‘Mad Men’ recap: “A Day’s Work”

Last week’s episode of Mad Men was so dreary and depressing, I was worried about this episode, but despite some issues with Peggy’s plot, I thought this was a great episode, with some really funny moments as well as touching scenes. “A Day’s Work” does some interesting critique of race, and an examination of white male privilege (as well as just plain old white privilege). Also, the cast’s strongest performer, Kiernan Shipka returns as Sally Draper, who has some great interactions with Don.

Last week I complained about the show’s treatment of Joan and Peggy. I get that despite the changes in gender politics, things haven’t turned completely around, and so the women still have to put up with a lot of crap. Unfortunately, the writers are starting to fall into that dangerous territory of making successful businesswomen into desperate, isolated shrews who cannot have successful relationships outside of work. And with Peggy, we see a character who continuously feels personal pangs, despite her progress in her career (and even her work life isn’t peachy). In this episode, Peggy has morphed into season 2 Pete Campbell. She’s petulant woman-child who throws tantrums because she’s unhappy, and like Pete, she drags her coworkers down with her.

In “A Day’s Work” it’s Shirley, Peggy’s secretary who unfortunately becomes collateral damage. It’s Valentine’s Day, and Peggy’s depressed because she’s still smarting from her breakup with Ted. I get that she’s upset about Ted – it was an awful breakup, where Ted, the man, gets to call all the shots, while Peggy just has to grin and bear it. But she doesn’t. Instead she lashes out childishly. When Peggy strides into the office she spies a bouquet of beautiful red roses in a crystal vase on Shirley’s desk. Peeved that Ted sent her roses, she grabs the flowers and marches into her office, despite Shirley’s subtle protests. We later find out in a tete-a-tete between Shirley and Dawn that the flowers were from Shirley’s fiancé.

So why doesn’t Shirley set Peggy straight? A lot of folks asked that – but I get why Shirley was reticent. Not only is Peggy’s current mental state rather fragile and mercurial, but despite the Civil Rights Act, race still plays out in a stratified way, creating an us versus them environment. In a funny scene, Dawn and Shirley share an in-joke at the coffee machine, where they bitch about their bosses, and jokingly refer to each other by the other’s name – so Dawn’s Shirley, and Shirley’s Dawn – in a neat “all black people look the same” kind of way – except the racial politics get very serious, and Joan, of all people, is caught in the mess.

But more on the race issues later. Back to Peggy. Thinking that Ted sent her the flowers, she goes through the day not working (an ironic take on the episode’s title), going back and forth, coming up with scathing comebacks to bruise Ted’s heart. In a fit of pique, she dumps the flowers back on Shirley’s desk, but quickly changes her mind and orders the flowers to be trashed. It’s then that Shirley finally tells Peggy the truth: the flowers are from her fiancé. Peggy has a meltdown worthy of Pete’s “Not great, Bob!” or when he skidded down the stairs in a hissy fit. Peggy accuses Shirley of “embarrassing” her and all of her ugly, jealous resentment spills over – and yeah, it looks all very ugly.

But here’s the thing: the whole time Peggy was acting like an appallingly spoiled child, I thought to myself “What the hell happened to our Miss Olsen?” More than any other character – with the exception of Don – Peggy had to work her ass off to prove herself. And her personal life was pretty dark and disturbing – and often very sad. But Peggy was never pathetic (even when she was pregnant and gaining weight at an alarming rate, and being chastised by a boyishly judgmental parish priest). But Peggy’s pathetic now. And Matthew Weiner and company need to figure out how to pull Peggy out of the unappealing corner they’ve backed her into; I’m not arguing for a superhero moment where Peggy rips open her dress shirt to reveal a red “S” – but this being stuck in the metaphorical tar. While Elisabeth Moss plays the hell out of her scenes, she represents the lowest points of the episode.

And speaking of Pete – last week Pete looked like an Angelino, right at home. I was shocked. Was our Pete Campbell finally a happy, fulfilled individual? Nope. This week, Pete feels that being flung away in Los Angeles was akin to purgatory. He’s continuously undercut by the partners in the New York office. In scenes that are almost comfortably familiar, Pete charges through the L.A. offices lashing out a nonplussed Ted (and by the way, the L.A. office is really ugly).

But it’s not just Pete that’s feeling pushed around by the partners: it’s obvious that Roger’s also being marginalized. His opinion meant nothing during a terrible conference call, and he was continuously shot down by Jim Cutler, who in the elevator vaguely threatened him by saying he hoped they wouldn’t be adversaries. And unlike Don, Lou doesn’t “get” Roger and they can’t share a joke.

In the midst of all this office turmoil, both Joan and Dawn manage to make some important strides. Even though she has some accounts and she’s a partner, she’s also acting as head of personnel and has to deal with Peggy’s and Lou’s tantrums as they both want to move their secretaries around. Joan is pissed and understandably so – she has to treat these women like chess pawns and she feels put out, especially since these changes are namely due to Peggy’s bad attitude and Lou’s unveiled racism. And if that wasn’t bad enough when she dropped Dawn at the receptionist desk in front, Bert “suggested” that having a black receptionist in the front would look bad.

