This week's column is dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Ida Blankenship, Don Draper's hilariously cantankerous executive secretary on Mad Men who died at her desk, "like she lived, surrounded by the people she answers phones for," according to Roger Sterling's snarky instant eulogy. Her former swain/boss Bert Cooper saw a bigger, more admiring picture: "She was born in 1898 in a barn, she died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She's an astronaut." Also, according to Roger's apparently unpublishable memoirs, a one-time "queen of perversions." Randee Heller's spot-on performance of this old-school gatekeeper, a relic of a time before feminism was on anyone's radar, is one of the more indelible achievements of Mad Men's terrific fourth season. Let's give her the last word, for now:
"It's a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are."
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And while we're laying wreaths, let us hope we're not going to be forced to say premature last rites to Fox's Lone Star, the best new show almost no one watched on a murderously competitive opening night of the fall season. A tricky, hard-to-pigeonhole, grown-up drama built around an anti-hero (albeit a charming and handsome one), Lone Star is the sort of series you tend to find on cable nowadays, on adventurous outlets like FX or AMC — and before you ask, the likelihood of FX picking this up is next to nil for any number of reasons. We find ourselves asking each year why the broadcast networks don't take creative risks like this. The numbers for Lone Star provide a pretty stark answer.
Should Fox have premiered the show a week early to get a leg up on the killer competition? (It was trounced by Dancing With the Stars, Two and a Half Men and even NBC's much higher-concept The Event — which, I'm happy to tell you, gets better and less crazily convoluted in the next few revealing episodes). Plus there's the huge draw of ESPN's Monday Night Football, depressing the numbers even for potential breakouts like Hawaii Five-0. Or should Fox have held the show for midseason, when it might have had a better shot of breaking out of a less crowded pack? Or is it possible there's just not a large enough appetite for a morally ambiguous quasi-soap opera about a two-timing con man whose heart is torn between two worlds which could collapse on him at any moment?
The show's new-to-TV creator, Kyle Killen, has written an entertaining plea on his blog to get people to give his underdog show another try. Fox is airing a second episode this Monday (9/8c), but if things don't improve quickly, it could end up the first cancellation of the season. Awfully early in the fall for me to get my heart broken like this.
FINALE WATCH: While the networks busied themselves with premieres, a few notable cable series wrapped things up. Most notably BBC America's terrific supernatural drama Being Human, which put True Blood's scattershot finale to shame. In the second season's intense final hour, vampire Mitchell comes to his pals' rescue in Kemp's creepy compound, slaughtering as he goes. But just as he confronts his former lover Dr. Lucy ("If there's a difference between me and you, you had a choice," he tells her), Annie the friendly ghost is plunged into the darkness of the "other side," falling through one of those symbolic doors that was opened when the ghoulish Kemp kills her attending psychic. A moment's pause here to reflect on the heartbreaking suicide-note voice mail Annie left behind: "This endless life — never aging, never kissing, never having a family — all the things that make you human ... it's a worse hell than anything you've got over there."
In the shattering aftermath of Annie's disappearance, the vengeful Kemp taunts Mitchell: "I threw her over to the other side. Did you feel her go? Did you hear her scream as she was ripped from the world?" Kemp declares he's ready to meet his maker, and Mitchell is more than happy to oblige, until good-guy werewolf George (now between cycles) stops his pal by reminding him: "They are monsters, not us." Flash forward three weeks and Mitchell, George and George's Nina (very remorseful for delivering them unto Kemp) have relocated to the country, where Lucy finds them for a redemptive confession before Kemp suddenly appears and kills her. Which opens yet another door, this time letting a grim Annie come through and snatch the awful Kemp to the other side. Such a poignant finish as Annie appears to her boys through a TV screen to entreat them: "Don't forget me, will you?" then fading to static. (In a quick cliffhanger tease, we see vamps Daisy and Kara resurrect the former vamp leader Herrick.) Oh Annie, we'll never forget you.
Syfy's summer hit Warehouse 13 also went out with a bang, as H.G. Wells tries to destroy the world by plunging a magical trident into the Yellowstone geysers. Mika brings her down, but is brought down herself by remorse. She blames herself for being scammed by H.G. and quits the warehouse. We know she'll be back, but it makes for a nicely emotional climax, especially as Pete is still reeling from his breakup with that nice veterinarian, who was none too pleased to be rendered a temporary ax wielder after looking into Lizzie Borden's evil compact (a lovely parting gift from H.G.). "There are quiet days, too," Pete protests forlornly as the good doctor pulls away. So Mika leaves what represetnts to her the "happiest place," leaving everyone unhappy. Until next season.
