Friday, December 30, 2016

It is likely that 2017 will be TV's "Watershed Year" for the TV industry and for our household

Each day when I try to figure out what to watch on TV, the internet streaming "evolution" - I don't want to call it a "revolution" - makes me feel like I walked into this store:

Really, how do you select what to watch when you have a thousand program choices?

This is, of course, a problem created by change. Let me elaborate.

The Changes

Last year (2015) we saw a heated discussion develop over a statement by John Landgraf, CEO of the cable channel FX: “There is simply too much television.”

He had been meticulously keeping count of original scripted series on TV. As it turned out Since 2009, the number of scripted series has increased 94%, rising from 211 to 409, with a 174% growth in scripted series on basic cable (181 vs. 66).

Landgraf is right. As the number of scripted shows increased even slightly more in 2016, I really do feel like every evening I walked into that DVD store pictured above. The numbers are overwhelming.

For simplicity sake, if one assumes the TV industry airs 400 scripted series with an average of 10 episodes for the season at an average of 40 minutes an episode, that is 7 hours and 30 minutes of viewing a day 365 days a year.

And that ignores the fact that I just did not get around to that new series or seasons released two years ago or last year. When I realize that the best I could do is watch an average of 3-4 hours a day, it meant not only have I missed half of 2016-17 scripted TV, I also missed half of 2015-16 scripted TV, and half of 2014-15 scripted TV and I will miss half of next year's scripted TV and the year after....

Even more frustrating is that most of those recent episodes I missed are sitting there waiting to be streamed - they don't go away. When I started this blog, I did not think its title "The Lost Scripts" meant that soon there would be too many potentially interesting series episodes for me to ever watch ... way too many ... ever.

To think that in 1962 there were only three networks and I was disappointed when shows ran opposite each other so I could only watch one in a particular time slot and maybe pick up another in the Summer repeats - we had no recorders, no internet - heck no cable or satellite.

Reportedly, Landgraf also said that the “TV advertising model is broken” and “has to be reinvented” with fewer, more targeted ads so ad-supported outlets can compete with commercial-free content providers like streaming services and premium cable.

Which brings up the most significant change in TV since HBO was launched as the first successful cable channel of any kind in 1972 - internet TV. Generally referred to as streaming TV, reportedly there are 3,051 "channels" available on my Roku receiver, excluding religious "channels" which apparently number 969.

Among others three of those 3,051 include the cable premium (pay for a monthly subscription) channels HBO, Showtime, and Starz. This means that the first cable channel, HBO, has already acknowledged the future importance of internet streaming and that cable TV is in trouble. To be clear, most cable companies are high speed internet service providers, so when I say that cable TV is in trouble I mean cable channels, like Landgraf's FX.

We are in a transition period. The streaming services which created Landgraf's problem of too much TV and broke the advertising model were the subscription services Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Acorn TV.  While the first three deliver a mix of original content and content which has already aired on American broadcast and cable channels, Acorn TV delivers content from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, with a smattering of some non-English European content, most of which has never been seen in the United States though some older shows appeared on PBS.

The advent of these services has created a different TV audience:
  • adults called "cord-nevers" who just wirelessly stream content over the internet using devices like tablets and smart phones and who have never subscribed to a cable or satellite TV service;
  • adults called "cord-cutters" initially but who are "cord-switchers" because they have dropped their cable or satellite TV channel package services and stream content over their home internet "wire" from specific channels like Netflix using devices such as a Roku or Apple TV; and,
  • adults who have substantially reduced their cable or satellite TV package while streaming some content over their home internet and who are called "frugally connected".
A recent study indicates that 35 percent of adults ages 18 to 31 do not subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service, most of whom are cord-nevers. When you add in all age groups, what we know is that the 24 percent who don’t pay for cable are divided as follows:  18 percent are cord-nevers while 6 percent are cord-switchers.

In other words, the younger adult audience is rapidly becoming an all internet TV audience. And they are leading the way for the older adult audience.

Why 2017 is Important

The year 2017 will bring to us one more change. Because of the 2016 election, the concept of "Net Neutrality" will die except in the memories of activists. According to FCC Republicans Vow To Scrap Net Neutrality 'As Soon As Possible' (as well as other sources):
Scrapping the net neutrality rules appears to be a priority for the two Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission. This week, FCC Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly vowed to revisit those rules "as soon as possible."

What's more, even while the rules remain in effect, the GOP commissioners apparently have no intention of fully policing them. Pai and O'Rielly said as much in a letter sent to five industry trade groups: the CTIA, NTCA -- The Rural Broadband Association, Competitive Carriers Association, American Cable Association and WISPA -- Wireless Internet Service Providers.

Those groups had urged the FCC to permanently exempt small ISPs from a net neutrality rule requiring providers to transparently inform subscribers about broadband policies, including prices, speeds, surcharges, data caps and network management practices. (Other net neutrality rules include a prohibition on blocking or degrading traffic and on charging companies higher fees for prioritized delivery.)
If you don't really understand what this is all about, don't worry, the AT&T folks do and they are ready to take your money by selling you "Rules Free TV":

DirecTV Now is, of course, a satellite TV service company offering service over the internet using what I call "channel-package TV" in your home via your internet wire (which may be the same wire over which cable TV comes into your home). Early this year we were offered channel-package TV from Dish Network's Sling TV and from Playstation Vue.

Channel-package TV is different than buying streaming content from individual "channels" like Netflix or Amazon or Acorn TV purchased as à la carte subscriptions - meaning we don't have to purchase or subsidize any other "channels" and we have no contracts with penalties for a year or two year's of service.

This difference is important. CBS has gone its own way offering streaming of all its programming - including your local channel live - through CBS All Access - essentially you buy one channel, not a package.  And that channel will be offering original programming apart from the CBS broadcast network.

And ABC, NBC and Fox broadcast networks offer some or most of their programming through a single Hulu subscription (which also offers original programming and programming from others like NBCU's cable channels).

But cable channel content from the Turner channels like TNT and Viacom channels like Comedy Central are not readily available except through channel-package TV. The risk they are taking is not small. "Cord Nevers" are not a market for channel-package TV. They want specific shows to binge watch without bearing a heavy cost to subsidize kids TV or professional sports leagues.

Our senior household will begin experimenting with the near-exclusive use of internet streaming through CBS All Access and Hulu along with Acorn TV, Amazon Prime Video, Crackle, Feeln, and Netflix. For the first third of the year, we will retain our Dish Network Flex Pack and Locals Pack.

The reality is that there are likely 1,000 episodes of scripted TV available to watch during that period, some newly released each week but most are those episodes we just didn't get around to. The issue to be weighed is how many episodes won't be available without channel-package TV? 100, 200, 400??? And of those, how many are "must see TV" episodes? 0, 10, 20, 40???

Except, of course, we're stuck in that video store trying to figure out what we are going to watch each night. Can we make that work or will we in the end revert to depending on networks to set our viewing schedule, more or less in 1962 style?

It all will begin Sunday, January 1, 2017.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A New Perception: All "TV" is Streaming and Nothing is Different

The headlined screamed USA Network Goes Darker to Court Millennials. Say what??? The channel that brought us 125 episodes of "Monk" is doing what?

"Millennials" refers to the generation born between 1980 - 2000 or some slightly fewer years depending upon who is defining the term. But regardless, we've got a grandchild who is Millennial.

Yeah, we're over 70. But we're not slackers in keeping up in this age of technology. My wife and I had a business offering computerized business services in 1980. We were using satellite TV in 1988. We've kept up. Our current home network/entertainment system isn't unimpressive. Click on this representational graphic if you don't believe me:

It is mid-2015 and apparently time to embrace a new perception about TV if we are going to have access to programming that will appeal to us.  That perception is all TV is streaming, even when considered in historical context. And we all should consider the historical context.

In terms of the "everyman," our parents came of age in the era of the automobile, with the promise of a "car in every garage." We came of age in the era of the TV, offering "streaming" entertainment in every home. And somehow this year while viewing web videos on tests of the self-driving automobile, to use an analogy I realized 2015 is the year when we need to embrace the TV equivalent of the arrival of "power steering and the automatic transmission" - Netflix and other TV streaming not through a satellite or cable or from radio waves.

TV in My History

We started watching TV "content" over 60 years ago on a "device" that looked like this:

It received radio signals captured by a 40' antenna on the roof, signals that delivered an "analog" audio/video stream with entertainment "content" which we could enjoy.

It was simple to use - you basically had a few TV stations (three national networks still available today - ABC, CBS, and NBC) sending out those signals on "channels" which you could select by rotating the knob on the right. The video display, about the size of a laptop computer display, was black and white, the audio was monophonic meaning there was one speaker because there was only one sound channel.

