Darlings in Dystopia

The first masterful piece of mass entertainment reflecting the Trump era is here and, strangely enough, it’s based on a novel from 32 years ago. Thanks Hulu, or more correctly, damn you, Hulu – for your new series The Handmaid’s Tale.

Set in a dystopian future where women have no rights and the country has undergone a cultural/religious revolution brought on by terrorism and perhaps limited (!) nuclear war, The Handmaid’s Tale is simultaneously riveting and extremely difficult to watch. Much like an accident. Or Sean Spicer’s daily White House press briefings when not given by Melissa McCarthy.

…and not nearly as delicious/campy/tragic/gorgeous as FX’s Feud #ohmamacita

Of course, to reduce the retelling of Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, which she wrote decades ago in Germany when the Berlin Wall was coming down, as merely an allegory for Trumpism would be selling it short. Not to mention it would be giving the Electoral College POTUS too much credit. (Note: The mere mention of his name is too much credit for me, but that’s another story, and not a particularly funny or readable one. So I will #resist the temptation).

The brilliance of Atwood’s story is that her dystopian world adapts to easily reflect the post-modern apocalyptic realities from any number of time periods in which we currently reside. Though perhaps this series just makes it look that way. More correctly, it’s probably a little bit of both.

Imagine a world where women are not in control of their reproductive rights or being gay is seen as “gender treachery” and appropriately punished.   Then revisit Trump’s sound bite at a town hall event with Republican voters in Wisconsin last year where he publicly stated that if abortion becomes illegal women should face “some form of punishment.

Or simply read about the well-documented death and torture of gay men now occurring in numerous “detention centers” in pro-Russia Chechnya.

Unless this is where you’d rather live #keepinitreal

In the Hulu/Atwood world of terrorism, contemporary women, who only hours before were annoyed that their Uber driver was late, now find all their digital imprints frozen and assets seized. It’s for their own safety, say the authorities. Terrorists. Nuclear war. Centralize power and control for PROTECTION.

When mass sterility (due to environmental poisoning) sets in only a few years later it’s not hard to see that the few females that are still somehow able to reproduce become a treasured governmental commodity. I mean, what price is the continuation of the WORLD, right?

Well.. don’t get ahead of yourself Ms. Knowles

The fact that this is a world now dominated primarily by wealthy WHITE men, helped along by a few female counterparts not quite as powerful as they are, is not really questioned. And the fact that it’s not really questioned by the masses is one of the few differences it has from the basic world order in 2017.

Right after the inauguration of Donald Trump 3.2 million people took to the streets in a march for women’s rights. Which in turn became a growing resistance to emerging authoritarian rule that promised to roll back the rights of numerous other minorities – of color, of race, of national origin, of sexual persuasion, you name it – by an authoritarian voted in by a PLURALITY of voters. The idea, to save the country going down the tubes by making it GREAT again, was not sitting particularly well with its masses.

Pretty much sums it up

So given what I saw as one of those 3.2 million masses marching back in January it was not too difficult, and more than a little scary, for me to make the leap this Hulu series asks. Especially since the three black hooded corpses of a priest, a doctor and a gay man hanging on ropes high from the walls of what used to be a former library were really only incidental backdrops. That’s how I often feel now as a gay man in Trump country and Trump logic.   An annoying incidental to the main story.

Which in some ways is a better place to be than enduring the indignities many females are facing in Trump America. Certainly, it’s better than what the lead women in the Hulu show were about to endure. Though even here I hate to sell the latter short.

We’re not in Stars Hollow anymore, Rory.

It’s hard to tell where any of this is going or whether fiction will for sure prove worse than fact. As a wise psychiatrist once told me, you can only operate from “what is.” And what we do know in the real world is that an estimated 13,000 women are now planning to run for office across the country and a group called Emerge America recently held training classes for 25 female Democratic candidates for Congress, state senate, city council, etc. in 18 states.

