Archive

Monthly Archives: August 2013

Image

You may have seen the recent New York Times story claiming that nostalgia is good for you That was all the justification I needed to embark on a mini “Leave It to Beaver” marathon. 

NetFlix, God bless them, is a veritable time machine, with more than enough shows to make me nostalgic for every period of my life. But “Beaver” is special.  It was my favorite show when I was six or seven, and although it lasted in syndication for a few years it seemed to disappear from TV when the culture turned dramatically away from gentle suburban comedies to edgier contemporary fare, like “All in The Family.” Until it showed up on Netflix, I hadn’t seen it for 40 years.

For older baby boomers, the appeal of “Leave It to Beaver” was that it was the one show on TV that was primarily about kids.  The main character, Theodore “The Beaver” Cleaver was slightly older than I was and the Cleavers lived in a neighborhood like mine, so at the time the show felt like a reflection of my life.

For such a mild, inoffensive show, “Leave It to Beaver” became one of the most controversial series in TV history.  People are still denouncing both it and its partner in crime, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Their sunny depictions of complacent middle-class lifestyles and their alleged advocacy for Eisenhower-era norms represented everything that the ‘60s stood in opposition to.

And it’s true, if you were Black, Hispanic, urban, rural, gay, single, poor, handicapped, Jewish or a member of any other identity group, you would not see yourself depicted on “Leave it to Beaver.”  The show, which debuted just 12 years after World War II, was aimed at the millions of Americans who were happy to have survived the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s and had migrated out to the suburbs to make cozy little lives for themselves.

Watching the series now, after a four-decade hiatus, reminds me how much TV itself has changed.  For starters, there are 39 episodes per season! The pressure to come up with new material must have been enormous, leaving little room for creativity and originality. Consequently, the stories are simplistic and slow – one plotline per episode, with none of the quick cuts and elaborate plots of “Seinfeld” and “Arrested Development.” The shows are also a little moralistic.  Rare is the episode when someone – kid or parent – doesn’t learn an obvious but important life lesson.

For me, the appeal of “Leave it To Beaver” today is primarily anthropological. Even the smallest details show how much society has changed. We learn off-handedly that Beaver’s class has 40-45 students, which would give the modern “Tiger Mom” an aneurism. And when Wally goes to a post-graduation party (at the country club, no less!!) all the guys wear white dinner jackets, not the shorts and flip-flops they’d sport today.

More important, with their assumption that all dads should work and all moms should happily stay home and take care of the house, the Cleavers seem like a different species than the modern family.  Yet for all the criticism of this series, it is a more accurate depiction of the late 1950s and early 1960s than the more highly regarded “Mad Men.” I don’t recall one Betty Draper from my childhood but I do remember lots of June Cleavers.

When I watch the show now I am far more interested in how June and Ward handle the challenges of parenthood than I ever was 40 years ago. Ward is a surprisingly modern dad, always there for the boys and trying hard to see thing from their perspective.  He internalized Dr. Spock’s childrearing principles better than the real Dr. Spock ever did.  As a parent myself, I know that it is not as easy as the Cleavers make it seem.

Having said that, although the Cleavers’ life seems pleasant, it’s a bit bland.  Just as there are no lows, there are no highs.  Beaver never laughs so hard that milk comes out of his nose, which happened to me more than once. And June and her friends never end up dancing in the living room after a few vodka and tonics.  The ‘50s were more fun than they appear on “Beaver.”

Nevertheless, for a viewer of a certain age, the appeal of “Leave it to Beaver” remains undiminished. Don Draper himself famously defined nostalgia as “the pain from an old wound,”  suggesting that we all yearn to go “back home again, to a place where we know are loved.”   From the second season on, every episode of “Beaver” ended with a credit sequence showing the boys walking home, to a place where they are definitely loved.  Who wouldn’t want a life like that?

a_560x375

One of the biggest TV surprises this summer was the big turnout for “Breaking Bad.”  The “overnight” ratings for the August 11 premiere (i.e.., people watching it that Sunday night) doubled over last year, to more than 5.9 million viewers. This is a remarkable feat because it’s virtually unprecedented for a mature TV show to suddenly double its audience size — sort of like Barry Bonds going from hitting 35 home runs a year to 70).

