Morristown, N.J. (a quiet suburb about 30 miles west of New York City), to have the pregnancy terminated.  Roger paid for it.

Meanwhile, upright Britisher Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) was forced to deal with his strict, assertive father, Robert (guest-star W. Morgan Sheppard), who came all the way to New York from the U.K. to order Lane to return to his family and patch up his relations with his wife.  In response, Lane took dad to the Playboy Club (with Don in tow) and introduced his father to his new love, a Playboy bunny who also happened to be black.  In one of the most shocking scenes yet seen on ‘Mad Men,’ Robert Pryce slugged his grown son in the head with his cane, then stepped brutally on one of his hands as his son writhed on the floor in semiconscious agony.

By the episode’s end, it was apparent that Lane’s father had won the confrontation as Lane announced at the partners’ meeting that he was headed home to England for a few weeks.

Incredibly, none of these secrets were the biggest of the evening.  The secret with the most far-reaching consequences for everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was the loss of its biggest client – the one the agency depends on most for its financial health – Lucky Strike.  Roger was the recipient of this bad news and he kept it under wraps, nearly having another heart attack when he got the news.

And now, there are only three episodes left in the season for the agency to pull itself back from the brink of ruin – again! – which was also the situation in Season Three.

OK, ‘Mad Men’ fans: How did you like Sunday’s episode?  And with just three episodes left, where do you think we go from here?

Contact Adam Buckman:


‘Idol’ redo kills the very show it was meant to fix

September 23, 2010

Judge not lest ye be judged: New “American Idol” judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, with judge emeritus Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest.


NEW YORK, Sept. 23, 2010 — This is just comical.

A TV show loses a couple of cast members and suddenly, the powers-that-be decide the entire show needs a redo.  And not just any show, but the most popular show on TV for the better part of a decade.

It’s “American Idol,” and it just underwent a change that is so significant that you can’t honestly call the show “American Idol” anymore.  That’s how different the show is going to feel when it returns on Fox this winter with Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler sitting in the chairs where you once saw Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul.

So now the judges are J Lo, Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson.  What happened here?  Network executives saw their panel of judges breaking up — first Paula a few years back, and then Simon last season, followed by the temporary, “pretend” judges Kara DioGuardi and Ellen Degeneres quitting or getting fired (probably the latter).  And instead of attempting to re-create the lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry of the original three judges, they went out to find two celebrities — one a rock star and the other, well, who knows what she is — singer, entrepreneur, dancer, whatever.

Think of the contrast with the original panel of judges — Randy Jackson, who apparently played bass for Journey but who no one knew; Paula Abdul, the closest thing to a celebrity that the original group had, although she was a has-been; and Simon Cowell, some Brit with a buzzcut who by some miracle turned into the biggest star on American TV.

It was the chemistry between these three that put “American Idol” on the pop-culture map and kept it there right up until the time when the act started to break up, starting with Paula’s exit.  The key thing was: The original three judges were not superstars.  And we had no way of knowing beforehand whether we liked them or not.

Now they’re bringing in J Lo, who, truth be told, is not well-liked (though this gig will give her an opportunity to become better liked).  As for Tyler, he’s an unknown quantity in this role.  The thing you have to ask is: Will any of these judges give it to the contestants straight?  Or are they there to give all of them blind encouragement, whether they deserve it or not?

Love him or hate him, Simon was the voice of show business reality — when contestants had no chance of advancing, he told them.  He was just being honest.

And what about these superstar judges?  Will they have the enthusiasm to keep coming back season after season?  Or are we entering a new era of revolving superstars whose faces will change with each new year?

Contact Adam Buckman:

NBC: One-word titles, shows fit for 14-year-olds

September 23, 2010

Justice is served: Jimmy Smits on the Supreme Court in NBC’s “Outlaw.” Yeah, right.


NEW YORK, Sept. 23, 2010 — Have you noticed how two of the new NBC dramas this fall have central characters at the very pinnacle of the U.S. government?  Do you find this even remotely credible or believable?

Jimmy Smits plays a Supreme Court justice in this new series called “Outlaw.”  The title indicates that he’s kind of a rebel.  In fact, for some reason, he quits the Court because he figures he can do more good for society doing something else.  Therefore, the premise makes no sense.  Few callings on Earth give a person a better opportunity to effect change than sitting on the Supreme Court.   Whatever.

Presidential timber: Blair Underwood on NBC.

The other show is this serialized drama called “The Event,” in which Blair Underwood plays the President of the United States.  It’s one of these dramas, so in vogue on the networks these last few years, in which the future of the country, if not the entire planet, is threatened by forces no one understands for at least half the season or more.

When I was 14, this was the kind of stuff I would have liked.  Ooh, I might have said in conversations with my 14-year-old pals, Jimmy Smits is playing a Supreme Court justice and Blair Underwood is the president on NBC.

