‘Cristela’ deserves a second season, and Cristela Alonzo deserves a larger platform

ABC’s freshman sitcom Cristela had so-so ratings and decent critical reviews, but one thing that was acclaimed was its star: comedienne Cristela Alonzo. Alonzo plays Cristela Hernandez, a young woman who gets a much-coveted internship at a top Dallas law firm. Because it’s on ABC on Friday nights, Cristela is a mainstream, family-friendly sitcom, which has edges of blandness, but one thing is clear: Alonzo is a star, a bright star who deserves kudos for her charm, intelligence, and talent.

Cristela is television’s first sitcom that is written, produced, created, and starred by a Latina comedienne. This distinction is important because for too long Latino/a characters have either been invisible, marginalized, or told through the prism from white writers (take a gander at 70s black sitcoms to see all the white writers who were telling black people’s stories). With Cristela, Alonzo created a platform to give voice for a demographic that is too often ignored.

Is the show super zeitgeisty? Of course, not. It doesn’t have the doses of irony or is self-referential like a lot of popular sitcoms right now. Instead, it’s a standard sitcom with broad supporting characters and a studio audience that roars in approval whenever Alonzo lands a funny joke.

And despite it being in a situation as milquetoast as ABC Friday nights, Cristela manages to be subversive – it’s feminist and liberal, examining identity politics in palpable doses.

A few days ago, Alonzo wrote on her blog about the show’s uncertain future, writing “I want to be realistic and honest about things.  I’m not sure if the show is coming back. It worries me and not because I want to be on TV more. It worries me because I think this show gives a voice to people that haven’t been given a voice before.”

The best kind of TV is TV with a message – whether its socio-political or merely cultural, a show needs to say something. Alonzo’s obviously influenced by Roseanne Barr (who has a recurring role on Cristela). Barr chose television to impart her message of blue-collar politics, liberal ideology, feminism, and gay rights through her classic sitcom Roseanne. The show is a funny manifesto for Barr’s political conscious. I hope that Cristela allows for its creator/star to do the same. As the show (hopefully) grows and develops, Alonzo might be able to flex more creative muscle and make it even more explicitly political and personal.

As Alonzo pointed out, “This year, Cristela has managed to talk about topics that are difficult to make funny…but we managed to do it.  We talk about race, gender equality, differences in class.  How many other sitcoms do that?” That’s an important question to ask, because the answer is not many. Especially after the end of Parks and Recreation (arguably, the most feminist sitcom of the last twenty years), network TV has become a bit of a desert for a staunchly feminist comedy that talks about gender, class, money, and race. What Cristela does is make its viewers look at how messed up privilege is, and how difficult it is to transcend privilege – but it does so in a funny way.

Earlier this year, I gave Cristela a good-to-mixed review. I still stand by that review – though I will say, the show’s grown and gotten funnier. Alonzoa’s developed into a stronger actress and it feels as if her voice has become more prominent in the writing of the program. We need shows like Cristela and we need performers like Alonzo because without them, television becomes the equivalent of fast food: empty calories, fulfilling in the immediate, but without lasting value.

If Cristela does get canceled, I hope that Alonzo turns to cable for her next venture. Cable is always more willing to take on riskier projects (sad that an appealing and talented performer like Alonzo could still be seen as risky by some). With the freedom of cable, Alonzo could become even more strident in her comedy, which would be a blessing. We need funny ladies like Cristela Alonzo to skewer outdated gender roles and to destroy racial stereotypes.

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‘Mad Men’ Recap: “The Forecast” – it’s all about beauty

Proving that last week’s mediocrity was just a fluke, this week’s episode “The Forecast” was on par with some of Mad Men‘s most solid outings. Part of the reason that “The Forecast” worked is because there was no Diane – a draining character that didn’t push the show forward in any way. Another reason why this episode worked is because Kiernan Shipka and January Jones were heavily featured and Christina Hendricks was given a juicy plot for herself. As a move toward the end of the series, “The Forecast” performed several duties: one being jettisoning a peripheral character (poor Mathis, more on him later) and also bringing some nice foreshadowing on another (Sally), as well as bringing back a recurring character from years ago (it’s Glen!).

