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Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special - Season 2015

When NBC decided to air a 40th anniversary special for “Saturday Night Live,” did they broadcast it live from New York on Saturday night, as the very name of the show would imply?  Nope, they ran it on a Sunday.

Why would a show that’s supposed to celebrate Saturday night air on Sunday?  Because that’s when all the other prestige shows run.  Looking back on Sundays during the first quarter of 2015, that was the night for the NFL play-offs and the big awards shows.  Also such diverse powerhouses as “Downton Abbey,” “The Walking Dead,” “60 Minutes,” “The Simpsons,” “The Good Wife,” and “Girls.  And when the broadcast networks wanted to launch innovative quality shows like NBC’s “The Last Man on Earth” or CBS’s “Battle Creek,” Sunday was the night.

Sunday is supposed to be the day of rest but for TV viewers it’s exhausting.  January and February are the worst.  It’s bad enough that the networks start off the new year with their best scripted shows on Sundays but the schedule is also loaded with important live programming like football games and awards shows that can’t really be recorded.

And if you have a semi-antiquated DVR like mine, you can only simultaneously record two shows – or record one if you’re watching something else live.  This means you have to plan strategically which shows to watch live, which to record for later, and which to stream online in some distant future.  That’s how “Girls” got kicked off my “to record” list and pushed onto my “to watch it on HBO-GO when I remember” list.

Sunday wasn’t always the most important night for television.  For about 20 years it was Thursday – with such NBC hits as “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” “Seinfeld,” and “E.R.” – because movie advertisers and local department stores promoting sales supposedly wanted to air their ads as close to the weekend as possible.

And before that Saturday night was the best night for TV, mostly because of the CBS line-up of “All In the Family”, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”  Think about that: there was a time when people actually stayed home to watch television on Saturday nights.

Given the overlapping and competing schedules, you’d think some networks would move their best stuff to other nights of the week.  There are, after all, only so many hours in the night to watch TV and some shows would certainly get higher ratings if they weren’t running opposite the Super Bowl or Oscars.

But scheduling quality shows on Sunday night is a little like moving all the lamp and handbag stores to the same neighborhoods in Manhattan.  They might compete side-by-side with each other but at least you know where to find them.

Of course there’s always been something special about the Sunday night.  Primetime itself is longer on Sunday, starting at 7:00 p.m. instead of 8:00 p.m.  And because most viewers are headed back to work the next morning and likely to be conserving their emotional resources, they are more apt to be home and open to watching television.

According to Nielsen, Sunday is, in fact, the most watched night of the week.  You could argue that the large Sunday audience justifies the practice of putting all the big name programming on the same night.  Or maybe all the big name programming creates the big audience?  Is it the chicken or the egg?

Nielsen reports that, on average, 40.8 percent of the potential audience is watching primetime TV on Sundays this season.  But that is not that much higher than Mondays, when 39.1% of the audience is in front of a television. The Monday night line-up of popular but not-critically-beloved shows such as “The Big Bang Theory,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “NCIS,” and “The Voice” doesn’t really appeal to me but it does show that people will tune in on Mondays.  So could HBO just give us a break and move “True Detective” to Monday?

There’s also plenty of room for quality programming on the once-mighty Thursday night, where only 36.2% of the potential audience is watching TV, Nielsen says.  (Incidentally, with only 34.5% of the audience watching TV on Fridays, it’s clear that when people want to celebrate TGIF, they are not exactly grabbing the remote.)

With the end of the football and awards seasons, and the season finales of “Downton Abbey” and “The Jinx,” we’ve had a short breather when Sunday night was back to being a normal night where you could watch, record or avoid TV without stressing about it.  But look out April, here comes “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Bible” and “Wolf Hall.”  No one who tries to watch all those shows will ever fall asleep Sunday night.

 

 

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37963966psbiggroupzd08241.jpgReality TV has a lot to answer for.  Its contributions to the ongoing debasement of popular culture are well-documented.  Shows that celebrate our moral weaknesses and reward bad behavior with celebrity and riches are, to put it mildly, unfortunate.

But there is a whole subgenre of reality TV that is actually educational and generally celebratory of the human spirit. These shows, which, oddly enough, generally appeal to men, explore nature, adventure, and exotic jobs.  They’re not smutty, exploitative or condescending. You can watch them with both your kids and your parents.

At the top of the heap is “Pawn Stars,” The History Channel’s mega-hit about a Las Vegas pawn shop that is going strong into its fifth year. This is a show that actually has mildly redeeming social value.