Well, for those of us who are no longer 14, these shows are not really cool-o or neat-o anymore.  I don’t know why NBC refuses to develop dramas about real people.  Presidents and Supreme  Court justices?  Memo to NBC: Nobody cares about them.  And Blair Underwood and Jimmy Smits are not believable in either role, despite their best efforts.

And the titles of these shows brings me to another thing NBC seems to have decided, in the network’s continuing efforts to simplify its programs as much as possible for the benefit of its audience.

It’s the preponderance of one-word titles.  Have you noticed this?  This season alone, we have “Outlaw,” “Undercovers,” “Chase” and “Outsourced.”  They join a lineup that already has “Chuck,” “Parenthood” and “Community.”  In previous seasons, NBC had shows such as “Trauma” and “Heroes.”

The network has plenty of titles that are almost one word, except for the word “the” — “The Office,” “The Event,” “The Apprentice.”  Thank heaven for “30 Rock,” which NBC has yet to shorten to just “Rock.”

Contact Adam Buckman:

Revisiting the good old days of racism and sexism

September 23, 2010

Women were good for jumping out of cakes, but not much else in the 1920s depicted on “Boardwalk Empire” (Photo: Abbot Genser).


NEW YORK, Sept. 23, 2010 — Something tells me we might be flocking to TV’s nostalgic dramas a little too enthusiastically.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” have caught on.  They’re both great-looking shows.  “Mad Men” is made by a lot of people who worked on “The Sopranos,” so there’s a noticeable high quality in the way the show is filmed and lit.

“Boardwalk Empire,” depicting the luxury of the 1920s resort town of Atlantic City, has a sumptuous look that’s also easy on the eyes.  The show was apparently expensive to produce — $20 million alone, reportedly, for that premiere episode directed by Martin Scorsese — and it looks it.  Like “Mad Men” (seen on AMC), no expense seems to have been spared on “Boardwalk Empire” (seen on HBO) to reproduce the best and most authentic period clothing and furnishings.

They’re the elements that make these shows fun to watch (particularly “Mad Men,” since it’s a show about the 1960s, which plenty of people still living can still remember.  The 1920s?  Not so much).

Secretarial pool: The office gals of “Mad Men.” (AMC)

Of course, for everyone who likes “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire,” there are detractors.  Some people old enough to remember the world of New York’s Madison Avenue in the 1960s have been nitpicking about some of the details on “Mad Men” — from the use of certain electric-typewriter models to aspects of the English language.

While “Mad Men” is now well into its fourth season, “Boardwalk Empire” just began, though we critics have seen the first six episodes.  For me, “Boardwalk Empire” hardly stands up to the pantheon of latter-day gangster classics that includes the first two “Godfather” movies, Scorsese’s “GoodFellas” and “Casino,” and “The Sopranos.”   But it has many of the elements most people hope for in these things — mainly, warring factions and the violence that results, in this case, between figures whose names are familiar to gangland devotees — Johnny Torrio, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone.

But here’s something else to consider about “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire”: They both traffic casually in the racist and sexist attitudes of their times.  And it’s true that it would be difficult to depict these eras honestly if you didn’t account somehow for the second-class citizenship of groups such as women and African-Americans.

Now, the 1920s are pretty far off and relatively few people are still around who can remember them vividly.  In “Boardwalk Empire,” women have not yet won the right to vote.  And most of the women in the series are ditzy showgirls and prostitutes.

In “Mad Men,” whose era is much closer to our day, the women are housewives, executive secretaries or lower-rung executives who feel acutely that they’ll lose promotional opportunities to male competitors.  As for blacks, the only ones seen in this show are domestics and after-hours maintenance men.

And yet, “Mad Men” is celebrated for its style, with whole industries cropping up to market its dark mens’ suits, skinny ties and short, parted haircuts.   People who watch the show say they find it refreshing to see so much cigarette smoking and martini swilling.  Sure, those pursuits were fun — also unhealthy.

But something tells me that some people are nostalgic for more than just cigarettes and midday cocktails.  Sometimes it seems that the way some people have latched on to “Mad Men” — and will likely latch on to “Boardwalk Empire” — indicates a nostalgia for something else, perhaps a longing few people would admit out loud for a time when equality was not the norm and certain groups knew their place.

This element gets lost in the shuffle of acclaim that has been showered on both of these shows.  I happen to know people who can’t watch “Mad Men” because it serves as a reminder of a time when some groups lorded it over other groups.  They can’t stand the fact that people celebrate a show that seems to depict the days of racism and sexism in so favorable a light.  For these people, “Mad Men” makes them sick.

And I don’t blame them.  It’s a point of view worth thinking about.

Contact Adam Buckman:

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