True, there‘s something inherently bogus about looking at the overnight ratings for high-end series like “Breaking Bad.”  Shows with intensely loyal fan bases are frequently recorded (or “taped” as we older-timers sometimes say) and played back well after the overnights have come out.  I’m guessing that a large percentage of the August 11 audience were regular DVR viewers who decided to watch the long-awaited premiere episode live and were captured by those overnight ratings.  This theory is supported by the ratings for the second episode, which dropped by 1.2 million viewers.  I don’t think those viewers gave up on the show – I think they probably just decided to return to their old patterns of DVR viewing.  In any event, we won’t know any of this for sure until DVR ratings come out several weeks from now.

There is, however, no question that a lot of new viewers did come to the show for the first time this season.  The media gave a lot of the credit to Netflix, because binge-watching has allowed many new viewers to catch up since the end of the last season (btw nitpickers, I know that the eight episodes beginning on August 11 technically constitute the second half of Season Five, but for the sake of this piece, I’m going to refer to them as separate seasons given how much time has elapsed since the last episodes were on.)

I wonder, though, if there weren’t also a lot of people like me, who decided to jump in late, catch these final eight episodes and see what all the fuss is about.   Because of all the violence, I just couldn’t watch the whole series, but I knew from the chatter of my friends that most of the major plot twists of the previous seasons had been wrapped up.  I also knew that Walt’s brother-in-law had discovered he was the drug lord he’d been searching for.  My son didn’t seem to think I’d earned the right to watch the final episodes of “Breaking Bad” if I hadn’t watched and endured the previous seasons, but somehow eight episodes seemed bite-sized enough for a beginner.  And if the endgame was just Hank chasing down Walt, I could handle that.

And so far so good.  We are already a quarter of the way into the new season and I understand 90 percent of what I’m seeing.  Obviously I’m missing a lot of nuance, but on the whole I’m happy I took the leap.

There are those who argue that “Breaking Bad” is the best show in the history of television.  I haven’t seen two of the other contenders, “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” (again, too much violence) but I am, of course, a close watcher of “Mad Men.”   “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” are very different shows on the surface.  Set in the past, “Mad Men” is a densely designed and densely plotted show. It sometimes feels claustrophobic because all the action is filmed on a set.  By contrast, with its numerous exterior shots of New Mexico and its less complicated storyline, “Breaking Bad” feels more oxygenated and alive.

But with their tales of morally compromised anti-heroes, the two shows are quite similar in the way they lay out the complexities of human emotions.  This was especially true in last Sunday’s show, “Buried,” which is as good as anything on “Mad Men.”  The scenes where Hank and Marie separately confront Skyler are classic examples of multi-layered character motivation.  At Skyler’s meeting with Hank at the diner, you just know her mind is racing as fast as ours: what should she do?  Is she motivated by love for her husband, a desire to protect her kids, fear that she’ll go to jail herself, or the calculation that she and Walt might get away with it and keep all that cash?  When I watched the episode a second time, it was clear that Hank made two huge mistakes: first in putting the tape recorder on the table, which probably scared her, and then in saying “This is what’s going to happen,” which probably got her back up.  If he’d handled this more deftly, I think he could have flipped her.

As in real life, where we are all driven by multiple motivations, Skyler is a complex creature who probably doesn’t even know her own mind.  The scene when Marie comes by the house to try to convince her to confess to the DEA is unbearably intense, especially when Marie slaps Skyler and tries to grab the screaming baby.  How many times in our own lives have we seen two sisters who ostensibly love each other be driven apart by jealousy, fear, loyalty, a determination to do what is right, a desire to do what is in their own selfish interests, and ultimately a decision to stand with their husbands?

