Friday, May 15, 2015

TV Watch: Still reeling from the news about Betty on last week's "Mad Men"? (Yes, we're down to the final episode)


I assumed we could get some sort of relevant clip from the Mad Men page of the AMC website, but right now it's a pile of worthless, stinking crap, at least on the browsers I have available as I write. (Confidential to Web designers who think all of their clients' potential users chase the latest browsers: Get your heads out of your butts, morons. And to the clients thusly hornswoggled: Oh jeez!) So we have to settle for this "cast's favorite scenes" feature, which you should find here. Above, of course, we see Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson), January Jones (Betty Francis), John Slattery (Roger Sterling), and Christina Hendricks (Joan Harris).

by Ken

A lot of Mad Men fans seem to be. And we know that, at least as of the end of last week's episode, "The Milk and Honey Route," poor Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) was still reeling. Whereas, perhaps surprisingly, Betty herself (January Jones) wasn't. Consider that there aren't many people who know Betty better than daughter Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), and it was Sally who assumed that the news would bring out her mother's drama-queeniness.

Among many other things, it was a big Sally episode, confirming what we've already known and noted repeatedly: how interestingly Kiernan Shipka has grown up over these years, and how ably she can handle whatever series creator Matthew Weiner and his team ask her to do. There was a wonderful low-key ease and playfulness to her long-distance phone conversation with Don (Jon Hamm), high drama in the unexpected visit she received at school from stepfather Henry, the combination of updated ancient routine and event-driven edge as she found herself back in the kitchen sitting with her out-of-the-loop little brothers, and of course the great scene with her mother.

It was all around, I thought, an exceptionally fine episode, with Don off on his quest-or-whatever-the-hell-it-is; Betty pursuing her long-delayed college degree; the left-behinds at what's left of the erstwhile Sterling Cooper team scrambling toward their new lives in the new agency world; and in particular Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), lured into an enervating entanglement with our old friend adman-turned-headhunter Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), deciding to go all out for an unexpected rearrangement of his future.

This last plotline that meant not just for another extendsive appearance by one of the series' most wonderful actors and characters, Alison Brie as Trudy Campbell, but as a mile marker for the life distance we've traveled with the show's characters. We began with astonishment way back when that someone as sane and centered and beautiful as Trudy would want anything to do with, let alone consider marrying, the creepy Pete we knew back in Season 1. Now here we are, all these years later, in which Trudy has worked so hard to wall off her feelings for Pete, and it turns out that maybe she was the only one who was right about him. Is there anyone who doesn't wish that, among the fates series Matthew W has in store for his characters, there's something good for Trudy?

I was so impressed by the episode that I was caught up short but also fascinated by a comment from a legendary adman, Tom Messner, who rose through the ranks at Carl Ally (later Ally and Gargano) before going out on his own (widely remembered as the creator of the advertising that put MCI on the telecommunications map), at a nifty panel put on Wednesday night by the Museum of the Moving Image: "The Real Mad Men: A Discussion with Leading Creators and Executives." Tom had gotten to talking about present-day TV, and said how impressed he is by the production values of current shows like Game of Thrones, and by contrast how meager he'd found the produciton values of last week's Mad Men episode, done mostly in simple closeups and two-shots, looking like it was made with a near-zero budget. The panel moderator, Barbara Lippert, a longtime columnist at Adweek and now editor-at-large at the website Media Post, pointed out that Matthew Weiner has complained frequently about the budgetary economies AMC has forced on him.

Meet Tom Messner in Yahoo's Giants of Advertising series.

Also on the panel was Ken Roman, who rose the rank of chairman and CEO of Ogilvy and Mather Worldwide before finding himself at the shaft end of the kind of British-takeover deal that's not unfamiliar to Mad Men viewers, though the MM version, it was suggested was perhaps a decade premature. And providing insighto the TV world's view of the advertising world, there was longtime NBC and RCA high-ranking executive Herb Schlosser (it was under his watch at NBC, and under his order, that Saturday Night Live was created -- though he has always clear that beyond the mandate the actual creation was done by the creative team. And crucially there was Helayne Spivak, who had worked for Tom Messner at Ally and Gargano and subsequenly worked her way up, through, and around the advertising business (she was reported to have told the panel organizers, "I'm Peggy"), and was able to tell us that the show's portrayal of the minimizing and outright abuse of women looked only too familiar to her.

It was a funny and illuminating panel, especially enjoyable for the opportunity to get a little sense of how these four exceptionally successful people had made their ways through their assorted careers. Regarding advertising, one point they agreed on is that they don't recognize the unrelenting angst of the show's portrayal of the advertising business. They did it, agreed all the ad people on the panel, because it was fun. (One other thing the panelists agreed on: None of them was familiar with the term "mad men," which they insist is Matthew Weiner's invention.)

One of the questions that came up was whether in the real world an agency guy could pull a Don Draper and just disappear for a week or a month. Much to my surprise, the general feeling, as articulated first by Ken Roman, was that "those creative types" could get away with just about anything!

In case it isn't obvious, I'm writing today in anticipation of the soon-to-be World of No More Mad Men. For Museum of the Moving Image members, there is at least a grand send-off in the form of a gala celebration Sunday evening culminating in a communal viewing of the final episode, "Person to Person," on the museum's largest screen. I signed up for that as soon as the e-announcement went out, wanting desperately not to be left out. Oh, I'll be recording the episode as well, but I think I'll be happy to see it first in the company of all those other devotees.

For one thing, I'll bet it plays really well on a large screen before an appreciative audience. As I've mentioned here many tiimes, my introduction to The Sopranos was on the not-as-large screen of the not-as-large old Museum of the Moving Image, the summer when the first show's first two seasons were binge-screened (before there was such a thing!) at an eight-episode-a-weekend clip, a project that was curated -- and is, understandably, still fondly remembered -- by the museum's current chief curator, David Schwartz. And wildly fondly remembered by me. For a newcomer to the show, it was an amazing immersion -- seeing not just how remarakable those two seasons' worth of episodes were but seeing how amazingly good they looked on a movie-theater-size screen, and how well they played to a live audience.

I know there's a popular impression that we're now in a golden age of grown-up cable TV drama, but that isn't how it looks to me. The way I see it, there was Oz and The Wire and The Sopranos and Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and maybe a few honorable mentions (Boardwalk Empire had its attractions, and I stuck it out with Tremé, crazy as it drove me at times). And then?

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