Posted in Television

Mad Men: One Big Yawn

madmen_don_cutler_ted
Don: “The partners voted: That green jacket has got to go.”

I can’t remember the last time I was this disappointed in a TV show.

Do you recall Benjamin Franklin’s astute observation? “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” Something similar can be said for TV shows that go beyond the five season mark. Unlike network shows which can run forever, or as long as sponsors can be found, cable TV drama usually does best with a limited shelf life. It was five seasons and out for “Six Feet Under” and “The Wire”; “The Sopranos,” which got up to Seasons 6A and 6B, only felt attenuated because of the lengthy gap between seasons.

Until this go-round, “Mad Men” always seemed to have an unusual capacity to surprise us, to exceed our expectations. The principals of Sterling Cooper engineering their own firing to form a new agency, Joan’s sleeping with the Jaguar dealer to secure the account as well as her own future, Layne’s suicide after Don’s discovery of his embezzlement, Peggy’s leaving the firm—the unexpected was always a possibility. In contrast, was anyone really surprised to see the firm force a leave of absence on Don in this season’s finale? The guy’s been a drag, sinking deeper and deeper into a morass. I’m not the only viewer with a newsflash for Matthew Weiner: given what we’ve seen of Don in the last five years, this is neither interesting nor entertaining. I’m tired of the whorehouse flashbacks, Don’s rotten childhood and his self-destructiveness. Put all this to bed or reconcile it without further ado—it’s no longer making for good drama.

Adding to the problem was the show’s incorporation of so many of the events of 1968 into the narrative flow. I was a high school senior then, and believe me, living through that horror show once was enough for me. In any event, “Mad Men” seems to do best when it’s only lightly peppered by real events. Inescapably we’ve had Election Night, 1960, because of Sterling Cooper’s work for the Nixon Campaign, and of course, the Kennedy Assassination, the watershed event of a generation (In my Top 10 of “Mad Men” scenes: Roger calling Joan after his daughter’s disastrous wedding reception, held on November 23rd, and greeting her with “So what’s new?”). Going any deeper by focusing on Vietnam, the Chicago riots and the King and Kennedy assassinations to the extent “Mad Men” did only added to the prevailing gloom.

But as always, Peggy came through and provided some of “Mad Men”‘s best scenes this year. Unlike most of the other characters, she’s still on the ascent; her energy and drive are key elements to the show. I love her scenes with Stan, whom I think is her real soul mate, not Ted Chaough. And her complex relationship with Joan was deftly written and played, especially when these two confronted their misconceptions about each other. Peggy’s bailing her out as Pete was about to lower the boom over the Avon prospect was sheer genius, and the follow-up (“You better hope that he calls”) sealed the fact that she’s got Joan’s back. Too bad Don still doesn’t get her, though. I really hated his lie to the St. Joseph’s people that it was the late Frank Gleason, not Peggy, who had come up with the “Rosemary’s Baby” concept for the commercial. While it may have been Don’s attempt to save Ted and obtain more money from the client, that move basically castrated Peggy by depriving her of some well-deserved credit. And as a long-term veteran of that particular war, I can relate. Totally.

Even though Bob Benson is an irritating boil, it was interesting how Pete handled his sexual orientation in contrast to Don’s dealings with Sal several seasons ago. Pete just wants to win. As long as Bob keeps his hands to himself, Pete’s OK because he knows Bob will deliver.  On the other hand, I suspect Don would have eventually found a pretext to fire Sal even if he hadn’t rebuffed Lee Garner, Jr. And speaking of Pete, I think his drunken conversation with Peggy during their Ocean Spray trip with Ted was a terrific scene—what a welcome relief from all the doom and gloom.

On the fashion front, I’ve got to say that Harry Hamlin, as Jim Cutler, rocks those horn rims (in addition to being a great dirty voyeur). And Harry Crane! Look at you with sideburns, mod hair and style!

With Season Six ending in November, 1968, the Apollo moon landing, Woodstock, Stonewall and Charles Manson are looming in the year ahead. Will Don return to Sterling Cooper & Partners sporting a mustache, long hair and love beads? Will Sally become a Stones groupie? Will Pete ever lose that baby-face along with the rest of his hair? Will Peggy, Joan and Stan split off to form their own agency? One can only hope.

christina-hendricks-and-elisabeth-moss-at-an
Out of character and still great!