TV evolved. Within 10 years, the video was in color. But it took 35 years to get a additional national broadcast network still available today - Fox.  It remained an analog radio signal that delivered the audio/video stream to a "device" that looked like this, though the signal came via a cable TV company which may have been providing additional "cable" channels:

You could change channels using a remote control.

But while the hardware evolved, content was both limited and scheduled.

TV Today

All TV streams today are digital. You can receive them "off the air" via a radio signal, or through the cable or satellite TV company, or through your internet service provider's cable, or through your cell phone service provider (using a radio signal). The streams for the most part provide a high definition picture and surround-sound channels.

Unlike that one "device" we used to watch TV 60+ years ago, we have multiple "device" choices at fingertips. The devices through which we can view TV include what is traditionally known as a TV screen, but they also include other electronic devices known as computers, tablets, and smart phones.

And unlike those few channels, we now have essentially an unlimited choice of content, much of it available at our fingertips as we tap remotes, touch screens, mouses and more.

The content does include scheduled TV from TV channels, in our case from the stream delivered by a satellite TV company, Dish Network. For others it could be from the cable company (or off the air). But we watch it on our schedule because we record the programming on a DVR.

And the content from scores of subscription internet streaming websites - right now we use Netflix, Amazon, and Acorn TV - is available at any time. They do release their original content TV series and movies at various times, with full seasons of TV series shows, say 10 episodes, released at once.

And then there is Sling TV, an internet streaming service that provides live streaming of cable channel content plus limited on demand content.  Cable and satellite offer the ability to record content on DVR's for later viewing plus "on-demand" streaming. But Sling TV offers a much less expensive option, albeit limited, and it offers HBO.

Technically the hardware is exceedingly more complex than 60 years ago. But you don't need our investment in technology, in devices, to watch a full range of streaming TV. Many flat screen TV's on the market provide all the "apps."

For the older viewer dealing with the content requires a new understanding.

How Do I Schedule My TV Viewing?

Let's acknowledge the elephant or 500 pound gorilla or whatever in the room. Our Millennial granddaughter was never conditioned to watch TV on a schedule. There was never a time in her life that the programming was not "on demand." When she was young it was on a DVR or DVD. But as she reached her teen years, streaming video was at her fingertips on the internet.

Because of technology constraints when we began watching TV, we were conditioned by ABC, CBS, and NBC to watch entertainment TV between 8 pm and 11 pm daily, while the local channels brought us news and some syndicated shows between 5 pm and 8 pm. We had to choose at any particular time what show we wanted to watch. If we picked "Gunsmoke" on CBS, we simply could not watch what was on the other networks until Summer Reruns. If there were three good shows on at 9 pm, the best we could hope for was to watch two, one during the regular season and one in the summer. If there was nothing we wanted to watch at 8 pm, we had nothing to watch.

In mid-2015 at any time we can pick from hundreds of shows. We won't live long enough to see all the things we may want to see. It may even be possible to watch a series we were forced to miss in 1975 because of scheduling conflicts. Good grief!

Don't get me wrong. I know "it's only TV" and there's a big wide wonderful world out there. I have advocated the idea expressed by this week's New Yorker cover:

But during a certain time, around four hours between 5 pm - 11 pm, we're used to watching stuff on TV. And if CBS, et al. isn't setting the schedule for us, who will?

Welcome to a new perception. All TV is "on demand" streaming - meaning you have to set your own schedule. The upside is it's very flexible. The downside is that the number of choices are overwhelming.

And so for the person who never sat there with the remote flipping through the channels catching pieces of programs already half completed, who knew what shows he wanted to watch, watching TV has become a scheduling "challenge."

But there is problem with many internet streaming options.

Now About Those Commercials

When the 2015 Summer season began, I initiated our one month experiment. I downsized our Dish Network subscription, adding internet subscriptions for streaming services Netflix, Acorn TV and Sling TV with HBO to our lonely Amazon Video (including Prime Video) streaming.

In terms of hardware in the home theater, the Sling TV service (which is owned by Dish) with the HBO add-on is available on our Amazon Fire TV Stick and Netflix is available through both our Dish Hopper and our Fire TV Stick. However, we view Acorn TV through our Intel Compute Stick which also has access to everything else.

In the Master Bedroom the newish Samsung TV has apps for all the services which indicates where home entertainment is going.

Anyway, in downsizing the Dish subscription our access to some cable channels became streaming only - for instance AMC which at this time is offering some shows we will be watching. And I already have learned we can't do this. It's the commercials. When you stream shows airing on advertising supported channels, you have to watch the ads, no skip button, much less "auto-hop." And that's turned out to be a deal killer in our household.

This is a problem that isn't going away. HULU execs indicate that they will be ad supported in the foreseeable future. They represent ABC, NBC, and Fox, plus a lot of other streaming content. In April they announced a multi-year deal with AMC Networks Inc. for the exclusive subscription video on demand (SVOD) rights to new and upcoming primetime scripted drama and comedy series from AMC, IFC, BBC AMERICA, SundanceTV and WE tv.

So since we want to watch shows from AMC and skip commercials, I ended the Sling TV service experiment and restored the Dish subscription to its prior level.

Maybe it's because we don't "multitask" like the Millennials. Note that for the Millennials multitasking doesn't seem to mean unconsciously knitting sweaters for Christmas gifts while watching TV.  Rather it means interacting on social media, texting, even watching video on their smart phones and tablets, all the while watching TV.

The problem is, no one, and I do mean "no one" regardless of age, can "get" the nuances and subtle messages in shows like "Mad Men" and "True Detective" while multitasking. But this is a generation that seemingly doesn't care to get "the outdoors" as indicated in the New Yorker cover above (which is probably good since we're leaving them with a warmer globe). Maybe "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" doesn't need focused attention to get what the show's about.

If you don't mind waiting a year or two, one way to watch those shows that originally air on commercial-supported channels is to use Netfix or Amazon Prime or other ad-free subscription streaming content services.

Or if you don't want to wait, and waiting is a problem when you are old and may not be alive next week, you can pay to watch many series. For instance, AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire" Season 2 airing now is available on Amazon Video without commercials for $16.99.

But watching all our TV that way would become prohibitively expensive.On the other hand, watching commercials is prohibitively painful.

The real result is that we are now just spending money for Netflix and Acorn TV, while we continue to use Dish Network to skip commercials at the same old cost.

Yes all TV is streaming, but except for those willing to watch commercials nothing much has changed yet. You just have to pay more to get all the good stuff on new "channels" such as Netflix. The only consolation is that we may be getting access to better quality TV shows. For now.

Oh, and as an observation, if the new shows on the USA Network, "Complications" and "Mr. Robot" are what appeals to Millennials, they have really good taste.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

It's not a New Golden Age of Television

Nearly six years ago, I began this blog musing about what would happen to TV within the next decade.

In November 2007, I wrote a six part series here that began with:
The Television Writers Guild strike is viewed by many as just another labor dispute. It’s not. It is the first nationally significant economic acknowledgment of the transition in home entertainment that has been under way for a decade. For this industry, 2008 is 1948 all over again.

At the beginning of 1948, the primary choices for purchased or broadcast home entertainment were (a) books and magazines, (b) 78 rpm phonograph records, or (c) radio (other than self-generated entertainment such as playing a piano or singing). About 3 million tv sets had been purchased by pioneer viewers who had relatively little to watch. By the end of 1953, that number had grown ten-fold to over 30 million with 50% of Americans having a television set in their home. By the end of 1958, the number of television sets sold had doubled again, to over 60 million, many of course replacing black and white sets with color (80,000 sold by RCA in 1958).

Television programming was just a continuation of the same categories prevalent in radio in 1940. In a manner similar to books and movies, radio and tv offered fiction and non-fiction programming. In addition to fiction and non-fiction, both offered a category comparable to vaudeville, "entertainment consisting of a number of individual performances, acts, or mixed numbers, as by comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats, and magicians." That category could be termed "televaudeville". In the 1950's, the basics of "televaudeville" were established by the likes of Sid Caesar and Ed Sullivan, plus game shows such as "You Bet Your Life" and "Amateur Hour" and the popular daytime reality show "Queen for a Day."

By the mid-1950's, television brought about the transformation of radio, reducing it down to its current formats - recorded music, talk shows, and news. Many executives, writers, and performers failed to make the transition successfully. This history is relevant to the changing economics of television.
In September 2008 I noted:
It's official now, because the Nielsen's confirm it. Broadcast TV and cable channels are competing equally for the same prime-time audience. And the Monday night competition clearly presents the picture.
I had started this blog thinking that scripted programming was going to become an endangered species. By May 2010 I had to acknowledge that despite the significant changes in the "TV" industry:
Since the Screen Writer's Guild strike in late 2007, contrary to many expectations including mine, scripted TV on cable channels and broadcast networks has made a significant comeback.
Now, a "new Golden Age of Television" is being discussed all over the web as if the idea is accepted as truth.