Beauty is a recurring theme in “The Forecast” – particularly how beauty affords privilege, but that privilege is often destructive if there’s little-to-no substance behind it; Don, Joan, Betty, and Sally have all used their respective beauty to advance forward, and in “The Forecast” each character has to confront just how tricky it is to put so much stock in something that’s merely an accident of birth.

Don, in particular, is put through the ringer because he just can’t seem to turn off his charm, no matter how smarmy it’s become – his looks, while still there, have ossified into a greasy cartoon. When Mathis asks Don for help after a notably disastrous pitch meeting that ended in Mathis cursing up a storm, Don gives him some really bad advice: open the meeting with some outrageous joke, which lands like a dud. Mathis angrily confronts Don, who defensively insists that Mathis should’ve thought up a joke of his own, and that’s when Mathis delivers the cutting truth: Don’s joke only worked because of Don’s flash and style. And honestly, even that is eroding as I’m not so sure that a 1970 Don would be able to pull off a joke like the one he spoon fed to Mathis. Don’s prodigious talent obviously is the most important ingredient to his success, but we cannot pretend that if Don Draper didn’t look like Jon Hamm, he would still have managed to pull off the fabulous double life with two gorgeous ex-wives, a successful career, and a string of gorgeous women that he bedded.

And Betty isn’t that much different. Because of the constricted times and her life choices, Betty’s beauty doesn’t give her as much financial or professional success as Don (though one could argue that her beauty did land her two wealthy husbands as well as a lucrative, if aborted modeling career), but it does give her a measure of power and, when she needs it, an ego-boost. Like Don, Betty isn’t above using her beauty to get that hit of self-confidence. When Glen comes back, the two characters’ shared history practically crackles, much to the annoyed chagrin of Sally. Betty isn’t above flirting with her daughter’s pal, but there are unintended consequences, when Glen reveals that he still harbors deep feelings for Betty.

And while Don, Betty, and to a lesser extent, Sally, seem almost toxic because of their looks, Joan manages to do something pretty daring and marvelous: she manages to balance both looks and substance. We can never forget that Joan used her beauty to get a high position at the agency, as well as, her pots of dough. But unlike Don, Joan doesn’t necessarily take her beauty for granted, nor does she feel like it’s her most potent weapon in her arsenal. That she took to being an ad executive and partner so easily and quickly is not surprising: Joan was always the sharpest at the office. Her beauty, in fact, was an albatross, because it’s often so distracting to the sexist idiots who drag their knuckles through the office, unable to reconcile beauty and brains.

So Joan’s life as a single working mother seems neatly arranged, until a chance meeting with a handsome(ish) guy named Richard, who stumbles into the L.A. office. Immediately there’s chemistry (though because this is Mad Men I was always waiting for something sinister and gross to happen), but Joan’s understandably cagey, ‘cuz she’s a mom, so Richard assumes she’s married. When he learns the truth, he gets scared off, which in turn devastates Joan because she’s becoming a cliche: the single working mom who can’t get a man. When she angrily shouts, “you’re ruining my life!” we don’t know if she’s yelling at her hippie babysitter or her baby Kevin. When Richard does pop up, unannounced, at the office, with flowers, Joan immediately lays out his deal: he wanted her to choose between him and her son. Chastised, he asks for another chance.

One thing I noticed about Joan – and again, this goes back to the theme of beauty – is that her beauty is a bit old-fashioned. She looks like Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield, when by the 70s, Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen were the role models of beauty. Curves and va-va-va-voom were replaced by boyishly flat bodies and California tans. It’s interesting that Richard – who is well preserved, though looks a little too Mr. Furley in his 70’s drag – is older than Joan. I’d be curious if Joan would be able to snag a younger guy. All of this reminded me of an episode in an earlier season, in which Betty decides to go back to modeling, and was hopelessly out-of-date with her Grace Kelly drag.