One thing “Pawn Stars” is NOT about is the actual business of operating a pawnshop. The core pawn business, with its focus on lending money to people who have no other access to cash, is hardly in evidence.   What we have instead is a souped-up version of “Antiques Roadshow” in which people come to the store to cash out on their collectibles.

The store in question — The World Famous Gold and Silver Pawn Shop — is owned by the show’s star Rick Harrison, a good-natured but hard-nosed entrepreneur.  His co-stars are his dad (“The Old Man”), his son, (“Big Hoss”) and the surrogate son Chumlee, a slow-witted man-child who provides the comic relief. The producers cleverly play on the family dynamics of these men, with one generation always at odds with another, and everyone exasperated by the antics of Chumlee.

But the real appeal of the series is not the Harrison family; it’s the buying and selling of historical curiosities.  The show follows a rigid format: four or five sellers bring in a family treasure (e.g., a photo of Jesse James, a German dueling pistol, a letter from Andrew Jackson, a classic juke box), the Harrisons bring in an expert to appraise it, and then there‘s a negotiation. Since there is usually some suspense over what the item is actually worth, the show is surprisingly addictive.

I don’t want to overstate the educational value of the show but you can actually learn a lot, in a number of areas, watching “Pawn Stars.”

Of course since this is the History Channel, there’s an important historical element to the show. “Pawn Stars” does not deliver the kind of high-end historical sweep you get from Ken Burns, but over time the show does illuminate the cultural, technological and other historical trends that are covered in the broad historical surveys.  As Rick Harrison says in the show’s introduction, each item has a story — and every time the shop buys something, we get a brief mini-lecture on why it is an important artifact. Through this pointillistic approach, every purchase — every autograph, vintage motorcycle, military weapon — adds a little bit to our understanding of U.S. and European history.

Further, “Pawn Stars” is the best show on television for demonstrating the basic principles of free enterprise capitalism. Over and over again Rick Harrison emphasizes that he will not buy an object if he doesn’t think he can make a profit, which seems to be in the 30% to 50% range. There are certain political circles where 30%-50% profits are considered “obscene,” but Rick is unapologetic about needing these margins to cover rent, salary and other costs of doing business.

You can also learn a lot about negotiating by watching “Pawn Stars” — lessons that can be applied to buying a house, setting a salary or selling a comic book collection:

—  Lesson number one:  Get the other guy to make the first offer; he may actually give you a better deal than you were willing to settle for.

—  Lesson number two: Know the value of what you are buying or selling. It’s amazing how many people come into the store without having done even a basic Google search on their item. Rick won’t exploit them (that would be bad karma and would look bad for the store’s image), but not every buyer would be so scrupulous.

Lesson three: Be willing to walk away. Time and again, sellers settle for less than they want – or less than they could get on eBay – because they are emotionally invested in the negotiation itself and really don’t walk to walk out of the store without closing the deal.  The Harrisons are in a stronger position because they can deploy a take-it-or-leave-it strategy.

In the end, though, what’s most educational about “Pawn Stars” is seeing human nature on display. Some sellers are greedy, others are grateful to sell for whatever they can get.  Some sellers are sentimental about their family heirlooms and others can’t wait to unload them.  Ultimately we are reminded that life is a series of transactions — and the best transactions are the ones where everyone feels like a winner.

 

Matt Weiner QA

With the final seven episodes of “Mad Men” almost upon us, AMC Networks has ramped up a public relations campaign that the rest of us in the business can only envy. Matt Weiner, John Hamm and crew seem to be everywhere giving elegiac interviews or appearing on panels. The characters are on the cover of magazines. There was a great “Mad Men” ad on the Oscars, and it was the best thing on that dreary show.

Meanwhile for true “Mad Men junkies, there’s a remarkable collection of artifacts at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria in Queens.

On display are Matt’s Weiner’s old notes, scripts, and journal entries, which trace the evolution of the series over 20 years. I was particularly interested to see an early draft of the famous Kodak Carousel presentation. It was good, but not the tight, economical but powerful speech it later became, and I was encouraged to see that even Matt Weiner needs an editor.

MoMI has also recreated the sets of the Draper kitchen and Don’s office (see below).

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As someone who grew up in the 60’s, walking into the Draper kitchen is a shock of recollection – so many kitchens were like that in the early 60’s, with the pine cabinets, Betty Crocker cookbooks and yes, ashtrays.

It’s also great to see the dresses worn by Betty, Meghan, Peggy and Joan, the other artifacts of an ancient civilization, like the Almaden wine bottles, and all the modern furniture.