Labels assigned to time periods by people who are alive to remember them must be met with skepticism. This is true of home entertainment. One of those labels is the "Golden Age of Television."

According to Wikipedia, "The Golden Age of Television in the United States began sometime in the late 1940s and extended to the late 1950s or early 1960s." You can read the complete Wikipedia description, but one element is regularly "forgotten" by those remembering that time:
"TV sets were expensive and so the audience was generally affluent. Television programmers knew this and they knew that serious dramas on Broadway were attracting this audience segment. So, the producers began staging Broadway plays in the television studios. Later, Broadway authors, like Paddy Chayefsky, Reggie Rose and J. P. Miller wrote plays specifically for television. Their plays – Marty, Twelve Angry Men, and Days of Wine and Roses, respectively – all went on to be successful movies."

In other words, "The Golden Age" was an aristocratic critic's delight. My memories of television prior to 1962 were not filled with thoughts of great plays. Rather it was trying to get the antenna rotor to work right so I could see something from one of three networks through the "snow" on my TV.

As far as I am concerned television was an embryo until it became a newborn in 1948. It went through an infancy, became a toddler, and at some point around 1966 it was old enough to register for The Draft - it came of age. As it approached middle age Fox and cable broadened it the way middle age does. It went through a late midlife crisis ending with the 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike.

Now we're hearing about a new Golden Age of Television. Except, what we're hearing about is a different generation's form of diversion. Television was something people watched on a schedule at home - it was home entertainment - and for many, maybe most, it was enjoyed in the embrace of the family.

The so-called "new" Golden Age is, in fact, a product of the internet/smart phone age. An embryo until the 1990's, this new entertainment form has reached drinking age. It's exciting and different from home entertainment. We can experience this new type of entertainment while walking in public places, at least until we fall off the subway platform because we've isolated ourselves from our surroundings that much.

This is not home or family entertainment, it's personal entertainment, it's on demand, so  much so it's made the commonality of the morning-after "water cooler" gathering passe.

It's television only in the sense that television is the movies. It does share art creation technology with the ABC, NBC, and CBS broadcast networks. After all, in the original Golden Age of Television much of the art creation technology was shared with the movie industry as does today's personal entertainment share creation technology with movies and television.

Possibly it is fair to call it television. But we've stopped calling those things we carry around with us "telephones". They are smart or cell phones with differences like IOS or Android or Windows and differing camera resolutions and apps.

Broadcast TV is still around. So are "land lines." In fact, they have something in common - they are attached to a location and were designed to be used with a television set and a telephone.

Smart phones and tablets and the related YouTube and Netflix apps are not attached to a location but to a person, a subscriber.

It's not a new Golden Age of Television. It was been the Era of Television. and it seems to me its headed for retirement. Now its the Era of Mobile Diversion with completely different perameters and effects. Find or create your own word - something like "modiversion." After all, "television" is a created word for a technology:  "Other proposals for the name of this then-hypothetical technology were telephote (1880) and televista (1904)."

Monday, May 30, 2011

Scripted TV: thriving and mostly healthy

As I noted at the end of last May, all my fears back in 2007 during the Screenwriters Guild strike that the number of scripted TV would seriously decline were wasted.

During the Summer TV Season of 2011, I am already recording or will record 46 scripted series shows: “Against the Wall”, “Alphas”, “Army Wives”, “The Big C”, “Breaking Bad”, “Breakout Kings”, “Burn Notice”, “The Closer”, “Combat Hospital”, “Covert Affairs”, “Eureka”, “Falling Skies”, “Flashpoint”, “Franklin & Bash”, “Friday Night Dinner”, “Friends with Benefits”, “Game of Thrones”, “The Glades”, “Haven”, “Hawthorne”, “Hour”, “In Plain Sight”, “The Killing”, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”, “Leverage”, “Louie”, “Love Bites”, “Memphis Beat”, “Men of a Certain Age”, “Necessary Roughness”, “Outcasts”, “Primeval”, “The Protector”, “Rescue Me”, “Rizzoli & Isles”, “Rookie Blue”, “Royal Pains”, “Sanctuary”, “Suits”, “Torchwood”, “Treme”, “True Blood”, “Warehouse 13", “Weeds”, “White Collar”, and “Wilfred”.

At the beginning of the Fall/Winter TV Season of 2011-12, I expect to be recording episodes of 70 shows: “Bedlam”, “The Big Bang Theory”, “Blue Bloods”, “Boardwalk Empire”, “Body of Proof”, “Bones”, “Boss”, “Castle”, “Charlie's Angels”, “Chuck”, “Community”, “Criminal Minds”, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”, “CSI: New York”, “Dexter”, “The Fades”, “Free Agents”, “Fringe”, “A Gifted Man”, “Glee”, “The Good Wife”, “Grey's Anatomy”, “Grimm”, “Happy Endings”, “Harry's Law”, “Hart of Dixie”, “Hawaii Five-0", “Hell on Wheels”, “Homeland”, “House”, “House of Lies”, “How I Met Your Mother”, “How to Be a Gentleman”, “I Hate My Teenage Daughter”, “Last Man Standing”, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”, “Luck”, “Luther”, “Man Up!”, “The Mentalist”, “The Middle”, “Mike & Molly”, “Modern Family”, “NCIS”, “NCIS: Los Angeles”, “New Girl”, “The Office”, “Once upon a Time”, “Pan Am”, “Parenthood”, “Parks & Recreation”, “Person of Interest”, “The Playboy Club”, “Prime Suspect”, “Private Practice”, “Raising Hope”, “Reed Between the Lines”, “Revenge”, “Ringer”, “Rules of Engagement”, “The Secret Circle”, “Sons of Anarchy”, “Suburgatory”, “Terra Nova”, “The Thick of It”, “Two and a Half Men”, “Two Broke Girls”, “Unforgettable”, “Up All Night,” and “Whitney”.

Obviously, some of these shows will turn out to be awful. And some we will not continue to watch because they just don't appeal to our taste. This is fortunate as time does not permit us to watch all of them.

Few of them are consistently critically acclaimed three-stars-or-more shows. Frequently those shows have trouble finding a large audience. To a certain extent, the premium channels provide a home for artistic quality.

Still I'm amazed at the number on advertising supported broadcast and cable networks that almost always deserve two stars or more.

In some cases, shows that consistently offer decent writing, acting, and directing "wear out their welcome." Fresh episode story ideas are hard to find. As a show ages, avoiding repetitious stories for particular characters becomes difficult. The pressure of economics sometimes requires an extra season or two for syndication sales.

Frequently, new shows on advertising dependant broadcast networks that clearly have strong writing, acting, and directing are cancelled early in the first season because of the ratings system based on the number of live viewers. This is frustrating.

But on the other hand, some of these shows could be moved to a cable channel were it not for the fact that the broadcast networks gave the showrunners a larger budget than could be allowed on a cable channel. Adapting to a significantly reduced budget apparently is not easily accomplished. And the management of a cable channel does not want to risk large sums of money on a show that failed in the broadcast arena.

But overall, for someone who remembers the Summers of Repeats back in the era when we had broadcast networks only, it is amazing how scripted TV has rebounded.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mad Men: lives carry on

Henry to Betty: "There is no fresh start. Lives carry on."

And that's what happened this year.

In this episode titled "Tomorrowland," Weiner and company had Don finally choose between being Don or Dick, and he chose Don but without rejecting all of Dick, perhaps owning more than just a nickname.

Should this episode have been titled "Fanstasyland" because Don's self-image includes being the "handsome prince" and, in his fantasy Megan, is "Cinderella?" Faye would have had trouble avoiding the "wicked stepmother" role with Sally. Megan will have trouble, but it will only be because she's trying too hard to be Maria Von Trapp.

One can't help but feel that Don is enchanted with Megan. She's the perfect French-speaking au pair (to use a word not commonly used for a "nanny" in 1965)  for the kids. And she's smart, but at 25 not "too seasoned" and therefore not yet aggressively cynical. And she's attractive even if a bit "toothy." She thinks she knows Don, and in some ways she does know Don - she just doesn't know Dick.

But all in all, Don thinks he has found a way to replace Carla and Betty. And it is a significant improvement over the latter for the kids.

We don't really know anything about Megan who at ...what, 23 or 24?... moved from Montreal bringing her French Canadian heritage to New York City. And if we don't know anything, think how little Don knows about what "Tomorrowland" means to a 25-year-old French Canadian woman in 1965 in the United States.

What are these two going to talk about? When Megan calls home all excited about her engagement, Don wants to talk but Megan points out he doesn't speak French.