META MUCH? NBC's quirkiest and best sitcoms, Community and 30 Rock, are also among TV's most self-aware. "And we're back," says Community's Abed as the new season starts. "OK, season 5, here we go," says 30 Rock's Liz Lemon as the show goes to credits. Community was very clever, mining the Jeff-Britta-Annie triangle for classic sitcom references while throwing in some wacky anthropological slapstick courtesy of guest star Betty White (who I expect to see show up soon as Walter's new crush on Fringe, as it's about the only show she hasn't done yet).
But top honors go to 30 Rock, as Jack Donaghy declares NBC "to be the engorged whitehead on the otherwise flawless face of Universal Media." This on the eve of Jeff Zucker announcing he'll finally leave the network he helped diminish once the (non-fictional) Comcast merger is settled. What could be funnier than the truth? How about Jenna being bumped up to producer, gladly tackling the dirty budget-balancing work nice-guy Pete can't bear to do, like firing ancient wardrobe mistress Grace. "But I've been here since The Jack Paar Show," the poor old lady protests. (Wonder if she knew Mrs. Blankenship?) Meanwhile, fired page Kenneth is now working the audience line at the Letterman show, wearing a CBS blazer and toting a Mentalist bag that Tracy somehow covets. And as guest star Matt Damon (a riot as Liz's alarmingly emotional pilot boyfriend Carol) departs, Liz shouts, "See you Oct. 14." Which is the date of 30 Rock's much-anticipated live episode, in case you forgot.
Glee also got into the game in its season premiere, spending its opening overture on a mock-news video roundup of Frequently Heard Complaints as nerdy Jacob hounds the club with questions: "How do you respond to rumors you're incredibly difficult to work with?" (To Rachel aka Lea Michele.) "Did you know there's a forum on my blog that's begging you to stop rapping?" (To, who else, Mr. Shue.) And so on.
My favorite meta moment all week may have been this throwaway moment from the Raising Hope pilot (my favorite new fall comedy, by the way), as we hear in the background on the TV: "In lighter news, a small-time crook with a long list of wrongs he was making amends for has finally finished, and you'll never guess how it ended." If you didn't know Hope was from My Name Is Earl's Greg Garcia, now you do. (For my night-by-night take on the week's fall rollout, go here.)
BEST CABLE SHOW YOU MAY NOT BE WATCHING: FX's funky, funny and twisted Terriers, with its best episode to date this week, once again reminding us this isn't your typical private-eye show. (It airs Wednesdays, 10/9c, in case you were wondering.) Hank, desperate for a mortgage loan, gets roped into a very tangled domestic web involving a bank officer (Big Love's Shawn Doyle) who hires Hank to document his wife's (non-existent) infidelity. The guy turns out to be a psycho masochist who yearns to know the humiliation of being a cuckold, so Hank and Britt stage a fake tryst with the wife (a very impressive Olivia Williams, late of Dollhouse). Which backfires, but not before Hank has actually slept with the wife himself. When the client refuses Hank's loan after all, Hank blurts out the truth about the true infidelity, which sends the guy over the edge and out the window to his death. (His suicide note: "I only meant to hurt myself." Ouch.) Hank takes advantage of this unhappy situation, faking a signature on the loan. (Hello, FX anti-hero behavior!) Meanwhile, Britt reveals to his girlfriend Katie that he first got to know her by burglarizing her. Not happy news, but probably not a total surprise either, and it makes her kind of frisky once she gets over it. (Love this relationship.) In the last moments, as Hank kicks back at his new/old home, we see a figure lurking behind him, crawling into an attic space. More complications to come. You really should be watching.
THE DOUCHE(S) THAT ROARED: What is it with Survivor tribal councils this season that brings out the worst in these tribes? Obnoxious alpha male Shannon of the La Flor tribe sealed his doom this week with arrogant and at times homophobic outbursts as Jeff Probst watched in amazement. Although Naonka came a close second with her open disdain for the likable Fabio, whose socks she stole earlier in the episode. (An odd episode for foot-related shenanigans, as Holly poured sand in Dan's $1600 alligator shoes, sinking them in the water as payback for his ridicule, then confessing later. She's lucky that Espada won immunity this week.) After Probst mimicked Naonka — "Fabio, she don't like you!" — he asked her if she was complicated. "ME? NO? AM I?:" she screeched. I don't know about complicated, but annoying? Absolutely.