Like “Mad Men,” the production design and direction on “Breaking Bad” are remarkable.  The scene where Hank and Walt face off like two aging gunslingers, culminating with Hank deploying the garage door closer is fantastic, as is the picture of Jesse slowly revolving on the playground roundabout.

And of course, both “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” inject black humor in the tensest situations.  The scenes between Walt and the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman had an undercurrent of very dark comedy, especially Saul’s suggestion that Walt send Hank on a “trip to Belize.”

In have to say this for “Breaking Bad,” though.  It’s much more moralistic than “Mad Men,” where the difference between right and wrong is frequently ambiguous.  From what I’ve gleaned from critical commentary over the years, “Breaking Bad” explicitly demonstrates that bad actions have consequences.  Once you start compromising your values, there’s no stopping. One compromise leads to another and soon you’re killing ten-year-old kids.

In the overall arc of the series, Walt has justified his murderous rampage by claiming he wants to provide for his family.  It’s not clear whether he realizes he has essentially destroyed his family, though.  Assuming she doesn’t go on her own trip to Belize, Skyler will almost certainly end up in jail and she is, in any event, permanently estranged from Marie and Hank, the only “family” she has left.

I can see why people love this show but I have two reservations.  First is the level of violence.  I find it disturbing that the three major contenders for “best show ever” (“The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad”) are series about psychopaths that are drenched in blood.  Is that really the best way to tell the story about the human condition?  Most of us (we hope) are never going to be in the situations that the characters of those shows are in.  And as the most recent episode of “Breaking Bad” showed, you don’t even need to blow someone’s brains out to create tension and emotion.  The two best scenes in “Buried” were people talking directly to each other, and nothing could be more emotionally unsettling than Marie trying to take that wailing baby.  Similarly on “Mad Men,” the most shocking thing of the last season was when Sally Draper walked in on her father having sex with the neighbor.  No blood there.

My other concern with “Breaking Bad” is that it causes us to root for the bad guy.  Maybe long-time viewers aren’t sympathetic to Walt, but as a new viewer, I do find myself – way against my better judgment – secretly hoping that Walt gets away with it.  I know he’s a monster, but it’s almost inevitable that any work of art providing the evil-doer with even a shred of humanity is going to complicate the reaction of the viewer.  That’s why people object to movies about Hitler. You could play scene in which the Fuhrer cold-bloodily orders the extermination of six million Jews but if you then see him patting a kitten on the head, most viewers would think, well, maybe he’s not so bad after all.

Vince Gilligan, the “Breaking Bad” creator, has said he wanted to avoid the fate of “The Sopranos,” where the fans sympathized with Tony Soprano no matter how bad he got.  Maybe he will succeed in draining all sympathy from Walt by having him kill someone we care about, but he’s not there yet.

I doubt I will ever go back and catch up on previous seasons of “Breaking Bad,” unless I develop a much thicker skin.  I do think I will be able to see these final episodes through to the end.  At the very least I’m looking forward to Walt’s interrogation of Jesse.  In fact, this is one series I wish I could binge watch right now.

Some other thoughts:

The Western imagery was particularly vivid in this episode, starting with the face-off between Walt and Hank.  I am betting that the money Walt buried never sees daylight again. This all reminds me of that Humphrey Bogart movie “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” a Western about prospectors in Mexico struck it rich and then lose all their gold through greed and suspicion.

For all the talk about Walt dying of cancer in six months, he’s in pretty good shape if he could bury all that cash in the heat of the desert sun.  What we know from the first scene of the season is that Walt survives for a least nine more months – long enough to grow his hair back and demonstrate the wherewithal to break back into his house and retrieve that ricin. Maybe he’s not as sick as he thinks he is.