Some things are clear from this episode:
  • Don/Dick has severed his formal ties with California by selling Anna's house.
  • Don/Dick wants the life he thinks Don would have had and impulsively uses the ring dead Don gave dead Anna as a charm to get it.
  • Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce may survive the Lucky Strike crisis, but it will require hard work particularly by Peggy and Joan.
  • Peggy and Joan have bonded as the underestimated women of SCDP.
  • Joan, as we suspected, did not have the abortion and is misleading her absent and fully deserving husband.
Some things are not so clear:
  • Don/Dick is a less hung up guy in California and it remains to be seen if live Don can in any way be that guy in New York.
  • I don't know why Anna gave the ring to Don/Dick but as a charm with death all over it, can it symbolize a better life?
  • Will Don and toothy Megan (played by Jessica Paré, who is either very talented or takes direction very well)  be a married couple in episode 1 of next season?
  • What year will next season be set in, as 1966 doesn't offer much background, 1967 does offer the Montreal World's Fair, and 1968, with all of its violence and death, just seems to push the kid's ages?
The future of two characters seem to have been nicely wrapped up into "so long, don't let the door hit you" moments.

In a gut wrenching scene, Betty fired Carla exerting what little power she has over the one adult she could. And she won't even write a letter of reference. (Let's hope Don will handle that.) But Carla has been a significant element of stability for the kids. Maybe that is the point for next season - no stability for the kids or maybe Don and Megan will form the perfect family ... naw, that would be too 1950's sitcom.

And poor Faye. You have to know that she's crying at least in part because at the beginning of this season we saw her, as a seasoned veteran of the office romance risks, predict Don would be remarried within a year. Yet she let Don know she was actually not married - just a ruse to avoid the problems - stepping right into the arena to become another victim of his charms. And we know he did use her.

About Peggy. This is a great character to watch. While she seems thrown by the development of the engagement between Don and Megan, her perception of getting the first new account since Lucky Strike, the  $250,000 Topaz pantyhose account, as her saving the company made me smile. Yes, it will serve as a psychological boost to the few left in the company. Saving the firm? Well, maybe a little.

The Joan and Peggy moment after they learn about Don and Megan is a classic:
Joan: “Whatever can be on your mind?”
Peggy: “Can you believe it!?”
Joan: “It happens all the time — they’re just all between marriages."
Joan:  “Well, I learned a long time ago to not get all my satisfaction from this job.”
Peggy:  “That’s bulls—!”
Roger's reaction is also amusing. Wasn't Don giving him grief for marrying his secretary not so long ago?

Unfortunate for Don, Roger, Joan and Peggy, they didn't get Ken's message: “Cynthia’s my life, my actual life."

And we all know that Don has no clue about Faye's comment: "I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things."

So, we end the season with Don staring out the window, the perfect immature teen angst love song in the background:
Cher: They say we're young and we don't know
We won't find out until we grow
Sonny: Well I don't know if all that's true
'Cause you got me, and baby I got you
Why do I find that a bit foreboding. After all, it worked out so well for Sonny and Cher, and of course for Chastity Bono.

On to next year....

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mad Men: There's a time for beans and a time for ketchup....

So the guy from Heinz tells Don: "There's a time for beans and a time for ketchup."

That statement was one theme of this episode, a theme that is dominating the last half of this season. A can of beans is food. When times are tough, you buy food. You don't buy the little things that make food taste better. This is the situation that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is in. Some members of the firm feel at risk of becoming part of this 1930's scene:

Panic sometimes crosses the faces of the partners for whom this is a real memory of what hard times means. “It’s because we’re desperate—they can smell it on us,” Don tells the partners. Fear of failure eliminates the possibility of a little humor like this:
But there has been another important theme running through this season.

“What’s it like?” Don asks. Midge shockingly explains “It’s like drinking a hundred bottles of whiskey while someone licks your tits…it’s heroin, Don, I just can’t stop.”

Addiction or "substance abuse" has been a theme this season. And it brings us to the real twist of this episode. By bringing Midge back from Season 1, we see a person who was a happy, promising, bohemian artist who is being destroyed by the ultimate addiction.

We can tell this has made a huge impression on Don and has him thinking about the whole issue of addiction.

Now bring out the other woman who frequently focuses Don's mind, Peggy. She draws him into one of the better pieces of dialog. After it's clear that they aren't going to get the Virginia Slims account (the cigarettes for women) and everyone is down in the dumps, Peggy approaches Don saying she's been thinking about the firm.

Peggy asks: "Why don't we just change our name. If this was a dogfood we'd change our name."

When Don explains that it wasn't an option as the firm had just started, Peggy plants an idea.

"You always say if you don't like what they're saying about you, change the conversation,"  she responds.

Don, dismayed, says "To what? What they're saying about us is true."

Peggy: "So there's nothing we can do?"

Don: "Sure there is, we're going to sit at our desks and keep typing as the walls fall down around us because we're 'creative,' the least important most important thing there is."

(We'll come back to Peggy in a minute.)

If we were following the dialog back when Don was talking to the guy from Heinz, we know that it ended when the guy told him to leave the negotiating to "accounts."  Yeah, right, "accounts." "Creative" got a Clio this year,"accounts" failed in a way that has threatened the very existence of the firm.

Don mulls all this over and "changes the conversation" as Peggy suggested for better or worse, without consulting the other partners. That it is a full page letter in the New York Times essentially denouncing tobacco is going to make waves.

About the letter, Megan notes, “I know it’s all about “he didn’t dump me—I dumped him’.” She also notes that it changes the feel of the firm. "I love that you stand for something." to which Don honestly replies, "That's not what it's really about."

Here we have a continuation of another theme this year - Don Draper. This Don Draper isn't interested in playing the fiddle of complaining and self-pity while his ship goes down. Of course he has to tell a lie to maybe make it all work.

At this point, we have to take a little history detour about a real life character of the period. Among the message slips Megan hands Don is a call from Emerson Foote. "I wonder who he is" she muses. That's your cue to Google his name. That Don didn't recognize his name is not likely as we can see from his 1992 obituary in the NY Times:
Emerson Foote, the outspoken co-founder of the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency and former chairman of McCann-Erickson Inc., died on Sunday....

The two agencies he led rank among the biggest in the world today, and Mr. Foote, tall and distinguished-looking, stood as one of the giants of the industry. He became known to the general public for his acerbic views of tobacco advertising, which eventually prompted him to leave advertising. He was a former chain-smoker and was a director of the American Cancer Society.

Mr. Foote resigned as chairman of McCann-Erickson in 1964, saying he was opposed to handling cigarette accounts. He was then a member of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke and endorsed the Surgeon General's report that linked cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

He ridiculed protestations that billions spent on promotions had nothing to do with people taking up the habit. "I am always amused," Mr. Foote said, "by the suggestion that advertising, a function that has been shown to increase consumption of virtually every other product, somehow miraculously fails to work for tobacco products."
He certainly should have been in Don Draper's field of vision, but this is fiction, after all. Still the firm is being approached by the American Cancer Society.

Now back to Peggy, the symbol of the changing status of women throughout this show. We learn that Faye has to leave because her firm can't risk losing tobacco company business by remaining associated with SCDP.

As she leaves, Peggy tells her:  "They respect you, and you don't have to play any games."

Faye responds: "Is that what it looks like?"

You can't tell what Peggy gets from that. We know that Faye has portrayed herself as a married woman in order to thread her way through the jungles of the very sexist business world of that period. We don't know what else she has done in her career to get ahead.

In Sunday's Washington Post an article written by Stephanie Coontz headlined Why 'Mad Men' is TV's most feminist show explains about the show:
Historians are notorious for savaging historical fiction. We're quick to complain that writers project modern values onto their characters, get the surroundings wrong, cover up the seamy side of an era or exaggerate its evils -- and usually, we're right. But AMC's hit show "Mad Men," which ends its fourth season next Sunday, is a stunning exception. Every historian I know loves the show; it is, quite simply, one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced. And despite the rampant chauvinism of virtually all its male characters (and some of its female ones), it is also one of the most sympathetic to women.

"Mad Men's" authentic portrait of women's lives in the early 1960s makes it hard for some women to watch. Over the course of its first three seasons, I interviewed almost 200 women from the same era for a new book on the Greatest Generation's wives and daughters. Many had suffered from the same numbness that plagued Betty Draper in the first season. They had seen psychiatrists who were as unhelpful and patronizing as the one Don Draper hired for his wife, or they had been married to men who displayed a sense of male entitlement similar to Don's. Those who had worked, whether before or after marriage, had experienced the same discrimination and sexual harassment as the female employees at the show's ad agency.

Yet to my surprise, most of these women refused to watch "Mad Men." Not because they found its portrayal of male-female relations unrealistic -- in fact, many recounted treatment in real life that was even more dramatic and horrifying than that on the show. It was precisely because "Mad Men" portrayed the sexism of that era so unflinchingly, they told me, that they could not bear to watch.