If it feels like I’m harping on beauty, it’s because it’s unavoidable in this episode. But other issues come up, including anti-war sentiment and the Vietnam War. When Glen returns, it isn’t just to catch up, but also to let Sally and Betty know that  he’s enlisted to go to Vietnam. It’s a disturbing scene because Sally reacts with a violent rage, while Betty falls back on her Pat Nixon resting face. Glen’s reasons for enlisting, though, are a little more complicated than “I love my country.” He genuinely feels that there’s something wrong with a disproportionate number of black men going to war, while he stays safely on the side. None of this placates Sally who unfairly reminds him that the kids he sees at the amusement park are the same age as the kids he’ll be killing in Vietnam; obviously, Sally’s reductive and cruel taunt comes out of concern and fear – she doesn’t want to see her friend die. She later calls to apologize, and is seen crying with Helen Bishop on the other line (I would’ve loved to see Helen Bishop – if we’re bringing back minor characters, why not the controversial Kennedy-loving divorcee?)

Betty’s views of war are caught up in her superficial patriotism. While Betty’s a great character, she’s not particularly deep, so she doesn’t really examine her feelings or motivations. So it’s easy for her to murmur some platitudes about Glen being brave and protecting his country, when it’s obvious that none of this sits well with her – but she doesn’t explore any of it, which is a shame (and kind of interesting in light of her interest in psychiatry). And so because Betty’s being a patriotic cliche, it’s understandable that Glenn also becomes a bit of a cliche: the brave soldier about to go to war, who wants just one last night with his girl. Except his girl in this case is Betty. It’s a disturbing moment when Glen proposes sex to Betty because he has thought about it for a long time, and was hoping that his enlistment would at least guarantee one night with Betty. Interestingly enough, it’s not his age, but her marriage that keeps them apart. Glen has always been a bit disturbing and sad, never more so when as a child, he offers a mittened hand in comfort to Betty, after she breaks down in tears in a parking lot. And like Sally, Betty’s unnerved by Glenn’s enlistment. It would be too much for Betty to become an anti-war protester herself, but in a telling moment, she confiscates a toy gun from Bobby and tosses it in the trash can.

Through all of this back and forth between Glenn and Betty, Sally has to watch in disgust. She’s then presented with a similar scenario in a Chinese restaurant right before she leaves on a cross country trip. Don’s being charming, oily Don, and is flirting with one of Sally’s more presumptuous girlfriends. Frankly, it’s disgusting, and I completely understood Sally’s revulsion at her parents – both are propping up their middle-aged egos by flirting with her friends. When she’s about to leave Sally spitefully tells Don that she hopes that once she grows up, she hopes she’ll never be like her parents. Again, an interesting wish because I always believed that Sally is Don and Betty – she took on some of their worst traits, including Betty’s petulance and pettiness as well as Don’s myopia and cruelty. She also inherited their looks, as Don points out, “You’re a very beautiful girl. It’s up to you to be more than that.” Don’s lecture had me saying, “Physician heal thyself.

With Don, though, his insecurity manifests itself in two ways: he either lays on the charm, thick and goo, or he strikes. He fires Mathis, and shits all over Peggy’s dreams, when confronted with his shortcomings. His exchange with Peggy is also all the more poignant because of the history the two share: she is Don Draper, but she isn’t nearly as destructive or riddled with self-loathing. In last week’s episode, Peggy lashed out at Joan, slut-shaming her, possibly masking hurt that men don’t ogle her the way they do the former Mrs. Harris. But what protects her from dissolving into a noxious mess like Don is that there is no question anymore that she is relevant and talented. She has charm, looks, intelligence, but because her charm and looks were overlooked, she was defined by a pluckiness and a brilliance. Earlier in the recap, I wrote Don wouldn’t have gone as far as he had without his looks and charm – the thing is, Peggy would have because her beauty was never going to be her defining asset. It sounds like I’m damning with faint praise and I’m not: Peggy (and Elisabeth Moss) is beautiful, gorgeous. But her character doesn’t have the kind of confidence, nor the personality to be Joan. So few notice just how beautiful she is. So even though Peggy is very beautiful, she always had to make sure she was more than that.

