As summer TV begins to hand off to the fall season, some thoughts and observations on a few of the shows and headlines that stood out.
Instant Classic TV: I haven't been able to stop thinking about Sunday's episode of Mad Men, regarded by many as the high point of the season to date and a series peak as well, a blistering tour de force for Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss, who now have dynamite entries for their Emmy reel next year. (This season has been particularly strong for Moss, as Peggy Olson comes into her own: partying with bohemians, doffing her clothes to unnerve the chauvinistic new art director, and now standing up to Don.) "The Suitcase," so masterfully penned by Matthew Weiner that it wouldn't be a surprise to see him at the Emmy podium yet again next year, felt like watching a three-act play — or maybe a three-ring circus veering from drama to comedy back to drama, or perhaps an emotional heavyweight bout that went on much longer — and with more actual ferocity — than the legendary Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston rematch knockdown of May 1965.
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So many mood swings, so much remarkable writing and acting. (For Adam Bryant's full recap, go here.) It's Peggy's 26th birthday, a reminder of how much future there is for this on-the-rise career woman and what a contrast she presents to Don Draper's season-long midlife malaise, exacerbated by the sorrowful news that his beloved Anna Draper has died back in California. Bereft and alone, he needs someone to confide in and unload on during this dark night of the soul, and that would be his long-suffering protégé and former secretary. (To see how pervasive and instantly iconic the image of "Sad Don Draper" has become, check this out.
Under the pretext of brainstorming a new Samsonite ad, Don corrals Peggy to stay late, upsetting her birthday dinner plans. Which turns out to be a blessing of sorts, since her hopelessly outmatched beau has invited her awful family along as a (dreadful) surprise. So much for that doomed relationship. And then there's Peggy's awkward ties to Duck, the show's most pathetically fallen ad man who tries to woo her with a pipe dream of a joint business venture but can't fool her acute loser radar. Duck's drunken, nearly scatological late-night visit to the new firm, capped by the sad slapstick of Duck's and Don's fisticuffs, puts a seeming end to that relationship as well.
Given all that transpires during the episode, the yelling and the laughing (over Roger's dictated memoirs) and the crying and the drinking, all the sound and fury that could be bottled up no longer, the relationship that grows strongest is Don's and Peggy's. He finally reveals bits of his cloaked past to the woman he saw through one of her worst (and to most, still secret) periods of despair. He starts the ball rolling early on by telling her, "I'm glad that this is an environment where you feel free to fail," but later comes to realize that in her presence, he's in an environment where he feels free to fall apart.
What an outstanding hour of TV drama. (And what's more, who can look at the hilarious Ida Blankenship the same way without seeing the former "queen of perversions" as the office hellcat of yore? What a hoot.) I could quote from this episode all day, but would rather just go back and watch it again.
NO LIE: In the world of AMC's Rubicon, a polygraph machine has its work cut out for it, given that at the cloistered think tank of API, everyone harbors guilty secrets, and lies are the currency of business. I enjoy this show best for moments like watching each of the twitchy data analysts squirm in different ways as they run afoul of the lie detector, once the FBI puts the office on lockdown to sniff out a mole. The henpecked autocrat Grant bristles at having his marital fidelity questioned. (His technician figures if Grant hasn't already cheated, his responses indicate that he eventually will. "In your mind, you already have." When it's Miles's turn (the terrific Dallas Roberts, who'll be seen on The Good Wife later this season), it's especially amusing. Contorted in paranoid guilt because he lost a classified file outside the office, he figures he's the culprit they're looking for. Having a nicotine fit doesn't help. It's when the show turns to the overarcing conspiracy storyline that Rubicon leaves me not just cold, but frozen with disinterest. The moody, portentous tone that greets every movement by Will and Katherine Rhumor feels so obvious and familiar that I find myself drifting, and not just because of the show's glacial pace. I'm impressed by much of the acting — Arliss Howard in particular, as the snarky boss who's "always relaxed," with the standing heart rate of 46 to show for it — but I honestly don't care much what happens to any of these people. And that's no lie.