But what’s really a revelation is the “Mad Men” origin story in display in the Weiner’s notebook. It turns out that “Mad Men” is really two stories grafted together. Twenty years ago, Weiner wrote an unfinished script about a baby named Peter Whitman, whose prostitute mother died giving birth to him and whose father was killed by a the kick of a horse. In this outline, Peter Whitman goes off to Korea and assumes the identity of a dead superior officer and becomes a successful but philandering executive under an assumed name. In other words, except for a few details (like original Whitman being blonde and having the name Peter) all the flashbacks in Season One of “Mad Men” were laid out from more than 20 years ago.

Weiner claims to have forgotten about that script when he pitched a series about advertising executives in the Sixties and that it was only after he was asked to come up with a full season narrative arc that he remembered Peter Whitman and realized his early story and his current pitch was all one seamless tale (or as he puts it, “I’ve only had one idea in twenty years.”)

Thanks to the good people at AMC I was able to attend a Q/A with Weiner on March 20, in which he elaborated on these and other aspects of the show. For me the biggest revelation is that he doesn’t consider Man Men” to be the blistering take-down of mid-century consumerist society that it seems. This is another example of why I sometimes wonder if artists really understand their own work, because if “Mad Men” is one thing, it’s an unsparing depiction of the inner decay at the heart of 1960s America.

That’s not really how Weiner sees it, though. He doesn’t pass judgment on his characters. For him advertising is a great job – fascinating and fun. That advertising exists to convince people to buy products they don’t need – and which can sometimes kill you – is not the point. He’s not interested in historical relativism, i.e., judging people in the past by the values of today. Today we might think that ad executives who promote cigarette smoking should be listed somewhere between war criminals and pedophiles but for Weiner these are just interesting ambitious guys trying to make a living.

Weiner grew up in the Seventies so “Mad Men” is an attempt to understand and explain his parents’ generation. It is explicitly about how the average white American experienced that decade, which explains the absence of black characters.

Weiner didn’t say much about the ending, which has been a source of intense speculation for several seasons now.   Everyone wants to know if Don Draper dies. I’ve never thought that would happen but it is a persistent question. In a commentary in the exhibition, Weiner notes that there are few deaths on Mad Men because he doesn’t want it to that kind of show – a melodrama where plot and narrative challenges are resolved by wiping out a character (I’m looking at you “Downton Abbey”) so I don’t expect any other characters to go to their future reward.

He did say that he likes to take high risks, and that his wife, the cast and the crew were all happy with the ending, so it might be something completely unexpected. There could be a clue in the exhibit – that early journal entry about Peter Whitman (see below)

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Whitman’s projected decade-by-decade chronology reads a lot like Draper’s, including Pennsylvania in the 1940s to Korea in the 1950s to “NY-wife-secretary-advertising” in the 1960s. If we follow the trajectory to the end it says California in the 80s. It’s hard to believe the hyper-secretive Weiner would have allowed such an obvious clue to be shared publicly, but it would make sense in the context of the show for Don – perhaps even under his real name of Dick Whitman – to return to California, where he’s had some of his happiest times.

For my part, I think the first six shows will follow the normal pattern or jumping ahead one month at a time, ending sometime in December 1969 and that the final episode will take place sometime five to 10 years later as a wrap-up. How else to explain this promo in which all the male characters seem to have aged a lot.

Matt Weiner is a great story-teller, not just on the screen but in person also. Some of the tidbits he shared with his audience included:

— AMC took a great risk on “Mad Men,” investing $3 million in the pilot at a time when the network wasn’t even producing original content. Still, money was tight all the way around and when they flew in Jon Hamm for an audition they paid for his flight with frequent flyer miles.

— AMC auditioned Hamm several times before Weiner saw him because they wanted him to be rehearsed and improved when he met Weiner. It must have worked because Weiner wanted Hamm from the beginning. Among other things he was impressed with Hamm’s intelligence: he used the word “Dickensian” to describe Dick Whitman’s childhood, a word that is apparently not in the vocabulary of the average actor.

— AMC had been willing to spend heavily on several well-known British movie stars to play Draper but Weiner insisted on Hamm. The rest of the cast were other unknowns except for Robert Morse, the star of the classic Sixties corporate musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying.” Although thrilled to have Morse in the cast, it was not Weiner’s idea. He also said that Morse was a “lunatic” on the set, by which I think he meant an irrepressible, albeit elderly, cut-up.