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Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for the Start of Summer

June 23rd. Two days after the equinox. Not only did the Big Moon show up, the Mets (!?!) are now playing decent baseball. Matt Harvey’s superior success, the arrival of Eric Young, Jr., Omar Quintanilla, and Juan Lagares, the special guest appearances of Zack Wheeler are all adding up to a team that not only I’m no longer embarrassed to watch—they’re great to see even when they lose. Yet another miracle of summer, the best part of the year.

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I’m a Metropolitan Opera subscriber, yet I have to say that the most intense operatic performance I heard this season was not at that house but across the plaza at Avery Fisher Hall. Conductor Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic presented a concert version of Luigi Dallapicolla’s “Il Prigioniero” earlier this month, and I don’t think I breathed during the 50-minute duration of the work. Gerald Finley as the prisoner, Patricia Racette as his mother and Peter Hoare as the jailer were nothing short of superb, as were Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic. Bravissimi!

Gerald Finley and Alan Gilbert:
Gerald Finley and the New York Philharmonic: “Il Prigioniero”

Speaking of opera, it’s always an interesting proposition to consider how a particular production either honors a composer’s intentions or scrapes across the grain. A few weeks ago I experienced Willy Decker’s famous “red dress” version of “La Traviata” at the Met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I enjoyed how he pared the opera down to its essence, yet I really questioned some of his choices. Dressing the chorus and supporting characters in black suits and ties? (Flora, Gastone, et al, sorry we somehow lost you in the crowd). Ditto taking the sole intermission after the first act (While “La Traviata” is among my top ten favorite operas, sitting through the rest of the work without a break made for an unnecessarily long evening). And having Violetta dying in a bleacher seat was ridiculous—the least Decker could have done was given that poor girl a divan.

Nevertheless, there were some arresting moments, especially the beginning of the final act when Violetta sees her fickle friends create another Girl of the Moment by clothing her in that red dress. Diana Damrau was quite good in the role, delivering perhaps the most eerie “È strano” imaginable at the conclusion of the opera. Placido Domingo continues his vanity tour as a baritone, and I wish to God he’d quit and leave these roles to singers who can really do them justice.

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Many months ago I made sure to get a ticket to the Met’s revival of “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” since only three performances were scheduled. What a marvel John Dexter’s production is—how spare, yet how it complements both the story as well as the music. This is one production both critics and audiences agree should not be replaced.

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James GandolfiniThere’s a particular type of sadness most of us feel when a talented actor dies, especially at a young age. No matter how accomplished he or she may be, or how honored in terms of Oscars or Golden Globes bestowed, there’s that sense of deprivation, of missing out on what might have been. This was especially true with the passing of Natasha Richardson several years ago. But with the untimely death of James Gandolfini, there’s more—we mourn not only what might have been, but what iconically was.

As the inimitable Tony Soprano, he had us from the get-go. Is there anyone who wasn’t charmed in the pilot of the show when Tony, noticing his shrink’s Italian surname on her diploma, smiled: “Melfi. What part of the boot you from, hon?” It was Gandolfini’s skill at his craft and his range as an actor that ultimately realized a character and a television show that clearly delineated the “before” and “after” in terms of adult drama. While he made Tony charming, he also with equal skill made him petty, ruthless, murderous, compassionate and confused—sometimes simultaneously.

Since Gandolfini’s death many lists of “Tony Soprano’s Best Moments” have appeared, but I couldn’t come up with a run-down like that no matter how I tried. Where do you start? Even more difficult, where do you end? His amusement at Silvio’s continual state of melt-down during the Big Game with Frank Sinatra, Jr.? His hammer and tongs confrontation with Carmela that ended in their separation (an advanced seminar in acting expertly taught by Gandolfini and Edie Falco and perhaps the most uncomfortable hour of drama ever televised)? His epic battles with Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto, not to mention the way things ended with the latter (Pie-Oh-My indeed)? The horrific moment when he murdered Christopher? When “The Sopranos” aired, every episode was a showcase for both actor and character, to our delight and astonishment.