It feels like I wrote a lot more than usual because this episode had me thinking a lot. In the end, the image that I was left with is Don and Betty being like aged show horses – not ready for pasture, but definitely past their peak. For too long, Don relied on being the charming, handsome guy and for too long Betty relied on being the gorgeous lady. And though, the two are no where near losing their looks, they’re discovering that there’s a heavy price to pay for relying on charm and beauty.

Some random notes:

  • This was probably Kiernan Shipka’s final turn as Sally Draper – and she was predictably brilliant. Her way with one liners are perfection. I’m hoping this one performance will be enough to convince Emmy voters to give her at least a nomination.
  • So, John Slattery – is he drawing a full salary for his contribution to the show? If so, then he’s the president of the Fucking Lucky Club, because he does nothing.
  • A great quip: “I’m sorry, mother, this conversation is a little late—and so am I.” Ah, I’ll miss you most of all, Sally Draper.
  • Didn’t get to this in my recap, but Don is selling his gorgeous Manhattan apartment – and is having trouble because in last week’s episode, Megan left with all the furniture. I’ve been watching a lot of HGTV lately, so immediately I’m thinking he needs to stage the hell out of that place. And no, Mister Draper, dragging patio furniture into the living room does not count as staging.
  • I had hopes for Bobby Draper – last year, the writers gifted him with his own episode, but it doesn’t look like it’s meant to be.
  • I can’t believe there are only three episodes left…

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‘Mad Men’ Recap: “New Business”

So last night’s episode of Mad Men was one of the first that failed to capture my undivided attention. It was shockingly mediocre in its writing and execution, resulting in a novel experience when watching Mad Men: boredom. The plot dealt mainly with Don’s divorce from Megan. There was a cameo appearance by January Jones as Betty – but if you blinked you would’ve missed it, as well as, a walk on by Linda Cardelllini, and an always welcome Julia Ormond, who returns as Megan’s vindictive and acid-tongued mother.

Last week, Don and Megan had a decent heart-to-heart on the telephone, which confused me this week, because Megan in “New Business” is all fire and spite. She’s pissed at Don for “lying” to her and taking away the best years of her life. In an exchange Roger complains bitterly of his ex Jane who said the same thing, but Don smugly reminded Roger that Megan isn’t Joan. Well, in “New Business” it’s hard to tell the difference. Megan petulantly reminds Don that she needs money to move her things out of their apartment. And when she appears at her old digs, she brings her mean-spirited mother, Marie, as well as her dour and boring-as-hell sister. The three women bicker in a dizzying combo of French and English, and Marie’s just ready to belch out fire for the many sins of Don Draper. It all feels rather automatic and repetitive, though Ormond is solid, as usual.

Don, meanwhile, is courting Di, the comely waitress who bears a striking resemblance to the late Rachel Menkins. She meets him at his apartment after work for sex (“You know what you came here for,” Don said) and then the two shared stories – she initially lies about having only one daughter who died, when really she lost one daughter and left the other little girl with the father. She’s prompted to this revelation when she sees Sally’s room. When she admits that she lied to Don, he responded with a great “Already?” Other than that, the back story feels superfluous. The two later meet after Don pays off Megan (more on that later), and she swats away any of  his attempts at a relationship – which makes sense because what the hell, he’s only after her because she looks like Rachel. Di acts a cipher in Don’s life and as a cipher on the show – and because Mad Men purportedly speaks out on gender inequality and misogyny, the Di character doesn’t still well with me (and we don’t have a whole lot of time to figure her out, because, as AMC helpfully reminds us, we’re only four episodes away from the series finale).