Jim comes to the rescue, though – seeing how abused Joan feels, he suggests that she move upstairs with the other account execs and concentrate on just one job – and Dawn gets her own office, Joan’s old space. It’s a great moment because Dawn proves herself to be both a great secretary and a wily crafty lady. Like Peggy and Joan, she deserves the office and I’m hoping that the writers plump up Dawn’s role.

But the central story of this episode is Don and Sally. Don’s out of work and he’s starting to become a sad couch potato, slamming Ritz crackers and watching Little Rascals and That Girl. It’s interesting that the latter is shown because the sitcom was all about a young woman’s asserting herself in her world. In Mad Men, the women were often punished for striking out, yet Don was watching a TV show about an adorable, nonthreatening feminist icon.  Don’s life in New York without Megan is terrible – not only does his balcony door not shut, but he’s also got roaches. He’s meeting with other ad agencies for fruitless lunches because he’s contractually obligated to stay away from other agencies.

But worst of all, he doesn’t tell Megan or Sally of his forced suspension. So when Sally appears at the office after ditching her friends when playing hooky from school, she’s shocked by a condescending Lou who dismisses her curtly. Don finds his daughter and it’s clear that she hasn’t forgiven him for sleeping with his neighbor. He offers to take her back to school, and learns from a surreptitious call from Dawn that Sally stopped by. So Don knows that Sally knows that he’s no longer at the office. But they go through the motions until he  finally accuses her of being just like Betty, letting him lie to her – and who but Don can find fault with someone else because he lied to them. Sally’s every bit Don’s equal and she shoots back that it’s more embarrassing for her to catch him in a lie than to be lied to. This fight is some pretty heavy stuff – Don’s rarely challenged as an equal, especially by one of the women in his life, so it’s interesting that it’s Sally that does so.

Their tense ride leads to a thawing lunch at a diner, where Don finally does something novel and new: he tells the truth. Even though Don’s BS detector is always functioning, he’s been known to shovel the bull manure liberally himself – and he probably forgets that Sally’s smart. Really smart. She’s a combination of both the best and worst parts of Betty and Don – she can be petty and mean (check out her droll line to her friends, “I’d stay [in school] until 1975 if it put Betty in the ground”), but she’s also inherited an innate and uncanny ability to suss out when someone is lying to her or when she’s being made a patsy – which is why it makes total sense that she and Grandpa Gene got along so well, because unlike her parents, he treated her like a human being, not simply a child.

When Mad Men ended last year Sally and Don faced a lot of truths – most of them ugly. She knew that her dad was a philanderer, and she also knew that he kept deep, dark secrets. Don also understood that his daughter wasn’t naive or wide-eyed, and that living with him (and Betty) had matured her much too quickly. As a result, Don had to learn that he would have to be upfront with his daughter and not try to play the role of “Father Knows Best” because obviously he’d be miscast. And it’s too late. Sally knows dad doesn’t know best. In fact, she knows that dad doesn’t know a whole lot right now.

But the takeaway from this episode is that Sally also knows that Don’s struggling and he’s treading, hoping not to drown. It isn’t as bad as the third season’s bachelor pad Lost Weekend sort of deal, but it’s close. And because he was honest (for once), she responded with warmth. When he drops Sally off at school, she leaves with a casual, “Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.” And Don was shocked. His face sort of slid down in a gap-mouthed wonder as he processed those three words that he never thought his daughter would ever say to him. As cynical as this show can be, this quick exchange was the best Valentine’s Day gift Don could’ve received. Validation. And the work that Jon Hamm and Kirenan Shipka do in this episode is nothing short of tremendous. Weiner was very lucky when he lucked upon those two actors because they’ve really figured out who their characters are: it’s also great to see Shipka dominate in scenes she’s sharing with a pro like Hamm. While not as great as his “The Suitcase” performance, this episode should guarantee the guy another Emmy nod (and if there was any justice, Shipka will be rewarded with an Emmy nomination herself for her fantastic work).

I liked this episode much more than I did last week’s because it shook some of the gloominess off. I do think that the expansion of Dawn’s role and Shirley’s role is good for the show, and I hope that like Sally, Dawn will graduate from minor/recurring role to supporting cast member. With Dawn we have another potential story arc, akin to Peggy’s, except of course, with the racial dimension which adds another interesting layer. The two black characters of note on the show are still treated a bit like characters from The Help, in that we know little of their personal lives, and they are pretty much defined by their relationships with white people.