Gandolfini was set to star in a new HBO mini-series, “Criminal Justice,” in which he would have played a somewhat down-at-the-heels defense attorney. It would have been a good role for him and most likely would have demonstrated once and for all that he had more than Tony Soprano in his repertoire. But sadly, we’re left again with “might have been.”

Thank you, Mr. Gandolfini, and rest in peace.

Posted in Television

Game of Thrones: Wait ‘Til Next Year

Speaking of next time...
Speaking of next time…

Are you in withdrawal yet?

Fortunately I started reading the “Song of Fire and Ice” series a couple of months ago to stave off the “Winter is Coming” dearth, post-Season Three. Yes, I know the books are door-stoppers, but I love a good page turner. Plus it’s interesting to see how and where the “Game of Thrones” show runners made their story-telling decisions, in terms of condensing and/or departing from the George R.R. Martin novels.

If you’ve read “A Storm of Swords,” the source material of Season Three, you were probably let down at least a bit by “Mhysa”, the season finale. You know what’s ahead (and yes, it’s absolutely incredible), and you were probably thinking that at least a hint of one of the coming events would have been a killer ending to the show for this year. However, this is HBO, and their series pattern is that the big surprise comes in the penultimate episode of each season. This has more or less been the case ever since Janice Soprano blew away Richie Aprile in Season Two of “The Sopranos” (good times). After the bloodbath of the Red Wedding, it made dramatic sense, at least for those who haven’t read the books, to bring it down a notch and prepare for what should be the mother of all “Game of Thrones” seasons.

And speaking of mother, that’s what “Mhysa” means in Ghiscari, the language of Yunkai. As applied to Daenerys Targaryen, I’m somewhat leery about the whole proposition. I thought the Yunkish adulation was scary rather than uplifting; I heard echoes of old newsreels of crowds worshiping Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom also styled themselves as liberators of their people. Dany will have her work cut out for her—in addition to her dragons, she’s going to have to manage that troika of a brain trust, not to mention the thousands upon thousands she’s now leading. That girl’s got a lot on her plate.

While Tyrion and Sansa’s conversation in the garden was unexpectedly charming (I loved her considerately taking a seat to be at his eye level), probably the best part of the episode involved the Hound and Arya. I liked his presence of mind in snatching up a Frey banner to make a clean getaway from the after-party slaughter of the Red Wedding. Arya’s witnessing the atrocity of her brother’s torso topped by Grey Wind’s head paraded about as the King of the North has got to be a line of demarcation in her life; the subsequent cruelty of hearing a Frey man brag about sewing the direwolf’s head onto Robb Stark’s body was the ultimate tipping point. Arya’s cunning in making puppy eyes as she begs for food, only to stab the Frey man with the Hound’s dagger, is the beginning of a far different life for her. The Hound’s “Next time tell me first,” while providing an easy laugh, was somewhat chilling in his recognition of what she’s becoming.

Speaking of Frey men, I fully expect some spectacular retribution vis-a-vis Walder Frey. Newton’s Third Law amplified is always in play in “Game of Thrones”: for every action there is sure to be an opposite and equal even bigger reaction. So I’m resting assured that when fate or the Starks catch up with him, his end (ditto Roose Bolton’s) will be spectacular. And we’ll all laugh like hell.

I fondly relished seeing Joffrey get bitch-slapped by his grandfather, who was not amused by his King’s characterization of his sitting on his posterior at Casterly Rock while Robert Baratheon took the crown. Watching the Lannisters en famille is always such a treat. So in addition to Dany, we had the pleasure of another mother’s company, namely Cersei’s, who waxed eloquent about her baby boy (I’m sorry, though—nowhere on God’s green earth was Joffrey ever a jolly little fellow). Evidently her love and compassion are finite, since she sure didn’t welcome Jamie back with open arms. Without a right hand he’s as freakish in her eyes as Tyrion. No twincest tonight.