The rest of us, however, should tune in for a much-needed lesson on the devastating costs of a way of life that still evokes misplaced nostalgia. We should be glad that the writers are resisting the temptation to transform their female characters into contemporary heroines. They're not, and they cannot be. That is the brilliance of the show's script.
Everything else about this show notwithstanding, it can, and is, being used in sociology and women's studies classes already.

Most of the women in this show win or lose partly because of their relationship with Don/Dick. Men are not that significant for him except as foils to mislead for his gain. And that is something he has in common with the women. He has had to discard his identity to advance, he has had to lie, he has had to manipulate the men around him, all because his talent would never have gotten Dick Whitman in the front door except as a janitor.

In this episode, the men partners are livid at Don. Most particularly Bert Cooper, apparently quitting the firm in disgust, says of Don: "We have created a monster." (Does this mean we'll see even less of Robert Morse?)

Only Pete among the men sees Don's talent in terms of respect. And once Don bails him out financially, he's relieved, and though still apprehensive, willing to let Don's gamble play out.

We don't know if Don has saved the firm. Probably we won't know after next week's season finale, but it has been an intense ride this season.

As usual, there was too much to cover in this episode. But I can't ignore completely what's happening to Sally. For she has attempted in the Don Draper mold to reinvent herself in order to get along with her mother, whose neurotic mind sees male and female roles in some weird version of the traditional model. Sally's psychiatrist sees Sally's reinventing herself as progress. Really? Or as a psychiatrist does she sense Sally is in danger from her mother.

For Sally, who is after all still a child, this isn't working out too well. Betty catches her hanging with Glenn and assumes ... what, exactly? Based on her strange intimate past with Glenn the boy, of which Sally is ignorant, Betty decides it's time to move the family to Rye. She knows this will crush Sally now. So she does it, knowing that her psychologically troubled daughter is making some progress. Some mother you've got there Sally.

And as this episode ends we hear Etta James singing "Trust In Me." Well, maybe Don has made the right move....

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rupert Murdoch - A threat to the world's TV viewing audience including you and me

Most are not aware of two burning disputes between one media billionaire and two others. At issue is the price of your monthly cable or satellite TV bill. It could go up 50% in a very few years.

Rupert Murdoch of News Corp, #148 on Forbes World's Billionaires list, has decided to take on Charles Ergen of Dish Network, #117 on the list, and Charles Dolan of Cablevision, #367. Rupert is trying to force the two Charles to charge their subscribers a 50% increase in monthly charges for his TV channels.

The News Corp owned Wall Street Journal article headlined News Corp., Cablevision Square Off explained:
News Corp.—which is seeking higher fees for its channels in negotiations with Cablevision— on Sunday began running ads addressed to the cable-TV company's subscribers, warning that if a new TV-rights deal isn't struck soon, viewers could lose Fox shows including football games and "Glee."

...Carriage contract talks have become more bruising as TV companies push for the first time to land monthly cash fees for broadcast networks. Cable- and satellite-TV operators say they try to withstand fee demands to avoid passing on costs to their customers' bills. As contract deadlines creep closer, each side blames each other for possible losses of favorite shows.

Ultimately, deals often are struck without programming interruptions. But this year, Cablevision customers lost the Food Network and HGTV cable channels for several weeks after a rough-and-tumble fee dispute with Scripps Networks Interactive Inc. In March, Cablevision lost access to ABC and some other Walt Disney Co. channels for nearly 24 hours, including during the first few minutes of ABC's Academy Awards telecast.
Regarding the Dish Network situation, News Corp has pulled all of its cable channels off of Dish including all its regional sports networks. And it is threatening to pull 27 News Corp owned or controlled local Fox TV stations on November 1, stations serving about 50 million TV households representing about 44% of the U.S. market.

In an article headlined Dish CEO defiant after losing Fox channels we learn:
With Fox and Dish also facing the end of their current arrangement for Fox's owned-and-operated TV stations at the end of the month, [BTIG investor analyst Richard Greenfield] argued that waiting to renew both arrangements in several weeks makes no business sense.

"What's the benefit of going dark for four weeks and losing subs, only to ultimately pay Fox what they are demanding," he asked. "We can only presume [Ergen] is prepared to be dark for the long-haul."

A Dish spokeswoman said in a response that programmers "are increasingly bullying pay TV companies into extraordinary rate increases in an effort to pay for expensive sports acquisition rights."

She said the Fox sports channels represent less than 2% of the content that Dish makes available in its most popular programming package. And of the hours that Dish customers spend on watching TV, less than 1% are spent on regional sports networks, she added.
Investment analysts generally are stupid and Greenfield is no exception. The Fox broadcast network's shows aren't doing all that well in the ratings and pulling them off of cable and satellite systems won't improve that. It is true that Dish is already losing subscribers. I know that those upset by the loss of the News Corp sports channels and cable channels don't understand the concerns of the few over the reach of Rupert Murdoch's tightening tentacles on the media, particularly TV.

Over in Britain concern is growing over his latest move. From The Hollywood Reporter:
BBC director general Mark Thompson has again spoken out against Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp.'s bid for the remaining 61 percent of BSkyB, this time using an interview on PBS' Charlie Rose Thursday to warn against the consequences of the deal.

Thompson's comments on U.S. television come ahead of a hotly anticipated speech later this month by News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch, who is expected to give further details of the bid when he delivers the inaugural Baroness Thatcher lecture in London October 21st.
And from The Guardian/Observer web site:
Murdoch has managed to achieve what most assumed was impossible, a more or less harmonious agreement between, among others, the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Guardian Media Group (which owns the Observer), the Telegraph Media Group and the owners of the Daily Mirror. There probably hasn't been such a disparate and determined alliance since Wellington mustered Prussians, Saxons, Polish, Dutch, Belgian, English and Irish troops to confront Napoleon at a little village south of Brussels in 1815.

This isn't Murdoch's Waterloo and, after 40 years of bending Britain to his political will, the 79-year-old probably is not losing much sleep over the new alliance. Still, even he must be aware of the unprecedented strength of feeling in boardrooms against him. There is almost no one in the business outside News International who disagreed with the director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, when he said on US television that there was a case for looking at Rupert Murdoch's media ownership systematically because of the "potential for abuse of power".

That is a glorious understatement. Give almost any politician a guarantee of anonymity and he or she will say much more but, as Peter Oborne's Channel 4 Dispatches programme made clear, most are too frightened to challenge him or his executives. Successive generations of politicians have allowed Murdoch to extend his power so, in the estimation of the respected media analyst Claire Enders, Britain has long passed the "Berlusconi moment".

No newspaper company can buy ITV because of rules against cross-ownership, but because Sky was founded after the law was enacted, these rules do not apply. The anachronism means that Murdoch can merge Sky, which has a turnover roughly three times the size of ITV's and is growing at a rate of about 400,000 subscribers a year, with his newspaper group....
This is what Americans also should know. Murdoch's media reach leaves us also with politicians "too frightened to challenge him or his executives." Murdoch manipulates political and economic power in the pursuit of his goals better than anyone else in the capitalist world, East and West, today.

For instance, we had the big uproar in June 2003 over the FCC's move to increase by 10% the number of local TV affiliates a national broadcast network could own - from 35% to 45%.

Even a Republican controlled Congress had trouble with that. But after first voting to keep the ownership cap at 35%, both the House and Senate raised the aggregate cap to 39% by attaching a rider to a massive funding bill. The 39% cap allowed News Corp/FOX to keep all their stations.

Thus I have no delusions that American politicians - liberal, conservative or moderate - have the courage to take him on. But if those two other billionaires, Charles Ergen of Dish Network and Charles Dolan of Cablevision, take him on at the same time, at least some opportunity exists to reign him in. One can hope that if the public loses it's Fox channel in New York City and Philadelphia on both the local cable system and Dish Network, politicians might take notice.

Otherwise, I have to be content with the knowledge that he's 79 and likely will die in the next 20 years. At that point, it is likely his empire will slowly lose its clout as others have done in the past.

Still, in the pursuit of his economic goals, the damage he has done to the arena of American political discourse has already exceeded that of William Randolph Hearst.

(Incidentally, this has nothing to do with partisanship. Hearst was twice elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives. Nor does it have anything to do with Murdoch's Australian origins. Hearst's patrilineal ancestor, John Hurst settled in Plymouth Colony around 1620. These guys are/were just missing something found in billionaires like Warren Buffett - a semblance of humility.)


Friday, October 8, 2010

Caprica - the reimagined version

First of all, I'm very uncomfortable watching these SyFy shows on any other day but Sci-Friday. But whatever NBCU wants to do with scheduling and ad sales, they do. Which, of course, leads to the fact that I was also uncomfortable with them running half a season of this show, leaving us with what for all intents and purposes was an action-filled cliff-hanger episode.

So you can imagine my surprise when what was supposed to be a second half of a season looked more like an all new season or all new show introducing new concepts and story arcs, and returning to the really, really slow pace of the first few episodes that put off so many scifi fans.