It’s two episodes in and we still haven’t seen Betty. I don’t know how she’ll fit into this world anymore, and I’m not sure if there’s any room for her, as we’ve already had the cast members spread out so thin, across the country. In the sixth season, Betty went through a transformation – not only physical but emotional, and she ended the season on a high – I actually liked her again. Now, I’m not sure if the mature, likable Betty Francis is here to stay, but she was a fascinating antagonist for Don. Unlike Megan, Betty’s life was ruled by frustrated fury, and it was really cool to watch her lash out (though it was disturbing when she directed her outrage at her kids). It’ll be neat to see where the “new and improved” Betty fits into this fractured version of Mad Men.

 

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RuPaul’s puts together a fantastic show with ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 2′

I give RuPaul a hard time over some of her word choices when it comes to the trans community. I also find her support of drag/minstrel artist Shirley Q. Liquor a problem. That being said, I’m a fan of RuPaul – I think she’s an incredibly ingratiating and witty performer and a talented singer/entertainer. When she became a mainstream media celebrity in the early 1990s, she was extremely subversive, upending gender and race roles with her drag persona. I haven’t given her reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race a chance – but in light of all the controversy around the transphobic language that is reportedly on the show, I thought I’d give the show a chance and sped through the second season in a marathon binge of two nights. And even though I still maintain that anti-trans language is wrong, I have to admit, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a fantastic show, full of campy humor and some very intelligent and cutting wit from its star.

RuPaul’s Drag Race is a bit like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model. The contestants are but through various challenges in which they are asked to perform tasks and throw together great outfits and looks in a very limited amount of time. Then the queens are judged by a panel of experts which in season 2 includes Santino Rice, the reformed villain of Project Runway‘s second season, and fashion writer Merle Ginsberg, along with some really great, b-listy celebrity hosts, who add to the kitsch of the show (often the guests will somehow be tied to the theme of the show).

What’s great about RuPaul’s Drag Race is that it’s one of the few shows where there is such a large number of queer people of color – Asian, black, and Latino queer folks have been invisible on television, despite the LGBT community’s growing acceptance in the mainstream media. Also – and this is very important – many of the queens on the show are trying to transcend poverty. I know it sounds like I’m watching the show through a sociological or feminist lens, and that I should just be watching it as a fun, diverting bit of fluff – but when we’re dealing with groups as marginalized as queer folks of color, everything has some social relevance. As RuPaul herself once said, “Every time I bat my eyelashes, it’s a political statement.” The political is personal for these ladies, who overcome some heart-breaking adversity to be who they want to be and to achieve their goals.

I know some of you reading this review will think, whew, this is pretty heavy. And yeah, I can’t help but watch anything without dissecting it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t laugh and find the show ridiculously entertaining. Even with all the trappings of reality television, RuPaul’s Drag Race is the best of the lot.

The second season is a great introduction to the show (and the first season has yet to be released due to music licensing issues). The group of drag queens competing are wonderful, with some great standouts. Pandora Boxx is a breakout star – a kind and lovely performer who combines the ersatz glamour with a razor-sharp sense of humor. She was continually compared to comedy legend Goldie Hawn, and it makes sense – not only does Pandora look like Ms. Hawn, but she has a great act: beautiful, but hilarious. Because I look at a lot of drag queens as comediennes, I respond to the funnier ones more than with the glamazons, which is why along with Pandora Boxx, I also loved Jujubee, a Laotian-American drag queen who not only was funny but possessed a fierce intellect. And though a lot of her comedy was unintentional, Latina Jessica Wild (she was born in Puerto Rico) was a scene-stealing wonder, bringing to mind the cartoony, broad comedy of Sofia Vergara (and the two divas have the same accents). Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the funny drag queens that found the most mileage, but it was the more model-like beauties that prevailed. This is surprising because comedy is  such a large part of RuPaul’s act, and often when being judged personality was being raised.

And because this is reality TV and because we’re watching drag queens, there is drama. Like every reality show, there are villains – namely Raven and Tyra Sanchez. Raven is a hard-edged, viper-tongued beauty, whose vulnerability was well-hidden by the quartz-like armor she built up (a neat detail: when out of drag, Raven looked eerily like Joey Lawrence). And Tyra – billed “the other Tyra – channels the self-involved diva antics of Diana Ross at her worst. Happily ignoring the stank eye from her fellow queens, Tyra cared little about the feelings of others, and was gleefully self-centered – she must’ve been a nightmare to hang out with, but she made for great television.

As expected when watching a show about gay people, there are some moments of vunlerability, too. Most of these ladies have had some wretched backgrounds: Jujubee was abandoned by her mother at 15, Pandora Boxx attempted suicide, the late Sahara Davenport went through drug addiction, and Tyra was one of two drag queens who was also a father. I wish the show delved more into the issue of drag queens being parents: it’s not as rare an occurrence as many would think (I worked in an LGBT center and came across lots of drag kids who had kids of their own). These queens are dads (to sons), and issues of masculinity must come up – and I’d be very curious to see how they reconcile these two seemingly incongruous identities.