DOUBLE TAKE: How much fun is Nina Dobrev having in her dual role as good girl Elena and evil vamp Katherine on The Vampire Diaries? Now it's not only Damon Salvatore who's getting all the good lines. "Kiss me or kill me. We both know you're only capable of one," she taunts Damon, seducing him and ravaging him, then wrecking him with the news (no surprise to us) that "It was always Stefan." (To which all self-respecting Vampire Diaries fans respond: Are you freaking blind? Anyway.) The second-season premiere was the kickiest and sexiest guilty-pleasure hour of the week, even if it's getting a little tired for so many characters to appear dead but be revived by some supernatural trick or another. Higher body count please, especially among those boring humans!
CLIFFHANGER OF THE WEEK: We finally lay eyes on the real nemesis in USA Network's White Collar in the summer mid-season finale, and the mystery man is played by Paul Blackthorne (a mischievous vamp over on ABC's The Gates this summer, and still fondly remembered as the star of then-Sci Fi's short-lived The Dresden Files). Everyone thinks he's after Neal, but his sights are set on Mozzie, who takes a bullet on a city bench and slumps over glassy-eyed as the show takes a break until January. We'd be more worried about Mozz if we'd never seen TV before. But still: Nice way to leave us hanging.
SLICE OF LAUGH: There's TV funny, and then there's real funny — and Louie qualifies as the latter. In the final two episodes of the first season — which thankfully won't be the last — Louis C.K. mines the most melancholy humor from his days and nights of awkward single-parenting, bad dates, profane news-anchor dreams, scatological stand-up routines and self-disgust over his "big ginger sweaty skin sack" of a body (as his malicious prankster doctor, Ricky Gervais, puts it in an outrageous return performance). Louie isn't the easiest comedy to watch, which is why it's so worth watching when he drags you along with him to the gym for an impromptu training session that ends badly, in an ambulance. Or when he tags along with some young-stud fellow comics to a clubbing outing that ends badly, as his lumbering Frankenstein-ian approach to a group of girls causes them to lash out in shrieking horror. His hangdog cranky deadpan never eases up. Things often end badly with Louie, but thankfully he has those adorable two daughters he grumpily dotes on. (His routine describing taking them to a JFK airport bathroom is a grody highlight.) The season ends with Louie returning home from a woeful night on the town, and before he can get any shut-eye, his girls wake up and insist on being taken out to breakfast — at 4 a.m. Only in New York. Only on FX. And it's an oddly, poignantly hopeful way to call it a night — and a season. Well done.
SONS AND DAUGHTERS: I keep watching FX's very popular Sons of Anarchy to see what all the fuss is about, and outside of Katey Sagal's stunning work (matched over the next few weeks by Hal Holbrook as her tormented, demented father), I still find it miles inferior to its landmark predecessor The Shield when it comes to the genre of visceral pulp melodrama. (Which, for the record, I have a healthy, or unhealthy, appetite for. And I also know I'm in the critical minority on this one.)
Last season, the show needed to bring in a group of gang-raping neo-Nazis to make the motorcycle gang look heroic. This year, now that an Irish gangster has stolen Jax's baby in retaliation for another killing initiated by the ridiculously venal Agent Stahl — seriously, what planet is she from? — the gang is acting victimized, as if to say: What did we do to deserve this? (Cue any number of rap sheets.) Jax especially mopes about like a bargain-basement Brando. (I have never felt Charlie Hunnam to be very authentic in this role, for reasons having nothing to do with his accent or lack thereof, and that was reinforced in this episode. The only thing I find more objectionable than a self-righteous anti-hero is a whiny one.) Sagal, however, shines in her scenes of violent restlessness as she aches to escape her fugitive state and get back to family. And when she ends up at her dad's home, Jemma reveals a new layer of emotional complexity and need. Maggie Siff is also effective as she lashes out at being shut out by the broody Jax. The episode's bloody climax is certainly jarring, a drive-by shoot-em-up at the Prospect's wake that leaves poor Deputy Hale crushed under the getaway van's wheels. But I've seen next week's non-aftermath to this massacre, and once again come back to my primary objection about this obviously well-crafted and commercial show: I don't find the world of Charming the least bit credible. I think I'd rather be in Belfast, along with baby Abel and the always-welcome Paula Malcolmson.