"Battlestar Galactica" had two incarnations, the original in the late 1970's and the one of the late 2000's termed the "reimagined series." Tuesday's "Caprica" episode felt like a "reimagined" series.

Writing credit for this episode is given to Ryan Mottesheard exclusively and I have no idea what that means as he was script coordinator on "Battlestar Galactica" having a writing credit for one episode which was shared with show creators Moore and Glen Larson.

We have to recognize that from the beginning Moore warned everyone that the show would not be BSG. In 2006(!) Moore said:
It's a very different show; it's not action – adventure and it's not even in space. It takes place on the Planet Caprica and it’s more of a family drama, with political and corporate intrigue.

We also have to recognize that it is a prequel to BSG, except we have to be aware of the "Galactica" explanation that "all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again" but events are not exactly replicated each time. This "Caprica" period is one of those repeats or the original. We don't know and it doesn't matter. Earth was discovered 150,000 years before now in the "Galactica" finale. Simply, Caprica is a tale of ancient history rather than future history, ancient history that has a civilization that appears somewhat like ours.

I'm beginning to think the "Caprica" creators Remi Aubuchon and Ron Moore have fallen in love with the idea that an audience is out there to be had by careful and slow structuring, offering much detail, with rarely anything that looks like scifi action.

Well, yeah, AMC does have an audience for "Mad Men" and "Rubicon" made up of people like me who love complex stories with complex characters. But whether they'll come over to SyFy on Tuesday in prime time for what is as much a fantasy drama as a scifi drama remains to be seen.

On the other hand, Moore and company are doing what they are doing very well.

In this episode we learn more about the "one true god" religious organization on Gemenon, with its Vatican equivalent surrounded by the invading hoards. But guess what, the Pope equivalent is a woman called "Mother" played by Meg Tilly, an actor who can subtly express with her face and does so in this episode.

It is clear that the parallel here is not necessarily modern Christianity or Islam both of which are more decentralized and fragmented. And yet there are enough historical parallels in both faiths that we must recognize as well as some details that are obviously not a coincidence. For instance, the monotheist terrorist group Soldiers of The One or STO uses the infinity symbol. Of course we can't help but see the potential comparison:
In this episode we also learn more about the Ha'la'tha crime syndicate from Tauron and its leader the Guatrau. Is this a parallel of the Sicilian Mafia? Of course.

Now comes the new parallel story arcs:
  • Billionaire entrepreneur Daniel Graystone has lost his Graystone Corporation to his arch rival Tomas Vergis in the development of the robots we know as the Cylons ("toaster" get's introduced in this episode); he has even lost control of the now nearly demolished one that contained his daughter Zoe's avatar 'mind"; and Vergis also even took away his beloved sports team the Buccaneers; so through Joseph Adama he approaches the Guatrau to pitch the idea that if they can just get rid of Vergis, they could be in a hugely profitable partnership marketing as a cure for grief a computer system that can resurrect dead people as virtual avatars in a holoworld, something that has already happened with Zoe Graystone and Adama's daughter Tamara Adama.
  • "Sister" Clarice Willow, in an effort to wrest full control over the STO movement away from her arch rival Barnabas Greeley, travels to Gemenon and approaches "Mother" for permission to market the aforementioned computer system to resurrect dead people as virtual avatars in a holoheaven, the demonstrable immortality that the religion promises; as a marketing tool, it has the advantage of people being able to see the dead believers in heaven.
All of this involves intrigue and some violence.

Perhaps you're wondering about the last episode of the first half of the season.

Well, the fatally damaged cylon body that Zoe's avatar occupied is boxed up. And we learn that Zoe escaped back to the holoworld by watching her prove her strength as a magical warrior princess "killing" some street punks who call her a "deadwalker", of which we know two exist - her and Tamara.

Further, we learn that Amanda Graystone, who we thought we last saw step off the edge of a bridge an kill herself while Sister Clarice's car was being blown up nearby, actually is now staying in some cabin with Sister Clarice.

So much for the action-packed last episode. Now back to our regularly schedule long dramatic march.

I like this show. At least I like the potential revealed in this episode. I want to know just how the holoworld concept ultimately leads to the Cylons starting a war with the Twelve Colonies several decades from the "now" of these episodes. I like the characters being developed and I like the actors. I like a show that, if it is not going to have a current-day or historical foundation, offers a philosophical underpinning for its broader conflict story arc.

But if the unfolding process of this show is attractive to me and only 27 other people, and that's something I am concerned might happen, NBCU won't keep funding its share.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Mad Men: Something good happens, something bad happens

A story arc sequence in this episode says it all about the "business model" of ad agencies like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. (I'd also make a sarcastic remark about investment banking here, but that's another blog.)

The partners are gathered in Roger's office prior to leaving for a funeral of a fellow ad man (we really don't know who David Montgomery is). They talk about how to use the event to find new clients. Don's newest secretary Megan enters the room to announce the birth of Pete's daughter. Congrats, all around. Thanks guys.

Pete says "Let's get going." And he and the guys head off to the funeral where we see them whispering to each other about who is going to talk to whom.

“How was the funeral?” Megan asks Don later.

“We’ll see,” he responds.

Death seems to fill the atmosphere at SCDP in this episode after everyone finds out they've lost the biggest client, Lucky Strike. And yet, at the end of the episode we see a nefarious act and blood ketchup in the future. But back to the details of the episode. Let's look at four of the show's key characters.

Don Draper

Well, Big Don didn't "go on the wagon" and neither did "Little Don." While Megan and Faye struggle to keep him from drinking too much, he couldn't keep to his limit of three drinks and couldn't keep "Little Don" in his pants with regard to Megan, who wants a mentor and wants to be successful like Peggy.

And, of course, he manages to manipulate Faye's concern for him to get a future meeting with Heinz to try to replace Lucky Strike.

For these women, Don is the traditional "bad boy." Somehow they see him in jeans and a t-shirt with a cigarette pack rolled up into the sleeve, except he's in a suit.

His pep talk to the employees was adequate, but Jon Hamm really does make Don seem uneasy and worried while struggling to make it convincing.

Losing Glo-Coat was symbolic of how crushing life can be for Don/Dick. But Megan is right in putting his Clio back together. It is a symbol of possible accomplishments.

Peggy Olson

"Every time something good happens, something bad happens. I knew I'd pay for it."

There is nothing like being a fallen-away Catholic. Think about it. Can you imagine any other character in this show summarizing his/her life this way?

For Peggy, having a fulfilling personal life is part of being alive, unlike Don for whom a personal life can never be more than a prop or an occasional escape. So when she wanders late into the gathering listening to Don's pep talk, happy from her new relationship with Abe it's a heck of a come down. (On the other hand, can being told by your lover that you have shoulders like an Olympic athlete really lift your spirits?)

Don, who actually is her mentor, bluntly warns her not to kid herself into believing what he just told the rest of the employees. She's still young and inexperienced. No wonder she thinks some kind of Catholic punishment will follow everything sinfully good that happens to her.

She nails the Playtex presentation, but not without experiencing another team member stabbing her in the back by not telling her about the lipstick on the teeth. Of course, that team member is not a part of any team. Her only teammate is Don.

Sometimes though, I wonder if an overarching morality lesson in "Mad Men" is "Every time something good happens, something bad happens."

Roger Sterling

Roger Sterling is going to be the Brett Favre of  "Mad Men" - the lesson is one should retire at the top of their game and then stay retired.

Roger catches a glimmer of the future, that there might not be a celebration of his life attended by grateful clients and coworkers, a mourning lifetime partner and children, no expression of a man appreciated. From that funeral, we hear about how that man buried himself in his work bringing tokens to his family from his business travels.

In fact, Roger behaves like a child, hiding his guilt over Lucky Strike (it's a good thing caller ID was invented later). Bert Cooper, the firm's resident elderly leader emeritus, crushes him with: "Lee Garner Jr. never took you seriously because you never took yourself seriously."

And Joan finally acknowledges that the "fun loving" Roger is also an irresponsible Roger who has been a constant source of disappointment and now has endangered her livelihood. When she makes it clear that she is ending their relationship, Roger looks like a child who's favorite toy is taken away.

But Roger has Sterling’s Gold and signs his first copy...for his young, new trophy wife who has already replaced his real wife and, unintentionally on Roger's part, Joan. One has to wonder if the writers have actually written the book to be sold at the end of this season.

Pete Campbell

Some might find it odd that Pete didn't stay at the hospital to be present at his daughter's birth. If you do, you were born after the 1960's. In 1965 husbands tried to stay at the hospital in the waiting room, but they weren't expected to hang around for days as they had a life and they never, ever were in the delivery room.