But back to Megan’s big windfall. When Di and Don are in bed together, Megan calls to warn him that she’s coming with her army of movers. He and Di skedaddle, which makes for a lot of hurt and awkward feelings. When Megan sweeps in with her mom, all Marie can grouse about is how shitty Don is. It’s not that I disagree, but really? Can’t she be a supportive mother for a hot second? And what’s with Megan’s sad sack of a sister? All of this Gallic family drama feels very high school production, and the script writer’s choice of see-sawing back and forth from French to English is a really bad one (it’s distracting, especially when Marie will then spit something out in heavily-accented English). When Megan leaves for a lunch with Harry Crane (oh, yeah – more on that in a second), Marie is so filled with rage and fury she packs up the apartment whole – all of Don’s furniture, as well and gets it moved. Because Megan didn’t leave enough money for the extra stuff, Marie calls on Roger to swing by with the cash – he does, and the two predictably have sex. Again, nothing new or interesting (though, I love, love, love Megan’s “What the fuck?” when she stomps into an empty apartment).

Because Don realized that Di was put out when he shooed her out of his apartment, he understood that he couldn’t continue battling with Megan. It’s a different situation than his and Betty’s because there were no kids around, and he’s richer now (though he tries to cry poor when Megan shook him down for moving expenses). In the aforementioned lawyer’s office, Megan was throwing a nasty tantrum (though she looked amazing – seriously, the wardrobe, makeup, and hair folks suited/booted Megan beautifully). Don’s tired and exhausted (in fact he looks it). So to end it all, he writes out a check for a cool $1 million. Obviously, Megan is initially wary, but agrees to Don’s payout and leaves a millionaire.

But the whole episode isn’t a victor for Megan: read, her lunch with Harry. I always liked Harry until he started feeling his oats. Then he got as gross and anti-woman as all the other Mad Men. So, during lunch, Megan is angling for Harry to connect her with some Hollywood agents. For some reason, we’re led to believe that Megan’s becoming a has-been. Harry, on the other hand, does this really gross, really inept attempt at a casting couch moment, which sends Megan (rightly) marching out of their lunch. Realizing that he’ll look like a dick, he rushes to Don’s office and tries the old “bitches be crazy” routine – which doesn’t work. But Don doesn’t really believe Harry, and it looks like he doesn’t really care. And when Megan finds Marie and Roger hurryingly zip themselves up after their yucky tryst, her world is turned all kinds of upside down.

While all this nonsense is happening, Peggy and Stan have their own hurdle: a famous photographer called Pima Ryan (a really in over her head Mimi Rogers), who is doing an ad campaign, much to Stan’s chagrin. Pima is done up in Annie Hall drag, and saunters around, purring her lines, so we know she’s going to be sexy. She manages to seduce Stan who sees her as a threat, but then, to get her way, Pima also tries to seduce Peggy. It doesn’t work, and Peggy quickly decides that Pima’s not worth the trouble and that her “business turns out to be more advertising than art.” And when she reveals Pima’s overtures to  her, Stan reacts with almost-childish incredulity and marches away, mad. Again, none of this was all that interesting – Stan was too much of a peripheral character to suddenly spark interest in sympathy in his artistic frustrations.

I normally praise Mad Men to the sky, but “New Business” wasn’t very good. The writing of Megan was really loose and careless (from sad, yet caring soul to spiteful scold) and poor Jessica Paré isn’t up to the loose structure of what the character became. The problem with being paired with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper is that once the character’s done with the woman, she becomes a blurry, two-dimensional nothing (yeah, I’m sorry, but I’m looking at you, Betty Francis). And the folks behind Mad Men usually do a great job with guest casting (Julia Ormond, Harry Hamlin, Robert Morse, Talia Balsam, Linda Cardellini come to mind), but someone banged the pooch with Mimi Rogers whose pretty wooden. I’m hoping that this sub par episode is just an aberration and next week’s show will be a return to form.

Some random notes:

  • So Betty Draper is going to grad school to get her master’s in psychology. Nice. All those years of furiously smoking and kvetching about Don on that couch will pay off…
  • Where’s Sally?
  • Where’s Joan?
  • I don’t remember Dr. Rosen being such a sexist douche.
  • I wish Sylvia Rosen had more to say.

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Candice Bergen charms with ‘A Fine Romance’

Candice Bergen’s first volume of memoirs – Knock Wood – was published in 1984, a few years after she married director Louis Malle. Up to that point, she was primarily known as a model and sometimes-actress, as well as, the daughter of famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (and sister of his iconic dummy, Charlie McCarthy). Her career was fitful, with some success (an Oscar nomination for 1979’s Starting Over, a run at hosting Saturday Night Live), but for the most part, Bergen seemed like an ill-at-ease leading lady. A lot has happened in Bergen’s career and life in the 30 years that led up to her second autobiography, A Fine Romance. Her marriage to Malle ended with his death in 1995, she married real estate mogul/philanthropist Marshall Rose, and she emerged in the late 1980s as a brilliant and funny comedienne with the classic sitcom Murphy Brown, and in the 2000s had a second successful stint on Boston Legal. Bergen recounts these milestones as well as getting older in a charming, frank manner with a wry and droll voice.

Unlike most celebrity memoirs, A Fine Romance doesn’t really do dish. Famous people pop up – mostly in the peripheral. The bulk of the book is more on Bergen’s life and career. She’s self-effacing, almost to a fault, and doesn’t try to sweeten any details. She refreshingly clear-eyed about her career pre-Murphy, calling it “wispy, erratic” and “undistinguished.” She’s also honest about her celebrity status post-Murphy, admitting that she often will have to spell her name out to receptionists. There’s more than just modesty to her candor – she’s also aware of how Hollywood treats actresses of a “certain age.” Because Bergen’s acting career never seemed like an organic part of her, it doesn’t look like she’s terribly concerned if her place on the showbiz hierarchy has slipped.

Because of Murphy Brown, Boston Legal, and the string of shrew roles Bergen played in the past 15 years or so, readers may be surprised at how sentimental and traditional the actress really is. She cops to using baby talk at time with her daughter, and though feminism does have its place in A Fine Romance, Bergen doesn’t embrace the title or the ideology with militant force. She’s not a pushover, but she’s a bit old-fashioned in her values. What’s fascinating is Bergen’s first-hand account of what it was like for those six months back in 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle attacked Murphy Brown when the title character decided to become a single mother. Bergen quickly became the symbol of the uneasy mingling of politics and celebrity, appearing on covers of magazines and newspapers and being inserted in the mommy wars. Bergen’s position was that Quayle missed the mark and lost an opportunity to start a meaningful debate on families – though she’s far kinder to the former Veep than Murphy ever would be.

As the tile implies, much of the book covers Bergen’s relationships – with Malle and Rose. Malle and Bergen were married for 15 years. In A Fine Romance, Malle is a brilliant, sensitive, and at-times difficult man. It’s clear that Bergen loved the man, though she wasn’t blind to his faults, nor does she hide his insecurities or debits. Bergen’s career peak took place during her marriage, and she’s honest about how her sudden fame took a toll on the marriage – particularly because she would have to travel more than Malle hoped she would. His illness and death from lymphoma are also covered, and these passages are predictably sad. Bergen’s take on her late husband is that he was proud, so to have a disease systematically carve out his abilities and faculties makes for poignant reading. Bergen may have indulged in self-pity privately, but she doesn’t allow herself to do so on paper – as bad as she describes her memories, she always takes pains to remind the readers that she was fortunate, compared to a lot of other spouses of terminally-ill people.

The passages that detail Marshall Rose are lighter, though no less engaging. She writes of the growing pains her daughter Chloe had in accepting a stepfather, and she writes about the angst she felt toward her own stepchildren from her marriage to Malle (she opts out of inviting Malle’s children to her wedding to Rose, which she ruefully regrets). Because we’re reading about a very affluent woman, the family bonding takes place on exotic trips to ski resorts or places like Israel. None of this is boasting, but merely a part of Bergen’s world. And she doesn’t take her wealth for granted (there’s a chapter devoted to money and her gratitude for the Murphy millions she earned). Because her second marriage took place at a different time in Bergen’s life, the issues that she faced were quite distinct from when she was married the first time. One of the main things Bergen faced during her second marriage was aging – she suffered a minor stroke and some broken bones as well as weight gain (which she joyfully embraces).