Their numbers are up 87% since the election, which seems reasonable. So do comments from the female candidates on a recent NBC news report where one admitted needing practice in the best ways to do things like “asking for money” and “connecting with voters.” Those skills don’t always come naturally for those not born into power positions. But what do they say – Necessity is the mother of invention? Actually, it was not they but the Greek philosopher Plato and yes, I had to look it up. (Note: And yes, he was a man, as far as we know. Which doesn’t make it any less true).

well, that too. #wink

As far as the series is concerned, I take some solace in the casting of Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss in the key lead role of Offred/June, our birth machine/handmaid heroine. Watching Ms. Moss personify the slow empowerment of the 1960s woman as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson – who goes from mousy, intelligent and intimidated to smart, savvy and, yes, empowered, gave hope to many of us hopeless incidentals. And to any of us who have ever felt, or will feel this way.

How I will always remember you girl #peggyforever

It’s one of the best gifts a truly gifted actor can give us. So in the bleak but all too truly allegorical world of The Handmaid’s Tale we can’t help but feel safe in her hands.

One wishes the same could be said about the leading player, or players, in our 2017 reality.

 

Mad Memories

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Every television series has an expiration date – like all the rest of us. And as much as we love and adore a program, ourselves or someone else – what is inevitable is that after the many joys, heartaches, exhilarations and disappointments it will be time for a finale. That time begins this week for Mad Men – one of the most unlikely, game changing and creatively successful shows in television history.

Tonight marks the first of its seven-episode final season so it is really, for lack of a better phrase, the beginning of the end. Yet like all culminations (Note: Death sounds so awful doesn’t it – as if the opposite never existed) it carries a myriad of emotions depending on how one chooses to see endings – especially the creative kind.

MAYBE I WILL, SALLY!

MAYBE I WILL, SALLY!

Two of my favorite people in the world – Stephen Tropiano and Holly Van Buren – are currently working on a book to be published at the end of the year on this very subject called TV Series Finales FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Endings of Your Favorite TV Shows. It will cover a broad spectrum of many of our favorite series and it is more than likely at least one or more of the programs you have enjoyed most over the years will be included.

I, for one, will never forget the ending of Six Feet Under, the HBO program that centered on the mortuary-owning Fisher family. It seemed so obvious it would all conclude with the flash-forward death moments of each family member since they spent their time with us having to deal with the expiration dates of all the rest of the various people (meaning the surrogate versions of us) who entered into their home.

Nothing beats Brenda's "Death from boredom"

Nothing beats Brenda’s “Death from boredom”

Comedies like Newhart also gave us an equally creative finale – perhaps borrowed from The Wizard Of Oz, where in its very last scene Mr. Newhart wakes up from a dream in bed next to the woman he was married to from his previous 1970s series, The Bob Newhart Show. He then recounts to his 1970s wife, played by the deadpan and quite hilarious Suzanne Pleshette (Side Note: I met her at a Hollywood restaurant once through a mutual friend and she was down-to-earth and equally hilarious), the last eight-year synopsis of the other program as if it were some wild fever dream. To which Ms. Pleshette responds, among other things, Go back to sleep, Bob.

Absolute classic

Priceless

There are a variety of many other conclusions. The poignant M*A*S*H final helicopter departure; the more harsh, black comedy moment of the Seinfeld gang sitting in jail together, alienated from the world; and what will always seem like the pitch-perfect moment in Breaking Bad when Walter White’s reign of – shall we call it terror or victory? – finally comes to a close.

We all have our personal highs and lows and they’re often dictated by how and what we related to the entity that is ending – and even more so how we react when told by the Cosmos – or in the case of TV, a network or show runner – that despite what we might want there will be NO MORE.

Though perhaps some of us, myself included, are now thinking:

This metaphor doesn’t hold for TV anymore, Chair. What about all the sequels, reboots and reinventions? Maybe you should finally take a seat in your long overdue ROCKER!