Still, for Pete the meaningful interaction was in that waiting room. His father-in-law wants him to get out of SCDP and take an offer to work for the rest of his life with people he hates. What will Pete do? He seems to forgive Don a lot, but Don pushes him away again accusing him of screwing up the Glo-Coat account.

The future for Pete is a family. But we seem to see a maturing Pete, finding his footing, not wanting to bail on what appears to be a failing firm. We know he will seek a way to take advantage of the situation, but this Pete knows full well that opportunities for real gains won't present themselves in a firm he didn't help start.

As we were serenaded during the ending by Jim Reeves singing "Welcome to My World," we realize that seasons of "Mad Men" don't wind down, they rachet up to leave us wanting more, from the show and from life. For the characters and many who lived during this period:

Knock and the door will open
Seek and you will find
Ask and you'll be given
The key to this world of mine

Welcome to my world...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mad Men: Don't panic, all tragedies have been averted...

Joan Harris is the only one who did not seem to have a panic attack as characters are confronted with threats to their reimagined existence.
"We averted a tragedy. Life goes on."
And so Joan seemingly sums up the appearance of things in an episode that indicates the imminent collapse of the house of cards built on lies that is Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. With life closing in, Don Draper was feeling appropriate in this scene:

And we watched as life and his father continue to give Lane Pryce a beating and in response he leaves to put his home life in order telling the partners the finances of the company are fine and Joan can deal with anything that he thinks could come up. (Will this man come back?)

What could come up? Yes, Roger knows the company's core account is lost and has 30 days before he has to tell everyone - so he didn't tell them. Yes, Pete's dumping a huge account because Don isn't really Don and the FBI might not like that. What could go wrong in the final three episodes of the season?

Is Don still Dick as he's eying Megan freshening her lipstick in the final scene? Or is he just realizing how these women seem to be his undoing. Particularly as he opens up to Faye creating the possibility of a real relationship, what's going on with the Megan stare?

Many are wondering if Joan had the abortion. Roger isn't, but she never says she did, offering only that phrase: "A tragedy has been averted."

As Roger takes out his nitro pill, one can't help but wonder about his future. Particularly when he tries to network on the phone looking for a replacement account, or two, only to discover his old network is dying, literally.

Why did Pete seem to capitulate so easily? Given the time frame, I'm pretty sure he hasn't dumped that account yet. And while I know the FBI might discover the truth about Don, the 1965 FBI is so focused on the Communist thing instead of simply doing the job, I'm not sure that what will happen. The discrepancy in birth dates should have been discovered before any interviews.

Nonetheless, Don/Dick has reason to panic. He's looking at up to five years imprisonment any lying to the government. Betty probably didn't know the law would apply to her as she supports Don's lie. But then again, the lie has trapped her, also.

“Do You Want to Know a Secret?” the Beatles song at the end asks, though they used an elevator music version - couldn't afford the license for the original on an AMC budget? This is the episode that left so many questions to be answered.

But apparently Sally and Don have connected via the Beatles. That's nice, though their big 1965 hit was Help.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mad Men: Can there be soup without a pot?

Before plunging forward, I need to thank my partner in life for offering much that makes up this and other "Mad Men" posts. Without her reactions to this show and discussion of the stories from her perspective which is based on having experienced the workplace in 1965, I would miss much.

Joyce explains it all to Peggy:
"Men are this vegeteble soup and you can't put em on a plate or eat em on the counter, so women are the pot. They heat em up, they hold em, contain em, who wants to be a pot? Who the hell said we're not soup?"
The as yet undeterred Peggy offers, "I don't think that's true."

In an otherwise excellent cover story on "Mad Men" in the current issue of Rolling Stone,  the writer says:
This season, Weiner has taken a step back from the broader themes, placing less attention on the world around Don Draper....
Well, not exactly. Both growing ferment around Vietnam and, most obviously, The Second Wave of the feminist movement underlie this whole season.

If you didn't get it before, this episode was in your face all about "the changing of the guard" in the feminist movement. (Read my review of episode 2 of this season for a short recap of the feminist movement which actually accomplished much, unlike the Vietnam thing. I also have a footnote at the end of my post on my thoughts expressed in previous posts on the feminist them of this season by episode.)

The sudden death of Ida Blankenship is the symbolic "fireworks, cannons, cymbals crashing, the loud 1812 Overture movement" announcing the handoff to the women of The Second Wave.

A great deal of comedy surrounded Don's problem that she died at her desk while a client was in the office. But if you carefully watched the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, you knew this event impacted on them at the core.

That the men don't know how to write her obituary is not surprising, but the best description of her achievement was Burt Cooper's: "She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut." What a truly remarkable piece of TV writing.

The second more subtle, but still in your face, feminist element of this episode was Sally's revolt. This particular scene summarized the other end of the feminist story arc as both these women know that their choices will seriously affect the life of all the little girls out there in 1965.
Unlike many of this season's episodes, much "happened" in this one. But we still have the subtle undercurrent. For instance, Sally makes and serves french toast to her dad. What's that about, you ask? Well I'm glad you asked.

You see, it was Carla who taught Sally. Peggy let her clueless new love interest (clueless is the theme for her love interests) know in no uncertain terms that there is a parallel here. Women are servants of men, blacks are servants of whites. This was the social norm.

This structure enables SCDP and the depicted households to operate smoothly. Secretaries - women - took care of their bosses - men - emotionally. Megan-the-office-wife takes care of Don and Sally. Faye struggles because she fails with Sally, making her feel less of a woman. Joan and Roger are so co-dependent emotionally that they can't escape their relationship which thrives on it's illicit nature.  Yet Joan is also trying to take care of Greg and, though he's not worthy, she feels like she's failing somehow. Even Ida took care of Cooper in their time in her way.

Peggy hints that ignoring the black boycott of their client's stores may be hazardous. The undercurrent is that the men of SCDP ignoring the women of SCDP, as a symbol of the times, may be hazardous.

When Megan tells Sally everything will be alright, Sally says clearly: "No it's not."

And we know it's not.

More bluntly was the warning from Joan to Roger saying she's afraid of the change in the neighborhood their walking through. Roger, you've ignored the change and it's hazardous. This scene has further undercurrents. When you watch Roger and Joan curl into themselves out of fear (and a good tactic), you also sense that additional level of reality facing each that Ida's death pushed forward. Roger told Don he fears dying at the office. Joan fears Greg will die in Vietnam.

Naturally, after the trauma they turn to each other for familiar comfort. Was this a one time thing or a new beginning? Only Weiner knows.

Finally, the whole boycott issue deserves some historical context. S. H. Kress & Co. and the F. W. Woolworth Company did see some early 1960's boycotts. When they spread north, the issue became more corporate. Fillmore Auto Parts is taking a big risk. Don should be listening to Peggy and no one should be suggesting using Dean Martin because he was buddies with Sammy Davis Jr.

The general wakeup call for the corporate community will begin soon. In August 1965 the Watts Riots occurred. From Wikipedia:
Eventually, the California National Guard was called to active duty to assist in controlling the rioting. On Friday night [August 13, 1965], a battalion of the 160th Infantry and the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron of the 18th Armored Cavalry were sent into the riot area (about 2,000 men). Two days later, the remainder of the 40th Armored Division was sent into the riot zone. A day after that, units from northern California arrived (a total of around 15,000 troops). These National Guardsmen put a cordon around a vast region of South Central Los Angeles, and the rioting was largely over by Sunday. Due to the seriousness of the riots, martial law had been declared. Sergeant Ben Dunn said "The streets of Watts resembled an all-out war zone in some far-off foreign country, it bore no resemblance to the United States of America". The initial commander of National Guard troops was Colonel Bud Taylor, then a motorcycle patrolman with the Los Angeles Police Department, who in effect became superior to Chief of Police Parker. National Guard units from Northern California were also called in, including Major General Clarence H. Pease, former commanding general of the National Guard's 40th Infantry Division.
This wasn't just in the North, it was in Hollywood. Of course, it would take the much worse 1967 Detroit Riot for corporate America to realize that the race problem was not a quaint former Confederate States problem, but an American problem in general, a problem that still hasn't been fully resolved.

But if the Don Draper's were a little slow off the mark to see that this was bad for business, Peggy and the bra burners do have to realize that there were no women's lib riots resulting in the death of many, the injury of many more, and huge losses of property.

Still, without these women pushing their agenda, we would not have the very different workplaces we have today and the greater opportunities for women in our society, regardless of race. (Yes, I know there remains a glass ceiling.)

But someone still has to ask Joyce the philosophical question: "Can there be soup without a pot?"