But maybe I’m expecting too much from a show that features puns like “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, Talent” (get it? I’ll give you a moment), or has challenges where the queens film a hixploitation commercial selling Disco vegetable shortening. But all of the groan-inducing yuks are purposeful and funny. What’s great about RuPaul’s Drag Race is how meta it is: it’s a weird blend of sincerity and irony. Winning a competition like this could change the life of one of these queens, so they do take the challenges seriously, but, there’s still a heavy dose of self-referential comedy.

The tattered, oh-so-slightly second-rate kitsch that is prevalent in drag performance, is proudly lampooned on the show – namely when it comes to the hilariously Love Boaty guests that judge: when a challenge uses award shows as a theme, RuPaul had a challenge: how can she get an Oscar-winner on the show’s budget: get Tatum O’Neill! When the queens have to do country & western burlesque, “Delta Dawn” warbler Tanya Tucker shows up. In a rock n roll challenge, the queens get coached by Berlin frontwoman, Terri Nunn. But not all of the guest judges are potential Dancing with the Stars contestants: comic greats Kathy Najimy and Kathy Griffin appear, as does punk rock giant Henry Rollins. And in a fantastic episode in which the queens were called on to drag out older gentlemen, Cloris Leachman and Debbie Reynolds were guesting, each trying to outbrass the other.

At this point, RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a cult pop hit, deservedly so. It’s also being credited with promoting LGBT rights to a larger audience – I’ll question that argument, as the show definitely feels like it’s preaching to a very specific (and flamboyant) choir. But for up-and-coming LGBTs, particularly, those of color, RuPaul’s Drag Race does provide a great image of fun, creativity, and wit – and that’s always a good thing.

Click here to buy RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 2 on DVD from amazon.com.

**quick note: as I’m not a regular watcher of the show, I didn’t know that the DVD set of season 2 does not contain a segment called “Untucked” which is the behind-the-scenes moments. For many, this omission is a deal-breaker. I still found the show hilarious, even without the segments.

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Why I’m not thrilled that Stephen Colbert is replacing Letterman

I love Stephen Colbert and I love Stephen Colbert. Let me explain: I think Stephen Colbert, comedian, actor and star/co-creator of the cult classic Strangers with Candy is fantastic, and I think Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report is a brilliant creation – one of the greatest alter-egos a comic has created (it should stand side-by-side with other great comedic characters like Chaplin’s the Tramp or Lucille Ball’s variation on the scatter-brained housewife).

Stephen Colbert 2 by David Shankbone.jpg

Photo: David Shankbone

But I wasn’t thrilled when I found out Colbert will be replacing David Letterman as host of the Late Show for a couple reasons:

1) I would mourn the end of The Colbert Report. It’s one of the best satires ever – it does the kind of political humor that SNL wishes it could. And because Colbert’s right-wing blowhard alias is so well done and so perfectly crafted, he sometimes confuses less-sophisticated viewers who believe that he’s an actual right-wing talking head. The real Stephen Colbert is a left-leaning liberal, but as Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, he shreds all political sides, but skewers the right beautifully.

So, obviously, Colbert would be a great host – that’s not something I’m worried about. But when Letterman announced his impending retirement, I was hoping that he’d be replaced by someone else. Someone female.

It’s time that network late night television has a female host. In TV history, few women had a chance to be a late night chat host on network television – Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes – are three names that come to mind, all of whom failed to find an audience as television hosts. And I know that lots of folks use these examples as reasons to not hire a woman to take over the Late Show desk. But let’s be real: lots of guys failed at being night time talks shows, too (Pat Sajak, Alan Thicke, Magic Johnson, Chevy Chase). So to simply hang the paucity of female hosts in late night on the failure of Goldberg, Rivers, and Sykes is a little silly and short-sighted.

And the most disappointing part is that there are loads of comediennes that would be great at hosting: Chelsea Handler who recently left the E! channel, Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Tig Notaro, Anjelah Johnson, Aisha Tyler (the sooner she ditches The Talk, the better)…the list goes on and on…

Like I said, Colbert’s going to do great, but it’d be nice that in the sea of Jimmys, Seth, Arsenio, Dave (for now), a lady host gets a chance to break up the boys club.

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‘The Big Bang Theory’ recap: “The Relationship Diremption”

Important information in "The Relationship Diremption" S7 E20It’s been more than a year since I last watched a new episode of The Big Bang Theory, and it’s a credit to the show’s syndication power, that I just dropped in on an episode last week, “The Relationship Diremption” and it’s like I never left. I’m not saying that the show didn’t progress with its characters, but I was able to catch up right away after the first few establishing scenes. The familiarity is a strength of the show which doesn’t ask much of its viewers: it’s solid escapist entertainment.

In “The Relationship Diremption” we string theory genius Sheldon question his work after Raj, Leonard, and Howard all celebrate breakthroughs in, well, something. I have to admit, when the show gets very sciency, it loses me – so when the guys were all geeked out about something to do with big bang theories (I’m guessing they were proven), I felt left out. So did Sheldon. His work is largely theoretical, so he has a sort of crisis of faith because he worries that all is life’s work is for naught because it’ll remain theoretical.