Well, not quite. I know you’re all thrilled about the recently announced reboots of The X-Files with its original stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and the return of Twin Peaks with the always Agent Cooper Kyle McLaughlin. The same way I was jazzed for that second season of Valerie Cherish this year in HBO’s The Comeback 10 years after the fact. However, the simple truth is that none of these shows is or will ever be the same as they once were – or are truly a continuation of what we knew them as before.

In the case of The Comeback – for me it was better. I mean, I’m 10 years older (which in show business years is truly almost a lifetime) and I now have an infinitely better understanding of Val’s trials and tribulations as a creative person in Hollywood even though I thought I knew just about all there was to know about it before. Perhaps that’s why I thought the second season was far deeper and more effective than the first – though it still could’ve rested there anyway since even that end was pretty good at the time.

I cherish you

I cherish you

Though I can’t say the same about the original ending of Twin Peaks I do admit its resume scares me even more since the black comedy dramatic irony it first pioneered 25 years ago in prime time has now been adopted by about 75% of most creative enterprises across the board in 2015 – and for quite some time. On that note, I can’t even imagine what Mulder and Scully will be up to on X Files – though I pray it won’t involve an introduction of alien spouses (Note: Wait, maybe I do!) even as I hope it will finally reveal what the heck happened to David Duchovny’s on-screen, never before seen sister. (Note: Yes, I’m sure it won’t work and I’d regret it if they did, but, well, as long as we’re going there, can’t they….Yes, I know).

One can’t hold on to time today and pretend it’s 10, 15, 20, 30 or 50 years ago. This is something the governors of both Indiana and Arkansas learned the hard way this past week when they were forced to deal with the severe public, not to mention financial, backlash from new religious freedom laws that could make it perfectly legal for businesses to choose not to serve gays and lesbians purely on religious grounds. This goes to show that even if one tries to recreate and build on something that once existed but doesn’t anymore it is impossible to get back to that moment of the first ending – or become overly nostalgic about that time in the past in this age and as the person you are now at this moment in time.

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As for impending endings and how best to deal with them – it would behoove all of us to simply revel in the final moments we have with ourselves, our friends and loved ones, as well as our favorite stories. (Note: That’s what my Mom used to call her soap operas). This is not a morbid thought because, well, many endings can go on for quite a long time. I mean, the final season of Mad Men has actually lasted more than a year due to AMC’s prescription of stretching it out that long to make more money and build audience ratings. And not to get too heavy (too late?) it can also be argued that we all are in the process of our own endings even when we think we are just beginning – given the constraints of existence. A pretty heady thought – especially for a Sunday blog. Or well, any day for that matter.

Though this seems appropriate for a show like Mad Men, which was, if nothing else, extremely heady (some called it dense) even as it was hilarious, devastatingly dramatic, sad and ironic. This gave it many detractors, including one person very close to me who in the past has often noted that despite its brilliance it often felt interminably slow – like watching paint dry.

Sometimes literally. (Season 4, Episode 3 The Good News)

Sometimes literally. (Season 4, Episode 3 The Good News)

Okay – fine. But why say that like that’s a negative thing? Isn’t life like that more times than we want to admit – mixed in with the excitement, fun and everything else?

Well – who the hell knows? All I am clear about is that while I dread the time two months from now without one of my favorite programs ever, I also know in my heart of hearts the moment has arrived to say good-bye. A relationship I stayed with far too long in the 1980s taught me that when I actually thought that I could…well, we don’t really need to get into that here. As for Mad Men, think of it this way – do you really want to see Don Draper in the 1970s? Not to mention – the eighties and nineties?   Now that would be sad.

i don't do polyester

i don’t do polyester

More happy are the seminal memories from the past. That is what I try to remember about all the people in my life who are long gone and it is what I choose to recall about what I consider – the consistently BEST WRITTEN SERIES ON TELEVISION. In the spirit of that, let’s close with the five best scenes of seven seasons that gave us so much more – not to mention so much more to think about.