— Weiner’s two most important literary influences are J.D. Salinger and John Cheever. Like Salinger, Weiner is a New York Jew trying to understand the ways of the WASP elite. He even named his son (Marten Holden Weiner, aka “Creepy Glenn”) after Holden Caulfield. And Cheever, of course, is the best-known chronicler of Sixties WASPs in the Sixties. Throughout the series, Weiner has been trying hard to dramatize the sense of loneliness, dissatisfaction and incompletion from which Cheever characters suffer. And it’s no coincidence that the Drapers live in Ossining, NY, where Cheever himself lived.

— He does not get permission to use the brands featured on the show, relying instead on “fair use” interpretations of the First Amendment. As long as they are using the brands dramatically and not trying to profit off them, they feel they are ok.

— When they filmed the pilot in 2006, there were two other Sixties-based major motion pictures being filmed (“Revolutionary Road” and “Across the Universe”) and the costume designers of those movies had snapped up almost all the men’s suits from the Sixties that were available for rental. Consequently, they could only rent small-size suits and had to hire small-size extras for the background scenes.

— Sometimes truth is too strange for fiction. Many of the most bizarre things that happened on “Mad Men” are based on real events. There is, for example, a scene where ad executives throw plastic bags of water on the black women and children who were protesting the last of blacks employed in ad agencies. This actually happened in real life at the firm of Young & Rubicam, but many critics felt the incident was too extreme to be believable. Weiner talked to the New York Times reporter who covered the protest for a front-page story and confirmed that it happened as depicted on the show, but that didn’t mollify the critics who thought Weiner was overdoing it.

This certainly not Weiner’s final public appearance talking about Mad Men. In addition to the numerous interviews he’ll be doing he will also speak March 29 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and April 28 at the 92nd Street Y. The New York Public Library will host a “Mad Men” event after the finale in May and will publish a “Mad Men” reading list, based on 25 titles mentioned during the show’s run. The Brooklyn Academy of Music will host a two-day “Mad Men at the Movies” festival, April 22-23. Weiner or a cast member will attend each screening to discuss that film. So if you haven’t been out to see him yet, there’s a still a chance.

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note on the photos: I took the photo of Matt Weiner being interviewed by CBS’s Anthony Mason.  Photography was not allowed in the exhibit so the other photos are publicity stills.

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With the final seven episodes of “Mad Men” about to launch on April 5, I recently went back to re-watch the first season of the series; after all, maybe Matt Weiner had planted some clues about where he wanted to take the series in the early episodes.

I wasn’t binge-watching, which is what so many people did in the lead-up to the end of AMC’s other critical smash “Breaking Bad.” Instead, I was savoring and noticing how much the series had evolved in seven seasons.

The experience of watching Season One is as disorienting today as it was when it debuted in 2007. It’s a testament to the profound changes of the 1960s and the ability of “Mad Men” to depict them that jumping back to 1960 still seems like visiting a world that is exponentially more foreign than the world of 1969 where we last met Don Draper and friends.

It only takes about five minutes of the first episode to understand why “Mad Men” was such a sensation when it first hit the screens. It depicts a sleek, polished social system of cocktails, classic fashion and beautiful interior design; a system where the characters seem to know and accept their place in the social hierarchy. Everyone seems to be smoking all the time, which immediately distances us from this period but adds a forbidding allure. And the drinking is so pervasive that life back then initially seems to have been a non-stop party.

Having set a scene of apparent glamor, Matt Weiner proceeds to knock it down. The characters are neither physically nor emotionally healthy. There’s a sickness at the core of the late Eisenhower era that requires the self-medication of consumerism – a consumerism that is driven by the very ads produced by our heroes. We see that men are pigs, women are enslaved, blacks are nearly invisible, Jews are barely tolerated, and gays are deep in the closet. No one is really happy.

Matt Weiner didn’t live through the 1960s like I did, so he gets some things wrong in emphasis, occasionally sliding into didacticism. His depiction of women seems particularly off. It’s as if he’s gotten his insight from books – two books in particular. Betty Draper’s frustrated, bored, and infantilized suburban housewife is a caricature straight from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) while Peggy Olsen’s mousy secretary and Joan Holloway’s voluptuous office manager are the yin and yang from Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex And The Single Girl. With all due respect to the two Bettys, I have to stand up for my mother and the mothers of my childhood friends, none of whom were as incapacitated by affluence as seems to be the case on “Mad Men.” And while we’re at it, my father and the fathers of my friends would never have treated their wives with the casual contempt that we see from the “Mad Men” husbands.