Discussing aging and weight is rather brave for Bergen, a performer whose primary appeal is her looks. Despite being an accomplished comedienne, she has often been reduced to her beauty (though interestingly enough, Murphy Brown rarely made her beauty the point of the joke; though on Boston Legal, her beauty was a large part of her comedy). And she discusses the changes in her looks with a disarming frankness. She admits that she doesn’t look like she did before, and she does concede to some minor plastic surgery – but she’s refreshingly blase and not at all vain about her looks. And really, that is why Candice Bergen, the author, is so appealing. She takes on subjects like beauty, fame, money, success, family, love with a wry, perpetually-raised eyebrow and a bemused smirk which all make for a very fun and engaging read.

Click here to buy Candice Bergen’s A Fine Romance on amazon.com.

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‘Mad Men’ recap: “Severance”

 

Peggy Lee’s existentialist song “Is That All There Is?” bookends the premier of the second half of the final season of Mad Men. The song’s narrator speak-sings about how disappointing and pointless life can be, and how alcohol and dancing may be the only succor. It’s a fitting theme for “Severance” an episode that may be a bit underwhelming at first glance, but after repeated views proves to be one of the strongest in the show’s history.

And throughout the seven seasons, Mad Men‘s antihero Don Draper personified destructive ennui. In “Severence” Don’s feelings of self worth as well as satisfaction are put to the test. He realizes just how empty and sad his life is: two divorces and a string of failed affairs. Rachel Menken, Don’s first season tryst comes back – both in a dream and in death. It’s a terribly sad moment to learn that Rachel died because of all the women Don had affairs with, Rachel was the most appealing (and  yes, I’m including both Betty and Megan).

Rachel’s Judaism was a way for Don – he saw himself as an outsider in his world, and Rachel was constantly an outsider when she left the secure confines of her family’s department store. And though Don displayed a lot of the casual bigotry and antisemitism of the era, he managed to transcend his personal limitations and fall in love. Obviously, if he had married Rachel, he probably would’ve cheated on her and made her miserable, just as he did with Betty and Megan, which makes it all the more poignant that when Don stops by for Rachel’s memorial he sees that she forged a fulfilled life (and had two kids), while he remained – emotionally – at the same place. Rachel is also the second woman in Don’s life who dies during Mad Men‘s run – Anna Draper was the first, and it’s clear that these two departed women were the women he cared for the most.

But Rachel’s death doesn’t mean she’s absent from the episode. In fact she haunts the episode. Her presence is felt everywhere. When Don’s at the greasy spoon diner with Roger and some beautiful young women, he sees Rachel’s face in the overworked waitress, Di. Roger (sporting a hideous mustache) treats Di with contempt and throws a $100 bill. When Don returns, he and Di have a depressingly unerotic tryst in an alley, that seems to highlight just how little Don has evolved since the show’s start. Rachel also appears in Don’s dream as a model auditioning for a fur ad. Don used to sell furs, so the dream is a clever way of harking back to his former life; more than any other character on the show, Don had to reconstruct a new life for himself, and it’s interesting to see the tension that naturally springs up from living a lie. In a sense, Don’s a bit like Sal (remember Sal?)  because like Sal, Don was also forced into a closet. It’s too bad that Don’s experiences don’t lead him to sympathy and kindness – instead, he’s always on the verge of self-destruction.