#5 ROGER STERLING TAKES LSD

Season 5, Episode 6 Far Away Places

What happens when the middle-aged silver fox blue blood partner of an ad agency takes LSD with his much younger second wife? Well, the truth – of course.   At least that’s what it felt like in the mid-sixties. Drugs had a much different connotation then – freedom, creativity, inner understanding and, most importantly, eternal youth. In that one moment, MM captured not only a key moment for one of its characters but a significant moment in the cultural zeitgeist that too often gets twisted into more – and less – than it really was.

#4 – JOAN F-CKS THE JAGUAR GUY

Season 5, Episode 11 The Other Woman

You can’t say they slept together because office manager Joan knew exactly what she was there for – a partnership in the business. In a desperate attempt to keep a luxury car account, it is suggested that savvy Joan literally prostitute herself in the name of the firm and in an ironic, almost pre/post-feminist moment she agrees to for promise of a financial future far beyond the wildest dreams – or possibilities – of a woman in her situation during that time period. What made the scene (Note: Which is really a series of scenes in the course of the episode) particularly harrowing was that in some strange way her character had always served as the moral conscience of the show. She seemed to have an innate understanding of everyone and everything and the ability to keep it together her way. WE didn’t want her to DO THE JAGUAR but Joan always makes the right choice for herself before we get there. Or does she? This moment still leaves us wondering – and wondering why we’re judging. Not to mention just what our own price of a partnership is or could be.

#3 – GRANDMA IDA PAYS A VISIT

Season 6, Episode 7 The Crash

Come over here and give a hug to your Grandma Ida, says the middle-aged Black woman (NOTE: She is later referred to as an elderly Negro woman) to Don Draper’s very White pre-teen daughter Sally. Say what??? Of course, this is right after Sally catches the woman rifling through her remarried father’s living room in one of those divorced kids visits, so she’s confused and doesn’t respond. But Grandma Ida does with a condemning stare and the words: Now don’t you be rude to me, You come over here and give me some sugar.

Well, that would have been enough for this kid of divorce and I was almost Sally’s age during that time period and just as snide and mouthy. This said more about what it was like to be young enough to be a kid but old enough to understand more than the adults thought you did (though not quite as much as you thought) than almost anything else I’ve ever seen on television. I mean, could Dad really be…or have been raised by….? Not to mention how it addresses the issue of race. It’s still uncomfortable to talk about and still gives me the willies.

#2 – PEGGY TELLS PETE SHE HAD HIS KID AND GAVE IT AWAY

Season 2, Episode 13 Meditations in an Emergency

Click here for full clip

Click here for full clip

If it was difficult to believe that a young woman in that era could be pregnant in denial about it almost the moment she gave birth, it was also liberating to know that same woman could figure a way to pull herself out of it and back into normality. Except nothing about Peggy Olson, the smart, ambitious but sheltered young 20 something woman of her time, is NORMAL. Of course, what is normal anyway? Certainly not the 1960s, in retrospect. If you’ve ever known anyone, including yourself, who successfully managed to explain away the unexplainable with twisted logic – well, you gotta love Peggy here. And fear her – and for her – just a little. This scene is not the showiest and won’t mean much to non-fans, but if you’re a regular viewer and/or binge watcher you’ll never forget it.

#1  DON DRAPER: AD/MAD MAN GENIUS

Season 1, Episode 13 The Wheel

The heart of Mad Men is Don Draper – the handsome, square-jawed guy every woman wants to have and every guy wants to be. But it’s not Don’s looks, sexual prowess, success or reinvention that stand apart when one looks at the series of a whole – it his ability to deliver the goods when it counts. This is helped along greatly by brilliant writing delivered by the absolutely perfect casting/acting of Jon Hamm in that starring role. This scene more than any delivers the genius and heartbreak of this ad man and does so in the form of a faux advertising campaign pitch of a real product of the era in a way so personal to this character that we would have never imagined he’d go for it. Try doing that or acting it or writing it or even imagining it on your own some time and let me know if it’s a tenth as good. (Note: It won’t be). This is why Mad Men will endure and why its finale episodes – no matter which direction they go – will inevitably be worth watching.