Hopefully this episode finally saw the end of Theon Greyjoy torture porn. For the life of me, I can’t understand why the show runners gave this story so much air time, since (a) the Greyjoys have always been minor players and (b) Theon was never all that interesting to watch anyway once he turned on Robb Stark and botched his old man’s plans by insisting on taking Winterfell. The Bolton bastard’s chortling over his meal of sausages was eye-rollingly fifth grade humor, and frankly I expected better. While Yara’s coming to the rescue with the sea wind wafting through her hair looked like a commercial, it may be the start of a more interesting story arc.

I got a kick out of Samwell Tarly’s instant recognition of Bran Stark (“You’re the crippled one”). After so many near misses, it was a relief to see at least a second-hand reunion of relatives. On the other hand, nothin’ says lovin’ like shooting a quiverful of arrows into your boo, at least according to Ygritte. Jon, you done her wrong, and I suspect this won’t be the last we see of her. And kudos to Davos for freeing Gendry, who, while not the sharpest knife in the drawer, strongly reminds me of Wart, T.H. White’s Once and Future King Arthur.

The set-ups are in place for Season Four. In addition to the war and revenge plots already in motion, we’ve had heavy foreshadowing what with Shae most likely headed for not-a -happy-ending (when Varys tells you it’s best to get out of town, you go) and Melisandre’s pointing out that civil war doesn’t hold a candle to what’s in store with the White Walkers.

Is it next year yet?

Posted in Television

Red Wedding

RedWedding

It was far worse than I had envisioned.

Having dipped into “A Storm of Swords,” I knew what was in store on “Game of Thrones.” But the show runners, in a significant departure from George R.R. Martin’s novels, ratcheted up the horror by having Robb bring Talisa to the wedding, only to see their unborn child murdered as the Freys’ first victim.

The images are indelible: Walder Frey’s just-this-close to insulting welcome to the Stark party, his ribald assessment of Talisa, the diversionary yet mocking choice of the prettiest of his daughters as Edmure Tully’s bride.

And then…the shadow crossing Catelyn’s face as the doors to the Great Hall are shut, the look she exchanges with Roose Bolton, the commencement of the slaughter as Talisa is viciously stabbed to eradicate all traces of House Stark. One heartbreaking image after another: Robb’s cradling his dead wife, his struggle to his feet at his mother’s entreaty, Cat’s raw and desperate plea to Walder Frey, the farewell gaze between mother and son before both are slaughtered. And Cat, her spirit visibly murdered before her throat is slit. The cut to the eerily silent end credits was a stroke of genius.

The only good news last night was the continued resilience of three other Stark children. Jon’s refusal to execute a friend and his subsequent escape were something to cheer for, though his missed reunion with Bran was incredibly frustrating. Yet Bran’s ability to “see” him, among other astonishing powers he displayed last night, was breathtaking. Although the Red Wedding demonstrated that it’s best not to get too invested in a character, my money’s on Bran.

And poor Arya. After witnessing her father’s condemnation (if not his actual execution), to see Robb’s direwolf breathe his last at the hands of Frey men and realize its significance was very hard to take. It’s ironic that the man whose name is featured in her recited roll of revenge has twice saved her life. I look forward to more of her relationship with the Hound in the future.

I’m going to miss Robb. He was wrong in nearly every move he made, and his unhappy end was foretold the day he married Talisa. He came too late to realize that Mother, with all her faults, was a better strategist than he, even if Catelyn showed herself in the end to be more Stark than Tully. She, like her late husband, thought honor would carry the day, and indeed, that even Walder Frey shared that value. Honor has proven to be the Starks’ greatest failing, and it will be interesting to see if the younger family members learn from their elders’ mistaken trust.

I expect not a few Emmy nominations for “The Rains of Castamere,” most prominently for Michelle Fairley’s performance as Catelyn Stark. It’s not often that you see an actor go flat out, as if tearing off a piece of her soul, but she did. Just unforgettable.

Doing my damnedest not to spoil here, but—originally I was hoping that Season Three of “Game of Thrones” would end with the events of yet another wedding (if you know what I mean—hint, hint). But after last night, I think the audience desperately needs the payoff of the Epilogue of “A Storm of Swords.” Let’s not wait until next season to see it. Magic is all.