It’s an interesting thing to do with Sheldon, who at least in his work, feels impenetrable. He’s constantly dismissing Leonard’s and Howard’s work, but if it turns out that his work isn’t applicable to the real world, why do it? I like giving Sheldon some anxiety in his professional world – although the writers are only too willing to put him through shit in his personal life (more on that), he has a Teflon-like coating when it comes to his research

And I love that Sheldon turns to Penny for advice. I’ve always maintained that even though the cast has been expanded to accommodate for girlfriends (and the additions were great), I think the central relationship that needs to be protected and nurtured is the sibling-like friendship of Sheldon and Penny. Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting have a great chemistry and trade barbs with rapid-fire dexterity. Though Parsons works well with the whole cast, it’s with Cuoco-Sweeting that he truly shines.

So because Penny isn’t a scientist, she analogizes Sheldon’s issue in terms she can discuss: string theory is like a girlfriend, that Sheldon may need to break up with. In the course of his breakup, he gets drunk and wakes up the next day naked, with a geology book – the Kardashian of science. He also discovers that he drunk-dialed Stephen Hawking. All this is funny stuff, with Parsons doing a fine job playing drunk and then remorsefully hungover, but the writers lost a golden opportunity when they chose to have the Sheldon/Penny drinking scene happen off screen. There’s no real resolution, so it’ll be cool to see if this new professional setback is something that’ll plague Sheldon throughout the rest of the season.

This season seems to be about professional and personal setbacks, as Penny is still struggling as an actress. I think the show’s writers need to make a decision: either she makes it or she doesn’t, but she needs to grow and move on, too. While a funny and relatable character, Penny’s also becoming somewhat pathetic in her single-minded way of looking at her career: it might be time for our girl to consider another career…

The other plot has Raj dating a girl. I was hoping Raj would come out (the show would benefit with a gay character), but I’m glad that the writers have abandoned his pathologically shy persona. He’s still sweet and endearing, but also an attractive adult. Best friend Howard wants to meet Raj’s new girl, Emily, and promises to be on his best behavior and not mercilessly tease Raj in front of Emily. Turns out Emily and Howard already met – in a terribly embarrassing circumstance where an ill Howard clogged Emily’s toilet and crept out of her window, leaving a shitty mess behind.

At this point in the show’s history, it’s enjoying some huge ratings – Friends mid-1990s level ratings. I also think it settled into a comfortable, if predictable groove. The cast is still great, though, but it’s hardly a challenging sitcom. Maybe it’s a victim of its massive success – I’ve always said that the show was pretty subversive until everybody and their mom started watching it. It then switched gears and became a romantic comedy, inevitably blanding it out a bit.

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‘Mad Men’ recap: “Time Zones”

DonDraperMaybe it’s just me, but it felt like forever when we last saw Mad Men, but a quick check reveals that it’s been less than a year since the sixth season’s finale, in which Don got the heave-ho after self-destructing during an ad pitch for Hershey’s. In the final season’s opener, “Time Zones” we’re looking at a new kind of Mad Men – it feels a bit like a spin-off or a reboot. A lot of the characters are scattered throughout the country and the viewers are meant to care about their lives, even if they no longer live in the offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners. And while I get why show runner Matthew Weiner chose to separate the crew, it does make it a little more difficult to keep interest in the characters as some get little screen time.

And while Mad Men is definitely not a comedy, it was always a show that I could rely on for some devastating wit, but I was a little surprised at how depressing “Time Zones” turned out to be – I was hoping for a lot of progression in the characters’ lives, and I was disappointed. The episode has three plots: Don’s in L.A. trying to save his sinking marriage to starlet, Megan; Joan is trying to assert herself as a business partner at the firm and save one of its big accounts; Peggy’s trying to ingratiate herself with her new boss. It’s interesting that the first episode features the three in leading roles because their characters go through major changes in the last season, and yet where they are in season 7 is completely different than what I expected.

PeggyI’ll explain. When Don was let go, I assumed that Peggy would ascend to his throne. After all, she deserves his job. She’s brilliant like he, but she doesn’t have his self-destructive qualities. So it comes as a bit of a letdown that instead of getting the promotion, she’s now working under Lou Avery. At the end of last season, Weiner and company allowed us to believe that maybe Peggy’s would’ve become creative director when she sat at  Don’s desk at the end of the sixth season finale. Instead, she’s forced to smile and play nice with Lou who is a patronizing dimwit who sees Peggy as merely a girl copywriter. Unlike Don, Lou doesn’t see Peggy’s genius, and instead dismisses her. When she comes to Lou with a great idea for Accutron (which she got from Freddy Rumsen – more on that in a bit), he doesn’t bite. And Peggy doesn’t do herself any favors with the new chief by pushing and pushing – at one point he even levels with her by saying he’s “immune” to her charms. All this makes Peggy angry and frustrated – and her personal life is shit, too – Ted’s in L.A., but visiting New York, and is clearly over their affair, but Peggy’s still smarting from the breakup. She’s also the landlord to a crappy building with a loud and obnoxious neighbor (who has a loud and obnoxious kid). It’s not surprising that when she’s alone at night, she crumbles into tears on the floor.