New Mad Beginnings

 

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Beginnings are difficult for everyone – even Mad Men.  Not that the season 7 premiere Sunday night was bad.   But just like the announced passing of the CBS late-night torch to Stephen Colbert from David Letterman last week, it leaves a lot unresolved as to what the final verdict will be.

This is, of course, what great writing, great TV and a great life are all about. What’s the point if from the very start you know what the outcome will be?  You have to take risks, be a little messy and certainly subvert expectations a bit – especially if you want to land at the very top of your game by the time you get to the finish line.

This is echoed no better than in the words of Mad Men’s anti-heroine Peggy Olson – the slightly mousy 1960s gal from the boroughs who has now made it all the way to her supposed dream advertising job of creative director – when she flips out at all the easy-answer mediocrity surrounding her and screams at anyone in the office who will listen:

You’re all just a bunch of hacks!

Never mind that Ms. Olson, who is clearly correct in her assessment, ends the episode crying alone on her living room floor in sheer exasperation at what her life has become.  Please, who among us hasn’t done that at least more than once in their lives while striving for greatness? Well, if you’re not among them then you’re also not a part of the very large group of us who have also bellowed in frustration about the sheer creative laziness of co-workers and/or competition in your industry and the ways in which that type of behavior goes rewarded.

Plus girl can wear the crap out of a pantsuit

Plus girl can wear the crap out of a pantsuit

Count me among both the screamers and the criers AND as a Peggy Olson-esque persona who is damned proud of both.  Not that this is any guarantee of happiness.  Though certainly it does not mean you are sentenced to a lifetime of misery.  All it indicates is that you’re willing to take the chance at following your own path.

This ensures a constant lifetime barrage of new beginnings – of starting over and over again fairly consistently – never sure of what the final result will be but positive that at least you are doing the best that you can.  And that if your best doesn’t work you can always start over once more.  AND that, in the end, you are okay with that.

What’s fascinating is how the reaction to those who live this kind of life credo has not changed all that much through the ages.  For example, though Mr. Colbert taking over the late-night spot held so long by David Letterman evoked all kinds of positive responses last week, there was also an equal amount of hysterical trepidation.  Would Colbert on one of the major networks be de-fanged and become the dreaded kinder, gentler and horribly bland comedian?  Isn’t the late-night big network format in general too old for words, ensuring that anyone with an edge or formerly known for having an edge and now trying to become mainstream, would surely be doomed to failure?  And then there’s my favorite – why can’t we just have The Colbert Report and The Daily Show starring Jon Stewart forever?  Why does television always have to mess with a good thing in search of more audience, much more money and the most in ratings?

and why mess with an EGOT winner anyhow?

and why mess with an EGOT winner anyhow?

There’s only one simple answer to this and all of life’s questions – evolution.

You might think now that you want an eternity of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show but at some point they will seem as dated as the recording of last year’s Blurred Lines is now finally (and thankfully) beginning to feel.  And I know this for sure because I’ve lived through eras when Vanilla Ice, Kirk Cameron AND Arnold Schwarzenegger were all at the very top of their fields and seemed unlikely to ever disappear if the public had its way.

Mr. Colbert is smart enough to know all of the above as well as a lot of other stuff.  That’s why he is who he is and where he is.   He’s not afraid to evolve and his fans should allow him to lead the way.  Besides, how extreme do any of them think that change will ultimately be?  Has anyone watched Late Night with Seth Meyers?  I’m a big fan but much of the first half of his show, especially his monologue, is nothing more than an expanded version of the Weekend Update segments he rose to fame with on Saturday Night Live.  Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show is simply a slightly modified riff on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with a few more mainstream jokes and celebrities and a slightly better set.  Though it is technically 60 years old, the current Tonight Show has evolved into something quite different from those led by the five and a half hosts that came before Fallon (Note: the half being Conan O’Brien).  Tune into Fallon any night of the week and you’ll hear not only a different theme song but see a series of fan-based, softball interviews that have nothing at all to do with what Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson or even Jay Leno did with their guests.