But that's nothing compared to the meltdown of early front-runner Seth on Top Chef: Just Desserts, who collapses in tears when his Quickfire penny-candy creation in honor of his ailing mom goes awry. "The red hots are for my mommy!" he wails. There is no one who is not unnerved by this. He remains both defensive and offensive, pouting and lashing out ("You can all suck it!") for the rest of the alcohol-inspired episode, looking awfully guilty when Zac's chocolate squares fall to the floor (after Zac had given Seth a hand earlier). Seth ends up in the bottom three, but gets a reprieve. But will he ever grow up?
MUSICAL NOTES: So now we officially know who the American Idol judges will be. I hope they can get over themselves long enough to focus on the task at hand. I had to laugh when technical difficulties erupted during the live press conference — has any stage-managed event ever felt so anti-climactic? — rendering it mute to those eavesdropping electronically. (Why couldn't that have happened during some of the performance shows last season?) ... The Grouches win, as Katy Perry's frisky duet with Elmo is scratched from the Sesame Street curriculum after protests from scandalized watchdogs. (The downside of YouTube exposure.) So much for that episode brought to you by the letters PG. ... Loved guest star Charice's bathroom duet of Telephone with Rachel, and then her big Dreamgirls number (from the movie, not the original stage play, as Rachel helpfully points out). But Rachel's belting of What I Did For Love rang hollow, or maybe it was meant to. I know we're in high school, but the pranks she pulled on Sunshine Corazon, and Sue and Will's treatment of Coach Beiste, were cruel without being amusing, and can't be shrugged off with an awkward power-ballad of remorse. Not my favorite episode.
THINGS I WANT: Little Luke's jar of sunshine from the wonderful season opener of Modern Family. ... Also maybe a cookbook from the same show. Who wasn't tempted to sprinkle a little salt in their hot chocolate after Manny's bossy new girl friend schooled a threatened Gloria? And then there's Cameron's way with a condiment: "Pardon moi, I prefer the champagne Dijon to the standard yellow." (Who doesn't?) And thrusting a garnish on Jay after their "regular Joe" chat, because "We're men, not cave men." ... Anyone for a game of "movie mash-up" like the Cougar Town gang was playing in the sunny season opener? (Example: Scooby Do the Right Thing.)
THE HONOR ROLL: HBO's dazzling Boardwalk Empire gets renewed for another season after the first episode draws mostly rave reviews and strong ratings. ... Annie Parisse wakes up Rubicon as twitchy Will's frisky neighbor, welcoming him into her apartment and her bed as he hides from the spooks. "Like Robert Redford was an analyst?" she quizzes him about his work, letting us know she's as familiar with Three Days of the Condor as this derivative show's creators. ... Stephen King, assuming his pseudonym Bachman, brings his usual creepy vibe as a "cleaner" taking care of Jemma's latest mess on Sons of Anarchy. "Where's who?" he says after performing his dirty work. I wish FX hadn't put out a release about this stunt-casting, letting it be a surprise (as it was to me when I watched the screener several weeks ago), but I also wish the caretaker's death hadn't been so clumsily telegraphed and choreographed. ... Joaquin Phoenix comes clean, rather charmingly, to David Letterman, apologizing for making him part of the hoax on his last appearance. But why again would I be interested in seeing this movie about his elaborate ruse?
THEY SAID IT: "It's never too early to panic." — Len Goodman, reacting to the Hoff's first and only trip around the dance floor on Dancing With the Stars. Len had a better first week than most of the dance-testants, firing off this retort to the hapless Situation: "You've got the guns but not the ammunition." ... "You're all coffee and no omelette," Coach Beiste (Dot Marie Jones) rendering her new nemesis Sue Sylvester temporarily speechless on Glee. Her trashing of the glee club — "That's a steer with six teats and no oink" — makes us think she's about as good with the non sequitur as Brittany. ... Speaking of which: "People thought I went on vacation, but actually I spent the summer lost in the sewers." Oh Brittany, how much are we looking forward to next week's Britney Spears episode? ... "I will not let you step one foot out of this room until you promise to pay no attention to anything I've said!" — Frankie Heck realizing she's gone too far with Brick's new teacher (Doris Roberts in an amusing cameo reunion with her Everybody Loves Raymond sparring partner Patricia Heaton).
Next week: A few more premieres — including the as-yet-unseen Law & Order: Los Angeles — plus Ken Burns' Baseball: The Tenth Inning, and new episodes galore!
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