Like Peggy, Joan’s also continuously banging her head on the glass ceiling, which seemed to have been lowered a few feet since she and Peggy made strides in their careers. Despite being a partner, she’s still treated like a secretary. Ken Cosgrove, sporting a nifty eye patch, is now head of accounts, and he’s drowning in the pressure of the job. He fobs off Butler Footwear’s marketing head, Wayne Barnes on Joan, because he feels it’s beneath him. Barnes is none to pleased about being passed on to a lady, and informs Mrs. Harris over drinks that Butler’s going to drop Sterling Cooper. Joan manages to get the guy to hold off on any decisions and hires a business school professor to play MBA Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle so she can salvage the account – when Barnes reneges on their agreement, Joan has to play hardball, using her knowhow to intimidate the little shit into agreeing to stay with Sterling Cooper. Of course, she doesn’t get praise or hosannas, and even she realizes that her work is merely a Band-Aid, but it does show that Joan, like Peggy, is far too good for the likes of the men at Sterling Cooper…

And while I understand that sexism was (and is) rampant in the business world, it was still a bit of a grind to see Peggy and Joan slapped down again, and treated like crap. I’m not asking for revisionist history, where the two join forces to mow down all the chauvinistic men in the office (they’d be left alone), but at the same time, I worry that the writers are starting to get one-note in how they treat the female protagonists on the show. The feminist critique in the show was always something that I struggled with – on the one hand, the show was very realistic in how it portrayed just how bad women had it – but there’s also a tendency to make women into victims on the show, and despite Joan and Peggy using their brains and talents (yes, I’m aware of how Joan became a partner, but still, the woman was the wiliest person in the office), we’re still treated to scenes where they’re dismissed because of their gender. The women are left to impotent fury or frustration – I’m hoping that this season will break up this theme a bit.

I mentioned Freddy when going over Peggy’s plot line because he appears in the show, pitching a great idea for Accutron. A really great idea. Suspiciously great. Turns out, Fred’s just a mouthpiece for Don, who’s using his old colleague to sell his ideas to agencies during his exile. While Freddy’s out pounding the pavement in the two men’s bizarre Madison Avenue take on Cyrano, Don is flying to L.A. to visit Megan, who is pursuing a career on television.

Los Angeles has always been an important presence on the show – it was where Don lost himself; but he also had Anna Draper in California, so it makes sense that L.A. will always loom. So Don flies to L.A., and meets up with Megan, in full late 60s fashion glory: huge, fake, black hair and huge, fake, black eyelashes. She lives in the hills in a gorgeous little cabin, creating a parallel life for herself that Don is peripheral, at best. Megan’s career as an actress will always remain a sour point with the two because it’s the kind of career that Don knows little about, and therefore he cannot assert himself as fully as he did when Megan showed promise as a copywriter. There’s also the potential of Megan becoming successful and outgrowing her role as Don’s missus. I doubt the last point though, because for some reason, I don’t think Megan’s destined for Jane Fonda-esque fame – at best, I see her as being a Sheree North/Dyan Cannon level star. There’s little evidence to her talent, and it still feels like Megan’s coasting on her great looks. But because Don’s an outsider to the movie business, he’s an outsider to Megan’s life.

MeganDraperDuring their first few nights together, they feel awkward and stilting with each other – like they just met on a blind date. He doesn’t understand her new life, and when he tries to insert himself – by buying her an expensive TV – she finds the gift inappropriate and showy. When flying back to New York, Don sits next to a gorgeous widow (a cameoing Neve Campbell), who just got back from sprinkling her late husband’s ashes in Disney Land (he wanted Pebble Beach, but she couldn’t manage to get it done there). The two hit it off, and predictably they start to flirt with each other. When Don asks how her husband dies, the woman implies that he died of alcohol-induced illness. We’re not looking at a parallel future Don/Megan, aren’t we? If Don doesn’t do something, will Megan be the one who will be flying in an airplane after scattering his ashes somewhere completely inappropriate? During the heart-to-heart, Don realizes he’s a terrible husband – he’s full of regret. Except we know that Don’s not above feeling remorse, so I don’t think this is the start of a new improved Don, but merely another opportunity for him to indulge in some self-pity (Don’s big on self-pity).