If the women are stereotypes, at least Don Draper is more nuanced. I’ve always thought that the Korean War/Dick Whitman switcheroo was more than a little far-fetched but at least it gives Don an interesting backstory. Don falls into that long American tradition of self-invented men, starting with Ben Franklin and running through Horatio Alger and Jay Gatsby to Bill Clinton (whose birth name, after all, was William Jefferson Blythe); it’s not surprising that he prefers the self-made Dick Nixon to the rich playboy Jack Kennedy. From the beginning Don was one of the most fascinating characters in television history, always surprising – sometimes strong, often weak, frequently brilliant, occasionally tender and a master manipulator.

Looking back now, some of Matt Weiner’s preoccupations in Season One are surprising. The pervasive anti-Semitism of the era was real but seems like a Weiner fixation, particularly since the more urgent issue of race is completely absent. Further, the season-long plot line about the agency’s attempt to get a role in the Nixon presidential campaign never seems to go anywhere and doesn’t contribute much to our understanding of the 1960 race.

Much has been written about how Don and Peggy are the two main protagonists on the show and their character arcs over seven seasons have indeed been central to the show. But less has been said about the importance of Pete Campbell, even though it is clear from a review of Season One that he is the third most important character. Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete, gets third billing in the credits and has just as much screen time as Elizabeth Moss’s Peggy Olsen. Pete stands in for all those entitled young-men-in-a-hurry from the post-War era. He’s never satisfied – not with the progress of his career or the state of his marriage – and is always looking for ego-gratification. It’s bad enough that he has sex with Peggy on the night before his wedding, but it’s horrifying that he tries to pimp out his wife to get one of his short stories published in “The Yorker” (and how hilarious it is when it ends up in “Boys Life Magazine” instead?) Critics don’t often write about Pete, and the rest of us don’t really like to think about him since he’s an uncomfortable reminder our own dissatisfactions and neediness. But anyone who doesn’t think deeply about the meaning of Pete Campbell is missing one of Weiner’s main themes.

To the extent there’s an overarching them, though, it’s been hiding in plain sight all along – or not even hiding at all. The trailer for the last half of the final season is called “Nostalgia” and reprises the most famous Mad Men scene of all – the pitch for the Kodak Carousel. Nostalgia, Don claims, is a “twinge in your heart, for more powerful than memory alone.” It’s a time machine that “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” That place is home, and every TV show, movie or book set in the past mixes memory and desire and trades in this ache to go home. And if “Mad Men” has been about anything, it’s been about our conflicting feelings for a world that is both idealized and scorned – the past.  Whether Don Draper lives or dies by the end is a plot point – the important thing is that we’ve stared at our past and come to terms with how it’s shaped our today.

 

 

 

 

Mr. Spock

When I saw that Leonard Nimoy had died, I thought, oh, boy, here comes another social-media meltdown. Sure enough, Facebook and Twitter did not disappoint.

For about 12 hours last Friday, about half the posts on my Facebook and Twitters account were about Leonard Nimoy, or, more accurately, about Mr. Spock.  This was the biggest reaction to a celebrity death since last summer’s outpouring of anguish and grief after Robin Williams’ suicide.

In some respects, the response to Nimoy’s death was pretty illogical, as Spock would have put it. This was an actor who’d had second billing on a low-rated and short-lived TV show from the mid-‘60s, and a respectable — but not particularly remarkable — career after that.  By contrast, Robin Williams had been a major star for decades and was still actively involved in his career when he died, so the visceral reaction to his sudden death was more comprehensible.

But ratings or box-office aside, someone like Leonard Nimoy is the perfect candidate for a big social-media sendoff. First, in Spock, Nimoy created a major figure of nostalgia for Baby Boomers, who still pull many of the country’s cultural strings even as they themselves begin to contemplate their own mortality.

Second, almost everyone knows who Spock is, but hardly anyone outside the hardcore “Star Trek” fan base was so emotionally involved with him that they would be rendered grief-stricken by the news.  Instead, the reaction was a bit rueful, bittersweet and affectionate, as if a favorite third cousin had passed away.

Nimoy’s Spock was a creation of television and movies — those most personal and intimate of the plastic arts — and most of us had encountered him in pre-adolescence, at a time of wonder, before we were stricken with the cynicism and knowingness of our teens.  I am pretty sure that those who first watched “Star Trek” as adults were wondering what all the hullabaloo was about.