IN THE NEWS: The resignation this week of ABC News President David Westin, stepping aside as network news divisions face increasing cuts, stokes the latest round of existential questions about the purpose of network TV news and whether the evening news in particular even matters. ... Out with the old (Larry King), in with the "who?" as America's Got Talent's Piers Morgan is officially named the successor to CNN's signature talk-show seat. He takes over in January. Can he bring flamboyant Talent finalist Prince Poppycock with him? That I'd watch. But I imagine we'll just have to settle for the usual old poppycock. (And raise your hand if you think anyone besides that freaky kid opera singer is going to win Talent next week. How's it feel on that limb?) ... More CNN fun, as next month's current-affairs show starring disgraced politico Eliot Spitzer and commentator Kathleen Parker has been titled Parker Spitzer, which sounds neither serious nor legal.
COOKING AND SEWING: So what's been happening on the various reality-competition shows? (It's the only brand of reality I bother with these days, choosing not to let my skin curdle with exposure to any Real Housewives or Jersey Shore or Bachelor Pad misbehaviors.) Top Chef, still proudly touting its recent Emmy win, went to Singapore to kick off its two-part finale, apparently under the belief that it's better never to let them see you not sweat. Yet another terrific contestant (Kelly) is sent packing, while Angelo loses his composure because Ed keeps winning on his Asian turf. I still haven't gotten over last week's eliminating of Tiffany instead of the bland and unadventurous Kevin, who really has no business being in these finals.
Over on the just-renewed MasterChef, as I flinch every time Gordon Ramsay jerks his hand to emphasize nearly every word (many spiels, in typical bloated reality-show fashion, repeated at least once), there's a fun moment when the amateur chefs are tasked to go fishing for their next meal and scene-stealer David Miller reels up a rock. (Not, for the record, a rockfish.) One of the more talented contestants, Sharone, is penalized for serving a table of tough critics some ugly and unappetizing fish liver. (He has a tendency of overthinking and overdoing things.) In the "pressure test" soufflé bake-off, he unsurprisingly loses to perky expert-baker Whitney. How in the world does anyone watch this show live? Two hours is torture.
I time-shift Lifetime's 90-minute version of Project Runway as well, but it tends to move faster with less annoying repetition. This week's resort-wear challenge forces designers to once again team up, acting as "sample makers" to construct each other's designs. Best part: Michael Kors coming off the judges' chair to step into the workroom to deliver entertaining critiques. The personalities are really popping this season — especially the adorable Mondo, whose idea of resort wear is lounging around the house in underwear and a T-shirt (my kind of mutant) — and this week we lose one of the more outlandish characters: Casanova, whose aesthetic careens from slut to grandma from week to week. Upon being eliminated, he goes back to the waiting room and pretends to hang himself. In the post-interview, he muses: "Disappointed? Maybe a quart." I'll miss his garbled syntax, but surely he'll be getting his own Bravo show soon. If Austin and Santino can still be milking their 15 minutes ...
ONE LAST FASHION NOTE: Here's Mary McDonnell as Captain Sharon Raydor on The Closer, prepping Kyra Sedgwick's Brenda Leigh Johnson for her impending interview for the Chief of Police gig by criticizing her wardrobe: "I have always admired how little you care about current fashion." (Snap.) When Brenda argues, "I just don't like to overdress at work," she's told, "Absolutely. And, you know what, there's no one that would accuse you of that." Only one more episode to go, and I hope there's no will-she-or-won't-she-get-the job cliffhanger. Let's just all move on, OK?