Back at home, Don’s struggling with the sliding glass door to his balcony. It’s letting in cold air. And at the close of the episode, admitting defeat (and turning away from drink), Don sits, shivering, while Vanilla Fudge’s cover of the Supremes hit “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” blares on the soundtrack. The choice of song is a little heavy-handed – it’s about a lover who’s being strung along, and just wants to break free – but also it’s a psychedelic rock song, ushering the late 1960s, moving away from the space-age loungey early 60s that Mad Men is so identified with; as the show ends, it’ll be fascinating to see just how the 70s will make its mark on the characters.

RogerAside from Don, Peggy, and Joan, the only other character to get some significant time is Roger, whose life has taken a very bizarre turn. We know from his LSD-tripping episodes, that Roger isn’t averse to the counterculture, except it’s unclear just how embroiled he is in it – he now appears to be in some orgy cult, or at least attached himself to a polyamorous relationship. We see a naked Roger being jerked away in a filthy room full of naked bodies as he takes a call from his newly-repentant daughter. Over Bloody Marys, she calmly forgives him for being such an asshat of a dad, with a suspicious serenity that makes me think that like daddy, Margaret Sterling has also hitched her wagon to a cult. It’s not a heart-warming scene of reconciliation – Margaret’s pretty smug and self-satisfied, while Roger is understandably put out by her attitude. So by the end of “Time Zones” I got the feeling that pretty much everyone has had life kick them in the teeth.

PeteThe only character that seems content is Pete, who loves L.A. When Don and Pete meet for lunch, he strides in, wearing a baby blue polo, and sweater tied over his shoulders, and hugs Don, instead of offering him a manly handshake. And if that’s not enough, he’s flirting with his real estate agent, who looks like Betty’s doppelgänger. Speaking of Betty – the former Mrs. Draper was not featured in the show, and neither was Sally – which is a shame, as she is my favorite character on the show, and both she and Don have some serious moving on to do. It’s clear from oh-so slight wear and tear on the writing that Weiner is smart to end his show soon. Some of the creative spark has been leaked out, and it feels as if the characters’ individual arcs will be wrapped up soon. “Time Zones” wasn’t the best opener of Mad Men but it did to its job well: introducing the last act.

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Miranda Hart is a bright and shining star on her tailor-made vehicle ‘Miranda’

British comedienne Miranda Hart is a find – a real comedic wonder. A tall, somewhat gangly performer, she uses her imposing height to her advantage, creating a hilariously awkward and clumsy character. In her tailor-made sitcom vehicle, Miranda, Hart plays a fictional version of herself – a giggly woman-child who tries to go through life having the most fun possible, despite the consternation of those around her.

Based on Hart’s radio show, Miranda’s Joke Shop, Miranda is set in a joke store Miranda runs with her best friend Stevie (Sarah Hadland). Though Miranda is the owner, she doesn’t have a head for business, and would be bankrupt if it wasn’t for Stevie’s more ambitious and competent personality. And because Stevie and Miranda are the only employees, they treat the shop like a second home, often spending hours gossiping, playing with the merchandise, and taking part in slapsticky hijinks.

Image for Series 3

Aside from the shop, most of the action either takes place in Miranda’s flat, or the neighborhood restaurant, where the handsome chef, Gary (Tom Ellis) works. Gary and Miranda have an on-again-off-again flirtship, that sends Miranda into convulsive giggles and often is the catalyst for most of her humiliated, sitcommy predicaments. On hand are also Miranda’s snobby mother Penny (Patricia Hodge) and Miranda’s snooty college pal, Tilly (Sally Phillips).

When watching Miranda, I was struck at just how old-fashioned the show was. But it revels in its datedness. Instead of adopting a single-camera style of most contemporary sitcoms, Miranda is filmed in front of an audience, which responds with souped up enthusiasm for every one of Miranda’s many pratfalls. There are also running jokes and catch phrases like Penny’s dismissive “such fun!” when she wants to avoid confrontation, Tilly’s distracted “bear with” when she interrupts social situations by checking her text messages,Heather, Stevie and Gary or Stevie’s warbling of Heather Small’s “Proud” to draw inspiration. So quaint is Hart’s love for 70s British sitcoms, that when the credits run at the end of each episode, the actors break character to mug and wave to the camera, to the cheers of the audience members.

Though Miranda is a British show, there’s little of the expected sophistication that American audiences might anticipate. Instead, Miranda could be a mid 1990s ABC sitcom, if every spoke with different accents. And though Hart is the star and head writer, she’s very generous to her costars, which is wise because she’s surrounding by an admirable group of actors, most notably Hodge and (especially) Phillips, who are standouts. The two comedic actresses play up the class stratification of British society, but are deliriously funny. The performances are broad, to be sure – but are energetic and full of fun.

Love you and leave youAnd as the star, Hart is charming and appealing. She plays up her everywoman persona, often breaking the fourth wall to give voice to the outsider, commenting on the sometimes-incredible situations Miranda and her crew find themselves in. The meta-comedy elevates Miranda from just a pleasant sitcom to something smarter and more interesting: it’s not a spoof (there’s not even a trace of irony in the show). Instead, it’s as if we’ve been invited to a playdate with some brilliantly funny people. And there are some plot arcs to follow, which are good – the will they/won’t they drama of Gary and Miranda offers some solid conflict, but really the plots are just sound foundation for some ridiculously enjoyable comedy by a peerless ensemble.

Click here to buy Miranda – Series 1-3 on amazon.com.

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Trio of 80′s pop icons return with new releases: Boy George, Lisa Stansfield, Sheila E.

Boy George, Lisa Stansfield, and Sheila E. all released albums in the last few months after some time of either inactivity or little press or fanfare. To say that George, Stansfield or Sheila E. were unemployed is not accurate: Boy George has developed a great side gig as a respected DJ and still puts out dance singles; Sheila E. on the other hand has become a highly sought-after session drummer, and even toured with Ringo Starr; Stansfield, on the other hand, dropped out of pop music and made sporadic appearances throughout the late 2000s as an actress. Still, even though no one could accuse the three of being lazy, it isn’t like their music was blowing up the pop charts. And though none of the records will restore their sales, they do show that even past their prime they can still make some great music.

At the height of their careers, Boy George, Lisa Stansfield, and Sheila E. were celebrated for their dance-pop records. Dance music now is much different, and instead of aping the current synth-driven sounds of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, they all decide to craft music that isn’t necessarily directed to the dance floor.

Stylistically, Boy George makes the biggest departure with This Is What I Do, his first studio album in almost two decades (not counting compilations and occasional guest spots on other artists’ records). What’s surprising is how much his voice changed – it’s much thicker and huskier now, with an appealing rasp. And even though there are moments when he strains to hit notes (his upper register has gotten pretty tight), his more-limited voice adds gravitas and poignancy.

Those hoping for thumping will be disappointed: This Is What I Do is a collection of reggae-inflected ballads and guitar-based pop. The lower-fi setting compliments the singer’s bluesy vocals. I’ve always maintained that Boy George is one of the finest blue-eyed soul singers of his generation. The issue was his image often overshadowed his estimable talents. But on these relatively stripped down songs, his now-throaty voice is allowed to shine. The problem is that even though the album is solid, it’s somewhat mundane and monotonous, and the songs tend to run into each other. It’s a shame that Boy George didn’t mix things up a bit – on his underrated 1995 album Cheapness & Beauty, he sang glammy rock numbers that stood side-by-side with country knee-slappers, and heart-stopping piano ballads. On This Is What I Do, he seems stuck in the guitar-heavy reggae-pop with little variation. Still, the songs are competently constructed, making for a solid set.

Like Boy George, Lisa Stansfield also showed that for great contemporary soul, one should look to the UK. And though her career has been reduced to her global smash “All Around the World,” she has been a consistent performer of soul-based dance pop. On Seven, her 8th LP (and first in 10 years), she shows that she’s aging gracefully, barely missing a step. Like Boy George’s new work, Seven also eschews the highly synthetic sounds of current dance-pop or R&B. Instead, she’s much more relaxed and funky -  most of the songs feel like grasps at 70′s pop-funk. The one true dance number “Can’t Dance” has shades of Chic or Patrice Rushen with its plucking guitar, thumbing bass and hand claps. It’s a shame that Stansfield abandoned the dance club totally because Seven would’ve benefitted with a little jolt of energy, and in her prime, Stansfield was one of the best dance-pop singers out there. Still, her voice is remarkable – supple and gloriously languid.

On her latest, modestly titled, Sheila E. Icon, the drummer-singer has put together her strongest LP since her excellent 1985 album Sheila E. in Romance 1600. A creative and innovative artist, she blends funk, pop, Latin pop, hip-hop, soul, dance – and instead of coming off as disorganized, the album is a sonic buffet – with something for every Sheila E. fan. And though she’s very much an artist in her own right, she’ll never escape the looming influence of Prince (he appears on the salsa-soul song “Leader of the Band”), and his purple fingerprints are all over this record – especially in the Minneapolis funk “I’ll Give You That.”

 Like many modern urban-pop records, Sheila E. Icon is littered with guest stars, but instead of merely being stunt casting, the featured performers are well-integrated in the music. Rap legend MC Lyte makes a welcome appearance (here’s hoping she’ll follow suit and put out a major label release soon, too). And fellow Prince protegé Eddie M also appears, as does neo-soul star Ledisi. But the most endearing guest star is Sheila E.’s own mother who appears on a home-made recording, duetting with her daughter on the standard “Now Is the Hour” – it doesn’t fit into the album, but it’s a lovely way to close out a great album.

It’s easy to think of Sheila E., Lisa Stansfield, and Boy George as has-beens – content to tour on nostalgia tours. But these new albums show that they still have staying power.

Click here to buy This Is What I Do by Boy George on amazon.com.

Click here to buy Seven by Lisa Stansfield on amazon.com.

Click here to buy Sheila E. Icon by Sheila E. on amazon.com.

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