But not every TV star from the ‘60s gets a page-one obituary in the New York Times. There was something about Spock’s core make-up that touched a nerve.  According to the mythology of “Star Trek,” Mr. Spock was half-Vulcan and half-human.  Since Vulcans lack emotion and are driven solely by reason, Spock always struggled to understand human feelings – something we can all relate to.  In her excellent New York Times appraisal, the critic Alessandra Stanley argued that it’s hard to think “of a television character that so embodied and defined a personality type. … Spock was dispassion personified.”  Like Sherlock Holmes before him, Spock had no use for intuition or the subtleties of human emotion.

The affection that viewers felt for Spock is particularly striking because since the 1960s, American culture has had little use for logic and reason.  On the show, another “Star Trek” character, Dr. Leonard (“Bones”) McCoy, embodied the id to Spock’s ego, and was always needling Spock for his lack of passion.  Most viewers probably agree with McCoy that pure unadulterated reason is a dangerous force, and that morality and humanity must play a role in the way we live our lives and make decisions.

And yet, although Dr. McCoy is a relentless advocate for a full-bodied humanity and in many ways speaks for our contemporary values, I had to check IMBD to see whether DeForest Kelley, who played “Bones” on the show, was even still alive.  He’s not, having died in 1999 without the front-page obituary.  “Bones” might be our spokesperson, but we are fascinated by Spock.

What was so special about Spock wasn’t so much that he was half Vulcan but that he was half human (in truth, the Vulcan genes must have been dominant because he always acted about 90% Vulcan and 10% human).  Fortunately, when Spock displayed human emotions it was rarely the destructive side of humanity (jealousy, pride, greed, selfishness, avarice). No, Spock’s humanity usually manifested itself with the best qualities of the human race: love, sympathy, a willingness to sacrifice.

Also, we always felt a little sorry for Spock when he suffered from his human emotions, just as we have special empathy for a small child who doesn’t understanding his feelings or know what to do with them.

In the end, though, I think we all wish we were a little bit more like Spock: dispassionate, less prone to mood swings and flights of emotion.  Spock is actually a throwback to the pre-‘60s, when discipline and self-control were more highly regarded.

Our fascination with Spock is similar to our affection for those TV dads of the 1950s.  We might not want to reverse course and abandon the Age of Aquarius for the Age of Vulcan, but we can’t help but think that a little more Spock might not be a bad thing.

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We’ve come to the end of another season of “Downton Abbey,” with a season finale that was about as crammed full of morsels – some appetizing, some not – as a Christmas fruit cake. What a strange concoction. It was really two episodes crammed into one, with snobby butlers, surprise love children, the departure of the younger cast members, some immoral propositions, a marriage proposal rejected, a marriage proposal accepted, some lame plot resolutions and an overall feeling that Julian Fellowes is back to throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks.

This season-ender was the “Christmas Special” in the UK, a tradition in which popular British series produce one more episode to show on Christmas Day after the figgy pudding and spotted dick have been consumed. Unfortunately, a Christmas show is about as welcome in March as Denker’s broth. The charms of Christmas toasts and carols are completely lost on us in America when all we really want is a hint of spring.

For me, the biggest surprise of the show was the discovery that we were still in 1924, especially after I had confidently explained last week that we’d skipped ahead to 1925, given the clues about the fall of the Ramsay MacDonald government and the amount of time that would have needed to pass between Rose and Atticus’ engagement and their wedding. It’s probably churlish and small-minded to complain about time continuity on a show like this, but they bring it on themselves by constantly referring to real-world events. I’m not the one who was talking about Ramsay MacDonald all year long.

In any event, in a 93-minute episode like this, where to start? Let’s start at the very conclusion. Remember that plot about Anna and Bates that began last year with Anna’s rape, progressed with the death of her rapist, morphed into a Javert-like investigation by Scotland Yard, and culminated last week in the arrest of Anna herself? Remember that? Well, forget it. Anna’s still in jail when we open the episode, but as expected, Bates falsely confesses to the crime to exonerate her then escapes to Ireland. Mosely and Baxter subsequently dedicate all their days off to visiting 60 or 70 pubs in York to exonerate him (which in the logic of the show means they will be throwing the blame back onto Anna).  Somehow they find a bar-keep who remembers serving Bates on the day of the murder (this guy’s ability to recall one patron from two years ago on the very day of the murder is very impressive!)  But if Bates is innocent, the police have to conclude again that Anna is guilty, right? Nope. It turns out that the witness against Anna is now having doubts, so both of them are in the clear. So this whole two-season narrative arc, in which we are dragged through so much sturm und drang, basically boils down to “Never mind.” Whatever.

To the extent there are any overarching themes this episode there are two: the swatting down of snobs and the resolution of romantic entanglements.