Love the sequence of Lydia hiding out in the subterranean bus-cum-meth lab while her goons wipe out her erstwhile suppliers (and, to cite another movie, doesn’t their hang-out look like something from “Mad Max”?)   She’s so sensitive that she needs to block her ears against the noise of the gunshots and then cover her eyes so she doesn’t see the dead bodies. Humans are so complex!!

And why didn’t anyone tell me that the kid who played Landry on “Friday Night Lights” has a major part as Todd on “Breaking Bad?”  I hope coach Eric Taylor doesn’t show up in the final episode and put him straight.

I’m glad to see that Bryan Cranston is still wearing the same style of underwear he was sporting all the way back in “Malcolm in the Middle.”  Somehow the tightie-whities make him a less threatening drug kingpin.

Laughed out loud at the reference to Scrooge McDuck.  Had to explain it to my son.

“This is a safe room.” 

tv_keeping_up_with_the_kardashians03There seems to be a consensus in polite society that “everyone” hates reality television, which, given the clear ratings to the contrary, is obviously just another variation on that old saw “I only watch PBS.”  This line of thinking seems to be driven by men: male critics, bloggers, cocktail party bores, husbands and boyfriends who truly do hate the reality television that their jobs, spouses and girlfriends inflict on them.

Most guys I know would rather watch 12 hours of C-SPAN than 10 minutes of any show with “housewives” or “Kardashian” in its title.  Indeed, women represent more than 80% of the audience for “The Real Housewives of Miami” and 75% for “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” (All viewing stats I mention come from Nielsen.)

When men think of the genre of reality TV, they think of shows that appeal to women: shows with chefs, designers, fashion experts, dysfunctional and bizarre families, pregnant teens, and drunk guidos and guidettes.  Even the big-name, semi-respectable network shows skew towards women.  Only 37% of the “American Idol” audience is male, for example, and “Dancing With the Stars” is even more unbalanced, with just 28% of the audience male.

This should be no surprise. What is there in any of these shows that would appeal to men?  These programs thrive on public expressions of emotion, psychological conflict and overt manipulation.  Consider “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” where the cast compete to be the last person standing after every else has been voted off.  The contestants are acknowledged to be playing a game, but it’s not a game that any man would recognize.  Does the fastest, strongest, smartest, or most useful person win? No.  The winner is someone who has, through guile, treachery or personal charisma manipulated the rest of the cast to vote everyone else off.  Men’s games have clear rules, but there are no rules on these shows.

Even on the talent competition shows, the most talented performer doesn’t necessarily win.  The trick is to have enough talent to get by, show enough deference to the judges to make it to the final rounds, and then endear yourself to the audience (but not be so confident or entitled to turn off the voters).  Of course manipulation is nothing new to men.  They’ve always gotten ahead in the real world by sucking up to bosses and co-workers while manipulating the people who work for them. But the male psyche would rather believe that they advance on merit alone and that’s the kind of TV they like.

Needless to say, there has always been reality television for men. It was called sports.  But sports is competition based on hard rules.  You either make the touchdown or you don’t – no one votes on style points or gives you a better score if the refs and umps like you. In that regard, it’s interesting that at the Olympics, the sports preferred by men are either games with clear rules (basketball, hockey, etc.) or racing and jumping events, while women favor events decided subjectively by judges based on style and appearance (figure skating, gymnastics, etc.)

Although men don’t really want to admit it, they do like to watch some reality TV shows. These can be programs that explore working-class men performing difficult and dangerous jobs (a show like “Deadliest Catch,” which portrays commercial fishing in Alaska, has an audience that’s 60% male.)  Or shows about pawn shops, storage lockers and sharks.  In other words, shows about physical tangible things appeal to men.

But for my money, the perfect reality show for men, especially fathers and sons, is “Mythbusters,” a program that is about nothing less than the scientific method. Every episode seeks to debunk or prove a common assumption (e.g., that a rest-room hand dryer is better than a paper towel) using a series of real-world experiments. It helps that the show frequently deploys explosions and crashes in its quest for scientific truth.  Not surprisingly, the audience for the series is two-thirds male.

After the publication of “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus”  20 years ago, some psychologists argued that the book overemphasized the differences between men and women.  But if you look at the empirical facts (a very male thing to do) the ratings show that men are actually from Pluto, and women are from Mercury.  And you can’t chalk this up to societal pressures.

In the past 40 years, men have taken a beating from women writers and psychologists for being too aloof, uncommunicative and out of touch with their feelings.  But if the logical outcome of an estrogen-dominated world is “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” “The Bachelor,” “Teen Mom” or “The Real Housewives of Miami,” it’s time for men to stand up and reassert the traditional male virtues of stoicism, independence and fortitude.  May “Mythbusters” run forever!

breaking_bad_071012_620px

As we approach the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad” and the end of another highly regarded television series, this seems like a good time to consider the best way to bring a TV show to a memorable conclusion.

For the first several decades of television history, wrapping up a television series with a special concluding episode was the last thing on anyone’s mind.  Most series were comprised of independent, unconnected episodes that didn’t provide a narrative arc over the course of the series.  Consequently, there was nothing to wrap up – the show simply stopped offering new episodes.  And since the networks usually didn’t decide until the end of the season whether to bring back a show back for another year, there was rarely an opportunity to produce a series finale anyway.

“The Fugitive” was an early exception to that rule and when Dr. Richard Kimball finally tracked down his wife’s true killer in the series finale, the ratings went through the roof.  But it wasn’t until the producers of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” decided to quit while they were ahead and end the series after seven quality seasons that the value of a good series finale became apparent.  MTM showed that a sentimental send-off could imbue an entire series with an aura of good feelings and burnish the reputation of everyone associated with the project.

A really great ending needs to sum up the overriding ethos of the series and provide a good sense of what the program has been about.  Sometimes it’s not even apparent until the last couple of episodes that a series has been “about” anything other than jokes or drama, but usually the impending void does tend to concentrate the mind of the writers and they come up with something.

Of course trying to sum up a series can backfire, which is why the last episode of “Seinfeld” was such a disaster.   The series had always had an aversion to sentimentality and the last show built on that, showing how selfish and self-absorbed the characters had been during their nine-year run.  Faced with criminal charges for violating a “Good Samaritan” law and not helping a victim in distress, all their sins were laid out in flashbacks at their trial.  It was not funny; in fact it was much more misanthropic than the spirit of the show itself had ever been.

Another ending that refused to play by the rules – perhaps the most controversial ending in TV history – was the final scene in “The Sopranos.”  When the screen went blank, what was that supposed to mean?  Showrunner David Chase has refused to explain himself, however, so the controversy lingers and many fans have taken this final scene as a giant “screw you.”

Series-endings seem to fall into three main buckets:

The Moving On –The series ends with some crucial change in the premise of the show.  Sometimes it’s kids graduating (Alex Keaton going to college in “Family Ties” or Theo finishing high school on “The Cosby Show.”)  In the MASH finale, (inexplicably still the most-watched non-Super Bowl program of all time), Hawkeye leaves the MASH unit and returns to the States.  In “Friends” Chandler and Monica move to the suburbs.

The Soft Landing – These are shows in which a resolution is not necessarily clear and you get the idea that the characters lives will go on more or less as before.  “The Sopranos” is clearly in this category (assuming Tony and his family weren’t wacked as some have theorized).  In “Cheers,” Sam and Diane do NOT run away together and Sam ends up back at the Cheers bar.  In 24, Jack Bauer kills his final terrorist and reconciles with his daughter, but there’s nothing to prevent him from going back to CTU (and indeed, it looks like the show is returning after all.)

Fortune Telling – Occasionally the series will end with a recap of how the main characters will turn out – a coda that always delivers an emotional punch.  In “Friday Night Lights,” for example, we learn the future fate of the players and their friends.  Only the best shows, the ones in which we have the most invested in the characters, can get away with this.

With that in mind, here are my nominees for the five best series endings:

5.  NEWHART

 Aside from “The Sopranos” blank screen (and who could have predicted THAT!) this ending provided what was probably the biggest surprise in series-ending history.  For eight years on Newhart,” Bob Newhart played a put-upon Vermont innkeeper but in the final minutes of the show he wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, who had portrayed his wife in his first TV series “The Bob Newhart Show.” In other words, the whole series had been a dream by the character in the original “Bob Newhart Show.” This was doubly funny because “St. Elsewhere” had recently wrapped up its own series with the strong implication that the show had all been in the imagination of a young autistic boy.  Fans hated the “St. Elsewhere” ending but loved the “Newhart” spoof.

4. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW

In the final show a new owner buys WJM-TV and instead of firing the incompetent Ted Baxter, cleans house and gets rid of everyone else.  This was the first major series finale that deliberately tried to deliver and emotional impact, as the characters confronted the fact that they would never work together again.  The ending also set the tone for every workplace comedy produced since then.  Mary asserts that people who work together are a family and as deeply connected as a biological family.  To the extent that this show helped establish the philosophical foundation for the intermingling of our work and personal lives, this show has a lot to answer for.  At the time, however, it was a fresh and original thought.

3.  THE WONDER YEARS

 This was a series drenched in nostalgia – a show about a guy looking back at his childhood in the 1960’s.  Kevin was a young boy at the start of the series and by the final episode he and his friends are nearly grown up.  The last scene brings together all the main characters (auspiciously on Independence Day) as the narrator describes what will happen to them in the future.  The core of the show had always been about Kevin’s special relationship with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Winnie and in the final words we learn what happens with them.  It’s a bittersweet conclusion to a show that never pulled any punches about the ups and downs of life.

2. THE OFFICE

The premise of the series was that a documentary film crew had taped the workplace of the most mundane job in the world – a satellite office of a mediocre paper company.  The final episode ostensibly takes place a year after the documentary has finally run and we learn what has happened to the characters during that period.  Some retired or moved on but Pam and Jim, the emotional center of the show, are still there.  This is depressing because nine years ago, in the pilot, Jim had confessed how much he hated his job.  During the course of this episode all the characters’ loose ends are tied up. Dwight the office manager marries Angela the head of the accounting department; Erin finds her birth parents; Nellie adopts a baby; and most important of all, Pam overcomes her fear of change and agrees to move the family to Austin so Jim can rejoin the sports marketing start-up that he and his friends launched.  The very final scene hearkens back to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” as the characters ruminate on the value of living an unglamorous life.  In the last line of the series Pam observes, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things.  Isn’t that kind of the point?” Yes, that’s exactly the point.  You don’t know you’re living the good old days until they’re over.

1.  SIX FEET UNDER

For some inexplicable reason, Alan Sepinwall did not include “Six Feet Under” in his book about the great dramas of the last two decades (The Revolution was Televised). Consequently this show does not always come up in conversations about the “Golden Age” of television – a situation that should be rectified.  “Six Feet Under” was a show about a frequently dysfunctional family who owned a funeral home; how we live our lives in the constant face of death was its main preoccupation. In the last scene the youngest sibling, Claire, departs for a cross-country drive to New York, where she will finally begin her career.  After a tearful goodbye to her family, she starts to play a mix tape that her ex-boyfriend put together for her.  Sia’s haunting song “Breathe Me” pours out, and as she drives into the future, we see flash-forwards of the fate of the main characters, including their deaths.   After five seasons of pain and suffering, the characters seem destined to have some measure of grace and peace in their futures, but there’s no getting around the fact that they are going to die, just like the rest of us.  Drive Claire, dive.

What have I missed?