Though I doubt you'd see Johnny playing sticky ball with Harry Potter...

Though I doubt you’d see Johnny playing sticky ball with Harry Potter…

As for Colbert, he will be NOTHING like Letterman but probably more than a little like the fictional Colbert character he played for years on Comedy Central sans the self-reflexive conservative bigotry. That’ll be yet another in a string of new beginnings that, when you look closely at them, are really much needed readjustments and jump-starts moving us (and him) to the next level and the future.

Which brings us back to Mad Men.  It is now 1969 and there is nothing as prescient as looking at one of the most turbulent social upheavals in American history through the lens of hindsight.  Women like the aforementioned Ms. Olson didn’t seem to have a chance back then – except when they did.  But Ms. Olsen didn’t know that and it is this struggle that makes Mad Men so endlessly fascinating even when one fears it is drowning in a series of clichés.

No decade or the music or the clothes it spawns seem trite, corny or overdone at the time.  Which is why everyone should bridle at the all-knowing critiques of the first episode’s portrayal of late 1960s L.A. fashion, housing and slang.  Yes, women wore earrings THAT BIG and skirts THAT SHORT.  Yeah, men in their thirties, forties, fifties and sixties grew out their sideburns, donned love beads, smoked grass and said phrases like FAR OUT.  And if not every young person in their twenties hit their parents with lines like anger can’t make anything better, only love can those that didn’t certainly didn’t find anything out of the ordinary when that kind of thing came up in conversation.

Perfectly acceptable clothes to wear while picking someone up at the airport.

Perfectly acceptable clothes to wear while picking someone up at the airport.

The year 1969 in America is probably one of the most difficult to film and not merely because of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, the moon walk (Note:  Neil Armstrong’s, not Michael Jackson’s) and the various other socio-political events of the day.  It is because that year was still full of unbridled idealism about the power of love and the non-violent changes it could evoke.  It was also due to the fact that the world was still filled with bright primary colors that were seen as hipper than hip rather than a silly throwback to the faux lollipop world of childhood.  And, as a west coaster of 30 years I am proud to say it is in part because California was undeniably THE go-to destination city for a front row seat to every last drop of all of it.

Watching an iconically handsome, square-jawed Madison Avenue idea man like Don Draper maneuver through an over-accessorized Canyon home in 1969 Los Angeles is a bit akin to seeing the oil-slicked fish of the Louisiana gulf coast struggling to survive the BP oil spill.  We know something has gone terribly wrong and even though what we’re seeing is true and probably important, in both cases it’s just not very pleasant to watch.   Even when Don goes back to his fabulous penthouse in New York City it doesn’t feel much better.  He’s lost his footing – as most people his age had in 1969 – and the cold cruel reality of change is beginning to literally enshroud him by the end of the premiere episode.  Much like the decade itself, there was little irony to be seen in that.

So where's this all going to lead?

So where’s this all going to lead?

Matthew Weiner, Mad Men creator and the writer of last night’s premiere, as crafted yet another new beginning for a TV series that continues to reinvent itself for every year of the changing decade it portrays while remaining essentially the same at its core.  He knows what he’s doing even when the rest of us have our doubts and that is how it should be.  Artists, like friends, family members and even some politicians, earn your trust over time by living their lives this way – either publicly, privately or both.  It doesn’t much matter whether they fail or succeed with each decision they make or in any given moment they decide to create or even live.  What matters is the overall effect on both the world and on you.  As a die-hard fan of Mad Men and the 1960s who knows all too well the value of new beginnings I’m willing to trust the process for now and go along on the ride.  If things go awry, I can always protest. Or maybe create another new beginning and do better on my own.