First the snobs: Atticus and Rose are back from their Venetian honeymoon and his parents have rented a Scottish estate for some grouse hunting. Off go the Crawleys to shoot small birds and wear white tie in a cold drafty castle. Lord Sinderby himself is a terrible snob, and unpleasant to boot. I suppose we are supposed to assume that, like Shylock, he’s been warped by years of anti-Semitism, or maybe he’s just naturally sour. In any event, he won’t invite Rose’s parents because they’re divorced; he’s also very particular about the respect that is due him as a wealthy banker and Lord and consequently makes the near fatal mistake of calling Barrow a stupid fool.

As snobby as Sinderby is, though, his butler Stowell is even worse. He too treats Barrow shabbily and then is outright rude to Tom Branson; his disgust at serving a former chauffer is so extreme that he falls just short of calling Branson a “mudblood.” Mary is appalled by the treatment of her brother-in-law and unleashes Barrow, her weaponized servant. Now we know why the Crawleys have never fired Barrow: he’s kept on staff in case they they ever need to sic a Doberman on their enemies.  Barrow’s been on his best behavior since giving up the anti-homosexual treatments, but once set loose his thirst for revenge is nearly boundless. He not only schemes to humiliate Stowell, as Mary had wanted, but to bring down Sinderby too, which was definitely more than she bargained for.

After Barrow manipulates the humiliation of Stowell, he worms it out of a the drunken butler that Lord Sourpuss has an illegitimate son, so the next thing you know telegrams are sent to London and the mother and child materialize at a Sinderby family soiree. Ooops. Rose sizes up the situation immediately, and claims that the mother is her old friend, and gets Mary and Grantham to play along so that Lady Sinderby doesn’t get wind of that fact that Atticus isn’t the only one who’s been cavorting with shiksas. Saved from his shame, Sinderby has an immediate personality change, recognizing that Rose is “clever, kind, and resourceful.” He even agrees to break out the gramophone so the young people can dance, and further promises to invite Rose’s divorced parents to visit. Well, the little bump in that marriage subplot wrapped up nicely, didn’t it?

The other snob is Spratt, who makes Mr. Carson look positively modern. His feud with Denker continues, in what must be one of the lowest-stakes plots of all time. Will Denker be able to prepare broth that the Dowager Countess likes? Seriously? Anna’s in jail, Sinderby’s nearly exposed as an adulterer and we’re worrying about broth? Well, not surprisingly it transpires that Denker cannot make decent broth (and how hard is that, really?) But the Dowager Countess doesn’t really care that much anyway. She finally tells the two of them to cut it out and to stop their feuding. So Spratt and Sowell end up as two butlers who are, as Mary remarks, “put back in a box.” Because that’s where servants should be.

The other great theme of the episode was romantic entanglement. First, Isobel definitively declines Lord Merton’s marriage proposal because she doesn’t want to spend her declining days in trench warfare with his God-awful sons. Too bad, because Merty is quite a good character. I have to say, though, I didn’t really see how Fellowes could have swung this marriage because if Isobel had married Merton, she wouldn’t be living in the Downton neighborhood any longer and would have been forced into a reduced role on the show. (That’s the problem with marriages for any of the female characters – once they marry they’ll almost certainly have to move away.)

With Isobel out of the way, we then resolve the question of whether the Dowager Countess will resume sexual relations with her former lover Prince Kuragin. Will everyone who thought that was going to happen please raise his or her hand? I thought so. The Dowager Countess has tracked down Princess Kuragin in Shanghai and transported her to England so she can be reunited with her husband. And here we have yet another sourpuss, who’s neither grateful nor cordial to the Dowager Countess for reuniting her with her husband and literally putting the clothes on her back. She sounds a lot like Greta Garbo in her “I vant to be alone” phase. So exeunt the Kuragins, off to the refugee community in Paris.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

The Dowager Countess later explains to Isobel that she and Kuragin had tried to elope fifty years earlier when they were in St. Petersburg for the royal wedding, but that Princess Kurgain had chased them down, physically yanked her out of the carriage and sent her back to her won husband, who suspected nothing. Sometimes I wonder if Julian Fellowes watches his own show because several episodes back the Dowager Countess claimed that she didn’t actually elope because her husband gave her a Faberge egg with the children’s photos. Regardless, the Dowager Countess now thinks that she owes a debt to the princess for preventing her from ruining her life on a mad passion. Not to keep mentioning Tolstoy, but Anna Karenina and Vronsky actually did elope to disastrous results, so the Dowager Countess is almost certainly right to assume that her life turned out better with a stodgy husband than with a passionate Russian lover.

The other romantic entanglement that gets resolved in this episode is the engagement of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, which everyone has expected since the 2014 season-ender when Mrs. Hughes grabbed Mr. Carson’s hand as they were cavorting at the beach. Mr. Carson has gone about this task obliquely, as he is wont to do, first couching this as real estate investment until Mrs. Hughes revealed that she was nearly impoverished from paying for her sister’s medical care over the years. Learning of her predicament, he then (somewhat presumptuously I think) puts her name on the deed anyway and then proposes in the most eloquent way: “I do want to be stuck with you.” Her response was equally passionate: “Of course I’ll marry you, you old boobie.” This is what comes of drinking the Lord’s Chateau Margaux while he’s away. Naturally, there’s been no hanky panky between the two of them; I doubt they’ve even hugged yet, never mind kissed. But charming nevertheless, because so heart-felt.

The final romantic entanglement plot line involves embryonic romances for Mary and Edith. Both of them seem turned on by the way their potential swains handle they guns, something both Freud and the NRA would understand. Edith’s guy is the agent, or estate manager, at Brancaster Castle in Scotland, and he’s the third cousin of the current earl so he’s close enough to nobility for her purposes.

As for Mary, her new love interest is a Mr. Henry Talbot, who in addition to being good with a loaded gun is also the owner of a powerful car. Mary is apparently turned on by danger and phallic symbols, although if I were the widow of a man who liked to drive too fast, I might seek out someone who’s not an automotive enthusiast. Mary’s also attracted to Mr. Talbot because he’s quick-witted enough to deduce that something’s up with Lord Sinderby and the woman who showed up at the door. More than anything, though, she’s probably turned on by the way he can take her acerbic barbs and turn them back on her. We don’t know anything about him except that he’s the friend of a friend and has enough money to afford a fast car. We’ve probably not seen the last of this guy but I can’t help but feel cheated from last year, when we were promised a face-off between Gillingham and Blake. For someone who was so hot for Mary and who worked so hard to extricate her from her engagement with Gillingham, Blake didn’t seem too sad about leaving her for Poland for a year.

Some other observations:

—  This episode sees the departure of numerous characters for America. Tom and Sybbie are headed to Boston. This has been one of the most protracted departures in TV history. Rose and Atticus, on the other hand, just up and announced, hey, we’re going to New York, which is one of the most abrupt departures in TV history. You have to wonder if Lily James, who plays Rose, decided late in the season that she wanted to pursue a movie career since she’s going to star in the upcoming Cinderella movie. (Btw, Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy, is one of the evil step-sisters, which shows once again that the downstairs staff never gets any respect.) Here’s the trailer.

—  What exactly was the point of Robert’s angina-turned-ulcer? Whenever they start discussing medical issues on this show MY stomach starts to hurt. This angina misdirection is another example of plotting for its own sake, especially when Fellowes seems to snap his fingers and rearrange plot elements without earning them. Robert has angina and after we worry about him a bit he doesn’t. Whatever.

—  I wasn’t exactly sure where we landed on the plot about Daisy’s education. It looks like she’s giving it up since it’s not going to get her anywhere. Whatever happened to knowledge being valuable for its own sake?

— Hmm. A pretty grim view of wives on this show. Three characters – Lord Merton, Shrimpy and Prince Kuragin – were married to and immiserated by shrewish women. Julian Fellowes himself appears to be happily married, so he’s apparently not acting out any personal issues.

— There was one moment of actual, earned emotion in the show: the small remembrance of Sybil in the nursery by Tom, Edith and Mary and the emotional awkwardness of Lord Grantham when he stumbles upon them. I never really liked Sybil that much but I’m glad that Branson keeps her memory alive.

— Another moment of some subtlety: the scene where the servants sit down to a small dinner in the kitchen, dressed in ordinary clothes instead of their uniforms is juxtaposed immediately with the grander white collar dinner with the toffs in Scotland. Which dinner looks like more fun?

— I’m having confused feelings. Lord Grantham hasn’t been an idiot for two straight episodes and his handling of the Marigold/Edith issue was sensitive (but probably a-historical).  I’m beginning to question all my assumptions about existence.

— Naturally the grouse hunting scenes in Scotland reminded me of the hunting weekend in 2001’s“Gosford Park,” Julian Fellowes first big writing gig as a depicter of the landed classes at leisure. Here’s the trailer, featuring a somewhat younger Maggie Smith.

Now we’re on to season six and possibly season seven? I’m exhausted just thinking about it and glad we’ve got ten months to recuperate.