Episode 1: "...The episode story arc about the Janzen swimming suit people offering a thematic reference to the 1960's battle over women openly embracing their sexuality...."
Episode 2: "The second wave of the American feminist movement had reached boiling temperature. Helen Gurley Brown's
Sex and the Single Girl sold 2 million copies in 3 weeks in 1962 warming the cauldron around working women. But Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique ignited the fire."
Episode 3: "...What "Mad Men" is presenting is Joan as a real pioneer in the dilemma facing a career woman in the age of the pill (in 1964, an age that is barely 4, maybe, in New York City with a very sympathetic gynecologist) - how do you have it all? "
Episode 4: "The one thing we know about Peggy is she knows she has the talent and skills for the job and has already chosen to become "a suit" not a hippie nor a traditional wife and mother."
Episode 6: "So here we are at SCDP-creative this season. The mentor genius Don/Dick is losing it. Peggy is stepping up to keep things in order. These are two people who know each other - not yet equals, but almost family in the sense that you know which uncles have a drinking problem."
Episode 7: This is the one episode where Don and Peggy's relationship both personally and professionally grow in ways contrary to and well beyond the general men-women office relationship.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mad Men: The Amazing Rolling Fables?

When I'm drivin' in my car
and a man comes on the radio
he's tellin' me more and more
about some useless information
supposed to fire my imagination.

When I'm watchin' my TV
and a man comes on to tell me
how white my shirts can be.
Well he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
the same cigarettes as me.
The above is the first two versus of the opening song in this weeks episode, "Mad Men: The Summer Man." Most recognize the chorus, few know the verses from (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, the June 1965 hit release from The Rolling Stones. That it's about advertising and about dissatisfaction certainly is appropriate to the show.

But it isn't the only material lifted from another source in this episode. We saw Faye relating the Aesop fable The North Wind and the Sun to Don:
The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.”

So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair.

Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
Don asks what this means and Faye says that “kindness, gentleness, and persuasion win where force fails.”

While this had some relationship to the episode's story arcs, in my mind I juxtapose this to Don's watching with concern the Vietnam war news that American troops were taking a more aggressive strategy and we were escalating our troop presence. After an attack on a U.S. Marine barracks at Pleiku, a bombing campaign began that lasted for three years. Ho Chi Minh warned that if the Americans "want to make war for twenty years then we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea." American policy makers chose to be the North Wind.

Dealing with post-cataract surgery glasses of that period, Miss Blankenship adds a third piece lifted from the song Amazing Grace: "I was blind but now I see." That was, of course, quite relevant in this episode as we hear Don Draper describe his process of gaining control of his life.

The "Recovering Don" story arc which picks up from the ending of the last episode was enjoyable to watch as creative TV - keeping a journal, swimming, and trying to control his drinking. I hope future episodes will continue this character.

But the more compelling "period piece" story arc is that of the women. It's now clear that we have four struggling characters that will continue. Joan and Peggy, of course. Betty. And Faye. Each is trying to cope with identity and role issues.

Betty is still struggling with a "what happened to me?" attitude and maybe she can live comfortably using Francine's suggested mantra: “We have everything.” But so far, it's not convincing.

Joan's confrontation with Joey makes it clear that she is operating out of the same rulebook his mother's generation used. In fact, he called her on it and also gave us a look into the source of his attitude which involved a disrespect of his mother. Joan began a manipulation process to get rid of him. But it didn't seem to me to be going anywhere.

Welcome to the new generation of women, Joey. Meet Peggy, bolstered by Don's "You want some respect? Go out there and get it for yourself." By the way, Joey, your fired.

Joan and Peggy. Joan is struggling with her soon to be military doctor husband, her perceptions of the workplace and women. Peggy is slowly, but surely, marching forward, one soldier in the feminist army that will ultimately find itself dominating the workplace in 2010. Except, of course, for the glass ceiling. Could Peggy ever become a Don?

Faye offered some news about her mafia family background in this episode. One can only wonder where she and Don will end up.As usual, there were many layers in this episode, and some pretty heavy psychological expressions. Whether it was Don in the waters of rebirth or Joan expression of hate attacking the macho pigs telling them death awaited their dumb asses in Vietnam, emotion pours out of this show.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mad Men: What do a mouse and a cockroach have in common?

What do a mouse and a cockroach have in common? Answer: they both got a part in this episode of "Mad Men."

Together Peggy and Don cope with the vermin infecting their present and their pasts - you know those noxious, objectionable, or disgusting bits of reality that infect our memories, like mice and cockroaches.  In doing so, it appears Don's alcoholic binge may have bottomed out.

The show ends with Simon and Garfunkel singing Bleecker Street, an appropriate New York song with these words:
Voices leaking from a sad cafe
Smiling faces try to understand
I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand...
During this episode Don and Peggy were
  • at a cafe,
  • were smiling at each other, and
  • their hands touched.
"The Suitcase" may have been the best episode of "Mad Men" yet. It was certainly the best episode in the show to date for Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss as Don and Peggy. If next August they don't get Emmy's for their performances in this one, that means that I have some excellent TV to look forward to.

The second Ali-Liston fight was the date identifier for "The Suitcase." (The Simon and Garfunkel song The Boxer also might have been appropriate at some point in this episode. But the duo released it several years later, unfortunately for Matthew Weiner who takes sole credit for writing this episode.)

The fight also allowed us to see Don picking the wrong player, again. He was sure Nixon would win, and he was so sure Liston would win he lost money on the fight. Predicting the future isn't always his forté. But the famous Neil Leifer photo may lead to a another Clio ad for Don:

The ad is for Samsonite luggage and Don's rejection of the efforts of the creative team led by Peggy was ostensibly the cause of a fight of their own, between Don and Peggy. But separately impacting events of that evening were the true reasons for each to lash out.

For Peggy, her self-described fiancé Mark made the biggest bone-headed move a guy could make. It's her birthday. He's taking her to a fancy restaurant, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars - romantic, right? Peggy sure thinks it is. But not Mark. He decides to make it a surprise event by including her family. You know, the judgmental family from hell for a woman like Peggy who we've already seen. Only Mark doesn't know this, because he doesn't know enough about Peggy to be her fiancé.

Don, of course, doesn't remember it's Peggy's birthday which hurts her and makes her mad. So after she and her team make the presentation, when he insists she stay late to work with him on it she's really furious. She thinks Don is going to the watch the fight at a closed circuit venue, so she tells Mark she'll be a little late thinking he's waiting at the table by himself. An hour later, a humiliated Mark calls her, a fight ensues leading to a breakup.

That breakup was inevitable, but naturally it leaves Peggy extremely upset. And it's only after all of this that she finally tells Don it was her birthday.

Don also is struggling with an inevitable crisis. About five minutes into the episode Miss Blankenship says to Don walking back to his office:
"You got a call while you were in the toilet to the direct line, Stephanie from California no last name, she says it's urgent. Would you like me to place the call?
A visibly shaken Don says: "I've got it." We already learned from Episode 3 of this season that Anna would die soon. From this point in this week's episode, Don/Dick visibly struggles with the inevitable - returning the phone call to learn when Anna died. This message successfully casts a pall over the remainder of the episode, until just before the end.

The series of scenes with Don and Peggy, exchanges of anger and understanding, all lead to Don falling asleep with his head on Peggy's lap, on the office couch, perhaps after drinking his last glass of sadness for awhile, we hope.

Then there was the incredibly effective use of other characters such as:

  • Don attempting to defend Peggy's honor by taking a swing at Duck, and his apparent acceptance of Peggy's involvement with Duck.
  • Peggy's restroom encounter with the pregnant Trudy Campbell who chirps: “Happy birthday! You know, 26 is still very young,” which was followed by a scene of Pete Campbell with a worried look observing the two of them leaving the restroom.
  • Don and Peggy listening to a tape of Roger's ramblings - Roger is writing a tell-all memoir - which includes secrets about Miss Blankenship and Burt Cooper.

Before discussing the ending, the obvious, and not so obvious, phantoms present have to be mentioned. Of course, we have the Ali-Frazer fight which was ended with what many observers called "the phantom punch." We have Anna's ghost looking in on Don. Those are the obvious ones. But we also have Peggy's baby and the dead Don Draper - the original one not Dick Whitman reborn.

Some hope for Don comes to us out of this episode. The model 1950's closed-off man broke down at the news of Anna's death with Peggy in the room. He sob's out Anna is "the only person in the world who really knew" him.

Peggy tells him that isn't true. And we know that she knows him better than anyone other than Anna. When he tentatively touched her hand, it was the hand of a true friend, and he was recognizing her value to him in a way that she needs. So much about this episode was both funny and poignant.

At the end, while leaving, at his office door, Peggy asks: "Open or closed."

"Open," Don replies, and in the final scene we see him sitting in his office from ten or more feet, through that open door, Don Draper looking sober, clean and fresh. And, as the closing music starts on this unusually high-caliber television, we're hopeful:
Fog's rollin' in off the East River bank
Like a shroud it covers Bleeker Street
Fills the alleys where men sleep
Hides the shepherd from the sheep

Voices leaking from a sad cafe
Smiling faces try to understand
I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand....