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Mad-Men-Season-7-Poster-Sun-April-13

Since when did the release of a poster for a TV show become a thing? I can only assume this phenomenon is the consequence of some genius move by the AMC PR team, because I didn’t even know that TV shows HAD posters until a few years ago when the media started breathlessly writing about it before each new season of “Mad Men.”

Certainly this is connected to Matt Weiner’s neurotic fixation on keeping every plot point secret.  And God bless him, because there’s nothing as fun as trying to figure out what’s going to happen next on this show.   When even the N.S.A is in the dark about Don Draper’s future, the rest of us are forced to search for clues wherever we can find them, even if it is something as mundane as a poster.  Last year’s poster featured two Don Drapers headed in opposite directions, which led to a season of doppelgangers, characters who were mirror images, and recurring behaviors, so presumably this new poster is supposed to tell us something about Season 7.

Mad_Men_Season_6_Poster

The Season 7 poster comes from the iconic graphics designer Milton Glaser, who produced some of the most well-known images from the 1960s, including this radio promotion.  (For more on Glaser see this story from the New York Times.)

Milton Glaser band promo

 

Glaser’s poster does look like it might be full of meaningful  clues.  He has taken the original “Mad Men” logo, with Don Draper looking out at the world from his couch, and superimposed it on a hallucinogenic, dream-like drawing.  Embedded in the drawing’s swirls and flowery images are the Chrysler Building, a woman’s face and a champagne glass.  So what we have here is the full sweep of the Sixties, with Don’s clean modernist, disciplined logo from 1960 being overtaken by the hippie, casual designs of the late 1960s.

The previous season of “Mad Men” (Season Six) ended on Thanksgiving Day 1968, with Don, in an attempt help his kids begin to understand him, taking his kids to the dilapidated whorehouse where he grew up.  That last-second look between Sally and Don (see video clip below), which implies the beginning of forgiveness and honesty, is one of the most touching moments in “Mad Men” history, and we can only hope that Don, who has hit bottom so many times, has finally begun to turn his life around.

As the poster suggests, the new season will deal with the end of the Sixties.  In many ways, 1969, especially the summer of 1969, was the apotheosis – the natural culmination – of the 1960s.  There was never a time – except during the Civil War – when American culture was so fractured and at odds with itself as it was that year.  Consider three events during one 30-day period of that momentous year:

— July 18, 1969. Senator Edward Kennedy, the last remaining scion of the famous political family, which had already seen two brothers assassinated, drives his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick, Martha’s Vineyard, and flees the scene, leaving a young female staffer to drown in his car.  Kennedy has very little in common with Don Draper except reckless behavior – the accident occurred after a party with Bobby Kennedy’s former senate staff and he was almost certainly driving drunk on the way to a tryst when he accidentally killed the poor woman.   As on “Mad Men,” Kennedy’s reckless behavior caught up with him eventually, with real world consequences.  Without Chappaquiddick he surely would have been nominated for president at some point and possibly could have even won.

— July 20, 1969. Two days after Chappaquiddick, Neil Armstrong steps on the moon, culminating one of the greatest technological projects of all time.  Armstrong is as square and clean-cut as any American hero from the 1940s and 1950s could have dreamed of being.  The moon landing was the triumph of one strand of American culture – the one that believed in science, bourgeois values, technology, progress, hard work.  This was arguably the dominant culture in 1969, but it many ways the moon landing was the beginning of the end for those who believed in traditional values.  “Mad Men” has illustrated how astronauts and outer space captured the American imagination in the Sixties. Conrad Hilton nearly fired Sterling Cooper when Don failed to advertise a Hilton Hotel on the moon and Don has sometimes been compared to an actual astronaut.  But in real life once NASA actually did land on the moon, people started to ask what the whole point of the exercise was – just as they were asking the point of large, highly structured corporations that appeared to be staffed by drone-like automatons.

— August 15-18, 1969. Woodstock, which occurred less than a month after the moon landing, was the complete antithesis of the space program.  It was a celebration of drugs, free sex, mud, poor planning, and immediate personal gratification. More positively, it also celebrated love, peace and community; there were no fights at Woodstock – just everyone grooving and getting along.  Woodstock is generally considered to be the high-water mark of the counterculture, since many of the ideals promoted at Woodstock proved to be naïve or unattainable over the long run.    Worse, the mainstream culture quickly appropriated many of the best and worst traits of the counterculture.  The personal freedom advocated by the sixties hippies is probably a good thing overall, but millions of Americans today are living what was then the counterculture ideal (long hair, beards, no employment drudgery, no “piece of paper” marriage certificate, lots of pot and other drugs) and it isn’t pretty.  The people living this way in today’s world wouldn’t call themselves hippies; sociologists would call them the underclass.

How much of this will figure into the upcoming season of “Mad Men” is anyone’s guess, but Matt Weiner has been quite vocal in his contention that the Sixties was a failed revolution and that we are still dealing with the consequences today.  He’s been quite chatty with reporters over the past month and one of his most interesting interviews appeared in the Atlantic. As someone who grew up after the AIDS crisis, he has opinions about the cost of the sexual revolution, for example.

The interview makes clear that last year’s episode 10, “A Tale of Two Cities,” is pivotal to our understanding of the previous season.  This is the episode where Don and Roger head to Los Angeles to pitch west coast clients, leaving Ted Chaough, Jim Cutler and even Joan to foment a rebellion back in NYC.  (Here’s my recap of the episode )

The original “A Tale of Two Cities” is a Dickens novel about the French Revolution, but as Weiner points out in his Atlantic interview, Dickens wrote the book 60 years after the events depicted; well after the revolution had been suppressed and the previous regime restored.  So too does “Mad Men” look back at the events of the Sixties from a vantage point of almost 50 years.  Last season we saw the beginning of the counter-revolution, with the political uprisings of 1968 suppressed by Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the police brutality at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the election of Richard Nixon.  It’s also worth pointing out that “A Tale of Two Cities” features identical twins or two halves of the same person (just like the Season 6 poster).  There’s a good twin and bad twin – Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay— and in the end the bad twin gives up his life so the good twin can escape the guillotine (“It’s a far far better thing I do, etc.”)  The same thing happened at the end of last season’s “Mad Men,” when bad twin Don gave up his chance to go to California so good twin Ted could save his marriage.

Of course Don didn’t face the guillotine, but he was exiled from his agency after screwing up the Hershey pitch and bollixing various other accounts, and his marriage was in danger of imploding when Megan walked out after Don impetuously decided to let Ted take his place in the new California office.

So what does all this mean for Season 7, which is going to be the final season (although AMC is spreading it over two seven-episode sub-seasons like they did with “Breaking Bad”?

The big question headed into this season was whether Don even had a job or marriage. As noted, Megan had walked out on him and he’d been suspended by his firm.  But around the time that AMC released the poster it also released some publicity stills, which provide a few more clues.  Weirdly all of the photos were shot at an airport or on a plane.

Mad Men Season 7_0

Clearly these are not stills from any particular episode because it’s extremely unlikely that everyone from Don’s personal and professional life (including Megan, Betty and his kids) would all be traveling at the same time. The big giveaway clue-wise is that Megan and Don are pictured together, which implies that they remain married.  This makes sense because if Don is going to grow this year, he needs to do it within a personal relationship and there’s not really time to introduce a new love interest that we can care about.

It’s also interesting that all the old Sterling Draper characters are in the stills, including Pete Campbell, who was also sent off the California, but not Ted Chaough, Bob Benson or Jim Cutler, who played such major roles last year.

So I won’t predict anything for the upcoming season, except that it will continue to depict societal breakdown and tumult with humor, emotion, and insight.  I also predict it will be awesome.

 

 

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Lena Dunham

With another season of “Girls” coming to an end this Sunday, I’m moved to ask what is it about Lena Dunham that drives otherwise sane people around the bend?  She comes across in interviews as a normal, bright, self-aware 27-year old that I would absolutely like to hang out with.  Yet she can’t turn around without someone else dumping on her.

Consider the following (bogus, to my mind) controversies: She was alleged to have gotten her HBO show through family connections and by casting the daughters of other famous people.  She was severely criticized for not writing in any black characters during the first season.   She is routinely accused of being an exhibitionist for appearing nude on her show.  Indeed, a critic at the Television Critics Association provoked a meltdown from Judd Apatow by asking why she – of the unconventional beauty type – continues to display her body.  She was criticized by the feminist website Jezebel for allowing (minimally) doctored photos of herself to appear in Vogue.

Although Dunham did once go out of her way to provoke a controversy by appearing in an Obama campaign ad that compared voting for the first time to losing your virginity, she has not sought the role of cultural lightning rod. Lady Gaga she ain’t.

Dunham inspires a level of vituperation that is wildly disproportionate to her popular cultural impact.  “Girls” is witty and original, but focused on a narrow slice of the population: upper-middle-class young women trying to make it in New York City. The show itself is not a giant ratings hit, attracting only about one-third the audience of “Game of Thrones.”  Shows with much larger audiences generate far less attention.

Undoubtedly jealously plays a part in some of the criticism.  If you’re a writer in your 20s or 30s, it must be hard to understand how this particular 27-year-old ordinary-looking woman gets to have her own TV show, Vogue photo shoot, and rock-star boyfriend.

Then too there seems to be a misapprehension that Dunham and Hannah Horvath, the selfish and narcissistic character she plays on “Girls,” are the same person.  Horvath grandiloquently declared herself the voice of her generation (before scaling it back to “a voice of a generation”), something Dunham has not claimed for herself.   I’d be mad too if Hannah Horvath had her own TV show but it’s hard to begrudge the prodigiously talented and hand-working Lena Dunham this platform.

But I think a bigger problem is that “Girls” is one of those unsparing works of works of art that discomforts people and gets under their skin.  The basic outline of “Girls” is the same as “Friends,” but darker and more realistic. There are no happy endings or conventional resolutions on “Girls.”  Dunham’s nudity is the physical manifestation of her characters’ emotional exposure, with their fears, needs, ambitions and flaws open to inspection.  The pushback against Lena Dunham the artist seems closely tied to a revulsion at her scathing dissection of the Millennial generation.  It’s easier to dismiss the artist than the vision.

This discomfort with Dunham’s depiction of Hannah and her friends might explain why women are such reluctant viewers of the show, for it is one of the ironies of contemporary gender politics that a show written by and for young women is watched primarily by older men. Vulture attempted a technological and economic explanation, theorizing that younger women are more likely to time-shift or not have HBO in the first place, but I’m more apt to think the lack of female viewing is related to a discomfort with her dark sense of humor and unwillingness to provide a “Sex In the City”-type fantasy of female empowerment.

Dunham herself seems not to understand that women are her less-enthusiastic fans.  In a recent interview with Grantland’s Bill Simmons, she advocated for more female show runners so women could see more of their lives represented on TV.  I’m all for more female show runners but the last thing the world needs is more TV shows aimed at women, who already constitute the majority of the TV audience. What the world does need are show runners of all genders, races and political viewpoints who aren’t afraid to take risks.

As “Girls” has shown, honest, unsparing shows are not always appreciated and sometimes even provoke dramatic reactions. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that in the end, “Girls” is a comedy, and maybe we should all take it a little less seriously.  It’s a great TV show, not the Last Judgment.

House of Cards_ps2_077_h_image_982w

So, I finally finished “House of Cards.”  Twelve episodes in four weeks seems like a reasonable pace – for me at least, if not for the bingers.  And this is the problem with the Netflix roll-out model.  I don’t like being far behind or way ahead of the rest of the audience; every conversation about this show has to start with a question (“What episode are you on?”) and then you need to calibrate your discussion accordingly.

Contrast that with the way we talk about “True Detective,” that other buzzed-about drama of the winter.  With a new episode rolling out every Sunday we could all be on the same page and participate in the conversation via, Twitter, Facebook, recappers or podcasts.  And the series built to such a crescendo that it set HBO viewing records and even crashed HBO GO.  Yet when I finished “House of Cards” I had no one to celebrate with – not even a lonely Twitter follower.

Mindful of the fact that many people haven’t finished “House of Cards,” I’ll try to avoid the biggest spoilers but I’ll be discussing some plot points.  In other words, look away if you don’t want to know anything about the season.

“House of Cards” has been a propulsive, sometimes thrilling, sometimes head-scratching experience.   Regrettably it exemplifies a growing problem in TV dramas: a growing disdain for common sense.  It doesn’t have much in common with “Downton Abbey,” “Glee” or “Sherlock” other than the fact that they all are completely ridiculous. It’s one thing for plots to be over-the-top, because that can be fun, but it’s completely another thing if the characters and their motivations are not even internally consistent within the universe of the show.  Extreme fans seem willing to forgive these flaws because they are so into the shows’ overall milieu that plotlines are beside the point.  But personally I find that it takes me out of the moment to have question marks popping into my head every ten minutes.

Sometimes I do feel pedantic and overly literal when I wonder why a character who did this thing will suddenly turn around and do the exact opposite. “House of Cards” dealt with this problem by accelerating the action to near warp speed.   Before you can ask whether a plot twist really made sense, we’re onto something else and too distracted to ask, “Whaaaaaaaat?”

And I’m not even talking about the murders.  In a dark show where the paranoia is so thick you could spread it on barbequed ribs, I am willing to accept the premise that politicians would be ruthless enough to kill, jail and ruin their opponents.  But I really object to scenes were the motivations are inexplicable.  To take just one example from the first episode of the season: Claire goes to great lengths to torture the former director of her Clean Water Initiative, cutting off her health benefits (not possible under COBRA!) in order to force her to take back her old job. Turns out Claire wants to drop the Clean Water Initiative altogether.  Getting some well projects in Africa last season was the justification for an entire year’s worth of scheming, but now Claire is ready to move on.  Yet instead of just calling her former director to offer the job back, she bludgeons her into agreeing to do something she would have done anyway.

Look, I like “House of Cards” as a political melodrama, but there’s so much mendacity I can never figure out what anyone is really thinking, which kind of undermines the point of political melodrama – to see if you can outthink the protagonists.  As far as I can tell, Frank and Claire Underwood lie all the time.  Even when they’re telling the truth they’re lying in their hearts by using sincerity as a point of manipulation.  They even lie to each other (although not as much as in Season One, when they both conducted affairs) so you can’t even distinguish between their lying and honest voices    This makes them completely opaque; when they are explaining their motivations or their strategies can we believe them?  They’ll say anything necessary to get their way so it’s impossible to get inside their heads.

In this regard, the way Robin Wright plays Claire Underwood is particularly unnerving.  This might be the role of a lifetime, but I wonder if it will hurt her career because we’ll never be able to accept her as anyone ever than Claire.  Her cool, emotionless delivery, combined with her ruthlessness, highly toned body and Roman Emperor haircut is outright scary. Only twice did she actually show human emotions – both in the final episode of the season.  First when she broke down crying after the First Lady told her that she and Frank were good people and then when she yelled at Frank to fix the political problem he’d created for everyone.

Closely connected to their weird calculating personalities is their sex lives.  Although they sleep in the same bed, they apparently never have sex – with each other at least. As mentioned, in Season One they each had affairs that the other knew about and accepted with little emotion. But now that Frank is Vice President, he needs to be more careful, so is reduced to watching porno.  When a secret service agent comes upon him enjoying the pleasures of Internet porn, he and Claire laugh about it, remarking that at least he wasn’t caught masturbating. Standard husband and wife chatter!  And of course their sexuality gets even more confusing after that, but no spoilers in that area.

My other objection to the show is the same problem I had with “Breaking Bad,” which is that it makes you morally complicit in the characters’ amoral activities.  Even though Frank is a villain who commits murder and ruins people’s lives, we still root for his success.  We can’t help it because he’s so charming and clever. Oceans of pixels have been spilled comparing “House of Cards” to Shakespeare, but no villain in Shakespeare is as attractive as Frank Underwood, nor do any of the Shakespearean villains so consistently get away with their evils.  Iago, Macbeth and Brutus all end up lying prone on the stage with daggers in their stomachs, not being offered more power.. I suppose you can argue that he’ll get his comeuppance in future seasons but that just means more years of hating ourselves for secretly pulling for the bad guy.

Maybe the problem with “House of Cards” is that it’s too good for its own sake.  The beautiful sleek direction, the important subject matter and the good acting all suggest that this is prestige TV that needs to be dissected for deeper meaning.  But MediaPost’s Ed Martin has another theory – that “House of Cards” is really just another stylish melodrama in the manner of “Dynasty.”  We are seduced by the detailed discussion about labor policy, budget deals, and entitlement reform into thinking this is a serious drama, but maybe it’s not.  If we can just accept it as high-class trash, then maybe we’d all be happier.

Some other thoughts:

— You know that thing that happened early in the season that NO ONE was expecting?  That was the most shocking thing I’ve seen on TV since Bobby showed up alive in Pam’s shower on “Dallas.”  (see below). I’d say it was even more shocking than the lawnmower incident on “Mad Men.”

— The appeal of the show rests heavily on the sense of verisimilitude – the idea that you are watching something true to life – but you have to wonder if they’ve ever read a newspaper.  Some of the internal machinations are plausible; the plot about the rapist general seems ripped straight from the headlines (indeed this very story was on the front page of the New York Times today.)   But to make the plot spin around building a bridge from Port Jefferson across Long Island Sound seems really far-fetched in this environmentally friendly day and age.  Worse was the plot about raising the social security retirement age: according to the fantasies spun by the writers, the DEMOCRATIC president pulled out all the stops to get the retirement age raised and the Tea Party objected because they were afraid the Democrats would get all the credit.  This is so insane on so many levels I won’t bother to deconstruct.

— Supposedly all of Washington is wild about House of Cards, which is odd considering it depicts them as slimeballs, incompetents, hacks and losers.   I think the appeal for the show is that it portrays Washington as a place where stuff gets done.  They actually pass bills on “House of Cards.” It takes some arm-twisting but it gets done, unlike the perpetual stalemate in the current Capitol, where they haven’t even passed a budget.  A “House of Cards” that told the truth about Washington would be one of the most boring shows in history – CSPAN on Quaaludes.  Hours and hours of negotiations on a “grand bargain” that go exactly nowhere.

— Of course I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’m as susceptible to Washington-nerd flattery as any Assistant to the Deputy Undersecretary. I almost fell out of my chair when the show mentioned the United States Trade Representative (USTR) – the very agency where I used to work.  And when the reporter barks to her assistant to “get me the USTR press secretary” I was just thrilled to death.  That used to be me! I’m in “House of Cards”!!  Of course it’s extremely unlikely that USTR would bring a case to the World Trade Organization about China’s currency manipulation – Treasury would take the lead on that, I nerdily point out – but still, thanks for the shout out!

— Slate Magazine has referred to this season of “House of Cards” asrefreshingly feminist.”  Oh really? This is a show where Claire Underwood continually subordinates her desires to her husband’s ambitions, where female reporters sleep with their sources to get stories, where young women are preyed upon by more powerful men, and where women who confront men about sexual assault have nervous breakdowns.    I suppose you can make the case that it’s a feminist show because there are a few women politicians who are as viciously manipulative as the men, but that’s not what Slate argues.  Their case for the show’s feminism boils down to Claire publically admitting she had an abortion.  This is usually a verboten topic on TV.  Pregnant characters will usually threaten to have abortions and then either have a miscarriage (“Girls”), keep the baby (“Mad Men”), give the baby up for adoption (“Downton Abbey”), or not be pregnant in the first place (“Glee.”) Claire should be no one’s poster child for abortion, however.  She actually had three abortions, further advancing the pro-life stereotype of aborters as careless and selfish. She also lies about it, claiming she got pregnant when she was raped in college, when the most recent one was simply because a baby would have upset the life she and Frank had built.  This kind of behavior is exactly why feminism has a bad name.

— In the end, “House of Cards” is a fundamentally depressing show.  The decent people in Washington – everyone from the BBQ joint owner to the President of the United States – are made to suffer to advance Frank and Claire’s ambition.  We’re left feeling hopeless and paranoid.  We theoretically have a system of checks and balances but no one seems capable of checking Frank. He’s got all the ruthless people on his side and they are sprinkled throughout the government.  He would seem to be invincible at this point, although if there’s one thing we’ve learned from this show, there is no loyalty in Washington, just pure ambition, and he could be cut down to size by a younger Frank Underwood.

singin-in-the-rain

“Singin’ in the Rain,” widely regarded as the greatest American film musical and one of the greatest films of all time, turned 60 years old in 2012  – an anniversary celebrated with the release of a new HD DVD and all the attendant critical commentary.

You don’t really need the new $84.95 DVD to enjoy “Singin’ in the Rain,” as my wife and I discovered when we recently watched the movie on a library DVD. Almost all the recent reviews and retrospectives have been rapturous and the movie does deserve almost all the praise it gets. Few movies look as well 60 years later and if you haven’t seen it in the last couple of decades, you owe it to yourself the take a look. The movie is fun, full of life and bursting with optimism.

Like many great classics, “Singin’ in the Rain” is a movie about movies. It is set in 1927 Hollywood, when movies transitioned from silents to talkies (a subject also plowed over by “The Artist,” which for some inexplicable reason swept the Academy Awards two years ago.) The movie holds up, not only because the famous song-and-dance routines remain fresh, but because it’s genuinely funny while not taking itself too seriously.

The scene where Gene Kelly performs “Singin’ in the Rain” while actually singing in the rain is one of the most famous scenes in movie history, while Donald O’Conner’s performance of “Make ‘em Laugh”  is almost as famous as a masterpiece of comic performance. Both sequences, which we’ve all seen a hundred times, are charming in context.

What is not charming, in context or otherwise, is a 14-minute ballet sequence near the end of the picture that stops the forward momentum cold. This long dance scene serves no plot or character development purpose; maybe the studio thought they needed to class up this otherwise frothy concoction with a serious offering of modern dance, but if so they seriously underestimate the rest of the movie.

“Singin’ in the Rain” came out in 1952, near the pinnacle of America’s global power and self-confidence. And since it’s set in 1927 – just before the Depression – it depicts another moment of great exuberance. The America of “Singin’ in the Rain” is a country where any small-town schmoo with talent and pluck can achieve fame and riches. It’s also a country where the bosses are good natured and reasonable. R.F. Simpson the boss of Monumental Pictures is nothing like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, Warner Bros’ Jack Warner, Columbia’s Harry Cohn and the other ruthless, crass and manipulative studio heads of the era.

The movie also illustrates America’s ambivalent relationship with class. The plot revolves around the inability of gratingly-voiced Lina Lamont, a silent star played by Jean Hagen, to adapt to talkies. This was based on a number of real cases – stars like John Gilbert and Norma Desmond, whose voices did not fit in their screen personalities. In “Singin’ in the Rain,” however, Lina doesn’t just have a bad voice, she’s a bad person – vain, selfish and hopelessly low class. She has a shrill, untamable, braying voice that reeks of the boarding house or the saloon. Lina is the kind of girl who would have had big hair in the eighties or be hanging with Snooki at the Jersey Shore today.

But it’s not her low origins that are so objectionable. The characters played by Kelly, O’Conner and Debbie Reynolds, Kelly’s love interest, all come from humble beginnings and have a natural grace that makes you want to root for them. Lina, instead, either had a bad upbringing or is irredeemably coarse, and because she reaches above her station with ambition that threatens everyone else’s happy ending, we crave her downfall. Afterwards I felt a little ashamed at being so satisfied with her abject humiliation, but the movie has led us to think this is what she deserves for her crudity and lack of finesse.

“Singin in the Rain” is undeniably a good movie, but is it the greatest musical of all time or the 20th best movie of all time as the recent Sight and Sound poll suggested? It’s certainly an audience-pleaser, but it’s light as air – and it does have that dreadful ballet sequence. But of all the great musicals (and here’s the 25 best according to the American Film Institute) the critics have developed a herd mentality about this particular film.

Myself, I prefer “Gigi,” which has better, wittier songs, a more coherent and believable plot and a more sophisticate view of life. Or, if you must have a Gene Kelly MGM musical, there’s “On the Town,” about three sailors with a day of shore leave to spend in Manhattan. And of course there’s “The Sound of Music,” one of the most popular movies of all time — for good reason.

The movie owes a lot to Gene Kelly. He’s not only the star, but the co-director as well – an unsung “auteur.” He’s impossibly handsome, although not much of a singer. His dancing skills are justly celebrated – more athletic than Astaire, but just as smooth and graceful. I’ve never really warmed up to Kelly – he smiles too much and too hard! – but his good humor helps him carry the picture.

Then there’s Debbie Reynolds. This is her first major role and she does have a certain freshness, although for me, she’s a little bland and generally indistinguishable from June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson and the other MGM girls next door. Of course it’s hard not to watch the young innocent Reynolds and not think about the subsequent scandals with Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor, or worse, the way she is portrayed as an egomaniac in various books, movies, and one-person shows by her daughter Carrie (Princess Leia) Fisher.

“Singin’ in the Rain” may or may not be the greatest musical ever made, but it’s a must for anyone who’s interested in movies. If you can find it on the big screen don’t pass it up, but even on DVD it’s still a great time.

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing Ceremony

By almost every measure, NBC had a successful Winter Olympics.  Its average prime-time viewership — 21.4 million people — was less than for the mostly live coverage from Vancouver four years ago, but up 6% over the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, which were also on tape delay.

More remarkably, NBC won every night of the 2014 Olympics compared to 14 of 17 in 2010 and eight of 17 in Turin. NBC also beat the combined broadcast competition (ABC, CBS and Fox) by 45% in viewership.

Of course, prime-time broadcast doesn’t tell the whole story, as NBC has been at pains to point out. Millions more watched events at various times throughout the day on NBC Sports Network, USA Network, CNBC and MSNBC.  And then there were the additional millions who watched on computers, tablets and smartphones.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about NBC’s achievement is that with all the prime-time events seen on a tape-delayed basis, the winners could easily have been known hours before the broadcast.  There was a time within the living memory of many readers when NBC (and ABC before them) tried to keep Olympics results under wraps.  Sometimes news of very high profile contests, such as the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding skate-off of 1994, would filter back through word of mouth, but generally viewers who sat down to watch the Games in the pre-Internet era had no idea who the winners and losers were.

But in today’s age of instant communication and social media overload, there’s no way to keep the winners secret.  Brian Williams himself announced the results during “The NBC Nightly News.” And yet people still watched the prime-time broadcast in droves.

This is not the first time that anxieties about the impact of TV-related technology have been overblown.  Remember the fear that TiVo and DVRs would demolish ad-supported TV by letting everyone fast-forward through the commercials?  Turns out DVRs lead to more viewing, and fast-forwarding is offset by the number of new viewers who actually watch the ads.  Remember how Internet streaming was going to undercut traditional television?  Turns out streaming helps build interest in TV programs, leading to record viewing levels.

It now seems clear that social media chatter about winners and losers is no threat to the Olympics.  In fact, the role of social media in general, especially Twitter, seems vastly overblown.  Only 10% to 15% of Americans even have Twitter accounts, and only a percentage of them are active at any one time, so the amount of spoiling that can take place on Twitter is pretty small.

The bigger threat from spoiling comes from traditional news organizations like The New York Times or CNN, which send out news alerts to subscribers.  For every one Olympics result I saw on Twitter, I received about 20 email notifications from the various news outlets I follow.  Yet everyone wants to talk about the impact of social media, while no one wants to discuss the impact of the boring old New York Times.

Spoilers have limited impact on Olympic viewing anyway, because the Games are not really a sporting event.  They’re produced by NBC Sports and feature physical contests with winners and losers  — but, except for hockey, don’t offer the essence of a sports broadcast.  And how do we know that?  Because the audience is predominantly female.  The Olympics has turned into the best-produced, most expensive reality show in the history of television.  With all its sob stories, heroes and villains, it almost doesn’t really matter who wins, or whether the results are known ahead of time.

The other thing that doesn’t seem to have undercut Olympic TV viewing is Internet streaming.  As NBC will be happy to tell you, the Olympics were a multiplatform effort — but I’m guessing the amount of streaming, like the amount of social media, is somewhat exaggerated.  Even the results for big-ticket events — the men’s hockey semifinal between the U.S. and Canada, which was said to have been streamed by 2.1 million viewers — were not that impressive.

Those 2.1 million streamers should not be equated to 2.1 million TV viewers as measured by Nielsen.  Nielsen produces an average audience metric (that is, the average number of people watching at any one time).  To get an equivalent Nielsen number for the game, you’d have to take the 65 million streamed minutes and divide by the length of the event (say, 90 minutes); this would produce an average audience of 722,000, which is not bad for a midday TV show, but only a fraction of the prime-time broadcast.

Another indication of the minimal impact of the digital offerings is their level of ad support.  NBC Sports sold just $50 million in digital ads for the Sochi Olympics, far below the $800 million in national TV ad sales for the Games.  And it wouldn’t surprise me if it took some creative accounting to get the total as high as $50 million.

In any event, despite all the technological advances, we still largely experience the Olympics the same way we have for generations: watching a highly curated version on the TV set.  This is good news for NBC as we head to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.

ABC's Portraits Of The 86th Annual Academy Awards Host Ellen DeGeneres

Like most right-thinking people, I consider the Oscars to be beneath me.  Seriously, the amount of mutual gratification and self-regard on display is appalling.  And yet, still we watch, partially because it’s like observing chimpanzees in an animal behavior experiment, and partly because we actually do love movies.

So I dutifully tuned in last night, realizing to my horror that I have watched more than half of all the Oscar presentations since the Academy Awards were invented.  It makes me feel old.  Not as old as Kim Novak, but close.  It’s impossible to watch a show like the Academy Awards and not have opinions, so here are mine:

— ABC worries about attracting younger men (who after all, are the film industry’s main customers) yet the Oscars start with a two-hour lead-in that no straight man would willingly watch: the Red Carpet thing.  I did watch a half-hour of it and almost ran screaming from the room with all the chatter about who’s wearing what.  And the interviews are like eavesdropping on the most boring cocktail party in history. The only interesting thing for I noticed was when one of the announcers identified Julia Roberts as JESSICA Roberts.  Twitter meltdown!

— Speaking of the Red Carpet, when did it become a thing to bring your mother to the Oscars?  I believe Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were the first to do this back when they were nominated for “Good Will Hunting.”  The first time was cute but now it looks like everyone’s trying to show how normal and “real” they are.  If I were nominated I would definitely bring my wife – or my sexy new girlfriend if necessary, because the easiest way to get a sexy new girlfriend would be to get an Academy Award nomination.  Also, why is it that none of the female nominees bring their fathers?

— Being an Oscar host is one of the least rewarding jobs in the world, because the audience either finds you offensive or boring.  Last year the Academy tried to woo back the aforementioned young men demographic by selecting Seth MacFarlane as host.  Ooops! Too many boob jokes.  Charges of misogyny!  So this year we are back with the ultra-safe Ellen DeGeneres, who caused no controversies.  She was fine but seemed to run out of material about an hour into the show, when she went into the audience to order pizza.  Then back to deliver the pizza. Then back again to pay for the pizza.  Ok, that was awkward, but fun – certainly better than Seth MacFarlane singing “We saw your boobs.”  Or better than any Broadway-style song and dance number that has ever been performed on any previous Oscars show.

— Ellen did get off a few good jokes, though, the funniest of which was directed to Jonah Hill, who displayed an unusual prosthesis in “The Wolf of Wall Street”: “You showed us something in that film that I have not seen for a very, very long time.”  To the extent she said anything stinging it was: “It’s going to be an exciting night. Anything can happen. So many different possibilities. Possibility number one.  ’12 Years a Slave’ wins best picture.  Possibility number two: You’re all racists.”  Ha ha, because you just know that the Academy did not actually think “12 Years A Slave” was the best picture of the year, but was afraid of being labeled racist, which totally would have happened if anything else had won. (After all, the “12 Year” ad campaign tag line was “It’s Time,” implicitly warning that it was time for an anti-slavery movie to win the Academy Award.)

— I’ve always liked it when old movie stars come out to present an award, but Kim Novak’s appearance was disastrous and set off a huge twitter rant about plastic surgery.  (Typical tweet: “This is a four-hour PSA on the perils of cosmetic surgery.”  Also: “Frozen wins.  The movie, not Kim Novak’s face.”) This woman made her first movie the year I was born but she has far fewer lines on her face than I do, and I doubt that’s due to clean living.  She also seemed discombobulated, leading to questions of whether she’d had a stroke.  For those of you who don’t know who she is, Kim Novak was a cool blonde sex symbol of the 1950’s – kind of the poor girl’s Grace Kelly.  She’s remembered today for one performance – the mysterious Judy Barton of “Vertigo.”  Not a great actress, to be honest.  In any event, after her appearance every female presented over the age of 40 was scrutinized for bad plastic surgery.  There seemed to be a general consensus that Sally Field had not had a facelift, that Bette Midler’s facelift was pretty good and that Goldie Hawn’s facelift was terrible.

— For me the highlight of the show was Darlene Love’s singing acceptance speech (see below), for  best documentary “Twenty Feet from the Spotlight.” Of course, she was not actually nominated – she was only in the movie – but that’s a quibble.  Next year there should be a rule that every winner needs to sing before getting an Oscar.

— Last night could have been called the “Glee Oscars” because of the high incidence of Oscar attendees who appeared on the show, including Idina Menzel (Rachel’s birth mother), Kate Hudson (Rachel’s mean dance professor), Whoopi Goldberg (Rachel’s mean dean of admissions), Kristen Chenoweth (Mr. Schue’s old crush) and John Stamos (the cool dentist).

–Speaking of Idina Menzel, I loved how John Travolta mispronounced her name, calling her something like Adele Dazeem.” Of course Twitter went berserk, rightfully so given that Travolta had one job to do and he screwed that up.  I mean, do they not tell these presenters what they are going to say ahead of time?  Funniest tweet: “Mispronouncing ‘Idina Menzel’ is, like, the cruelest way to deal with gay rumors.” (i.e., because he doesn’t own the “Wicked” soundtrack.)

— More on Idina/Adelle,  I’d been skeptical and a bit cynical about the song “Let it Go,” but she did a fantastic job of performing it (you need to sit through a long Pepsi ad if you want to see a clip here). I usually don’t like this kind of overwrought singing but she made it work.  And I was thrilled U2 didn’t win, thus preventing us from another lecture about Bono’s humanitarian causes.

— The night will probably be best remembered for the most awesome selfie and product placement of all time.  Proving that movie stars are just like frat brothers when it comes to getting their picture taken, Ellen got some major stars to pose with her in the audience and then successfully set out to break the record for the most retweets in history.  Jockeying for position in the photo were Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Tatum Channing and Kevin Spacey.  And right in front?  Lupita Nyong’o’s brother!  What you can’t see is poor Liza Minnelli trying to jam her way into the photo from the back.  Drunk with power, Ellen later joked that she broke Twitter and she was only half-kidding.  So many people retweeted that the service went down temporarily.  BTW, Samsung must be thrilled.  The quality of the photo is much better than I ever get on my Droid.

Ellen retweet

— Interesting that the winner of the best costume design was wearing one of the ugliest dresses last night.

— Until the Golden Globes I didn’t know that Spike Jonze was white and Steve McQueen was black.  And don’t call McQueen African-American, for God’s sake!  He’s British.

— Funniest unintentionally tweet while Better Midler was singing that song from “Beaches”: “Am I a total nerd for noting that it’s the wind *over* the wings that allows one to fly??? #oscars #physics”  Uh, yeah, but that’s OK.  Still a funny post. (And no, that tweet was was NOT from Neil DeGrasse Tyson)

— It was all well and good for Bill Murray to call out Harold Ramis last night, but Murray and Ramis were estranged at the time of his death.  As my wife noted, Ramis died thinking Bill Murray was not his friend.

I was shocked by the political incorrectness of Matthew McConaughey’s speech.  No mention of AIDS or the real-life AIDS victim he portrayed.  Instead, he made several explicit references to God, showing that in real life he’s actually the antithesis of his “True Detective” character  Rust Cohle. And how spaced out was it to make a reference to “Charlie” Laughton, presumably Charles Laughton, the British actor who died in 1962 without making a name for himself as a theoretician?  I doubt anyone else could get away with saying that he was his own hero.  All of which goes to show, I think, what a good actor he is.  Somehow despite being so spaced out as a person he manages to play characters who seem like they have all their wits about them.

— I don’t really have an opinion on “12 Years a Slave,” since I didn’t see it.  It was actually the only nominated film I didn’t see, not being a fan of torture.  Never saw “Schindler’s List” either and for the same reason (I’m still trying to prepare myself emotionally).  I find it hard to believe, though, that “12 Years” was better than “Gravity.”  If you look back at the history of the Oscars, many many Oscar winners which once seemed “important” at the time now seem dated.  You can gaze all the way to 1937, when “The Life of Emile Zola,” self-importantly beat “The Awful Truth,” which is still hilarious and widely admired today. I reject the premise that you need to see movies like this to have your consciousness raised.  I can affirm that I have always been opposed to slavery, even without seeing this movie.

— Sorry that “Captain Philips” and “American Hustle,” the second- and third-best movies of the year (after “Gravity”), got shut out.  This was a tough year with so many great movies that someone had to go home empty handed. (But for “The Great Gatsby” to win more Oscars than “Captain Philips,” “American Hustle,” “Nebraska,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” combined seems crazy.)

See you next year.  Let’s get Jimmy Fallon or Seth Meyers to do it.