 

But Mad Men isn’t just about Don. In fact, even though the show’s title refers to the men on Madison Avenue, it’s the women of Mad Men that often get the juicier story lines. Both Peggy and Joan are living examples of the progression of the feminist movement, even though their roads to financial and professional success was dotted with personal humiliation and devastating compromise. The two ladies are trying to help out Topaz’s executives overtake Hanes in selling discount pantyhose. Don suggests reaching out to department stores, which has Peggy and Joan face off with three of the most sexist clods on the planet. While Peggy’s virtually ignored, Joan is subjected to some of the most crass and vulgar double entendres in history. Now normally, Joan would simply cut them down to size with her sharp wit, but she’s at a disadvantage, so she simmers, while the guys make obvious boob and leg jokes. Both women ride the elevator in mutual disgust and self-loathing. Peggy makes the awful, awful, awful choice of blaming Joan for the guys’ behavior. Joan lashes out, basically calling Peggy ugly and plain. It’s an awful exchange, but what is so startling is how today the whole nasty episode feels – from the meeting with the asshats to the disgusting way Peggy victim-blamed (and slut-shamed) Joan, what Mad Men is showing is that even if the sexism and misogyny reaches almost-cartoonish heights, things aren’t all that different from today (think about it, how many conservative yahoos in the past two years have blamed rape victims for being raped). I wish Joan and Peggy bandied together to fight against the sexist establishment – and maybe that’ll come. Interestingly enough, the perceptible shift in women’s rights as well as gender roles hasn’t really taken hold on the show. Peggy and Joan succeeded but they’re not interested in bringing their sisters on board to social, financial, and professional parity. They’re in for themselves. That’s not a judgment – no one is obligated to be an activist. But the quick and easy way the two women turned on each other illustrates just how destructive and shaming sexism can be.

Possibly due to Peggy’s comment, Joan decides to march over for a shopping spree. As Peggy pointed out, Joan is “filthy rich” (interesting choice of words, given just what Joan did to get so rich), and she asserts her privilege after being humiliated. The only place where her privilege runs unchecked is in the department store, where she can afford expensive clothing. Like Don’s past, Joan’s comes rearing back, when the salesgirl recognizes her from when Joan was a salesgirl herself, after quitting the ad agency. And like Don, Joan does her best to dismiss and bury that past.

Peggy, on the other hand, is feeling a familiar sense of “Is that all there is?” like Don, because she’s achieved the professional goals she was working her ass off for, but she still wants something more. When she’s on a blind date with Mathis’ brother-in-law, Steve, she boasts of the exotic locales used for the ads, but realizes she doesn’t get to go to any of them. This realization sparks a futile desire to chuck it all and fly off to Paris. Drunk from her date (who just wants to have sex), she is intent on booking a flight for the City of Lights – but the next morning, reality and reason sets in, and she scuttles the idea  (which doesn’t sound like the worst idea in the world). Bitter and pissed, she mutters about Paris, “where margarine was invented.” Peggy was never going to fly to Paris – at her most spontaneous, she’s far too cautious and reasonable. Still, it was interesting to see her indulge in the less structured side, even if it was for an evening (and even if it was because she was tanked).

Finally, the title of the episode itself. Severance refers to the financial package dismissed employees receive. Ken Cosgrove, whose father-in-law recently retired – is fired after his services are no longer needed. It’s nothing personal – and Roger couldn’t be bothered. In fact, Ken’s expected to pass off his clients to Pete. Some people may be surprised at Roger’s obliviousness, but I’m not. Roger’s belief that Ken will be the good little soldier is exactly the reason why Roger’s time has passed. More so than Don, Roger’s a staggering dinosaur – quickly becoming irrelevant as the years pass by him; because he refuses to change or evolve with the times, he’s going to be increasingly left confused and nonplussed when things don’t neatly fall into place according to his wishes. In Roger’s mind, Ken was a dutiful and fortunate employee who benefited from years of experience under his tutelage. It would never occur to Roger that Ken would feel resentment or anger at his superiors. So when Ken does strike back, quitting the agency and joining Dow, becoming one of the firm’s biggest clients, he’s left with egg on his face. And Ken promises to be a very difficult client, ensuring that the slight will not be easily forgiven.

As Peggy Lee’s distinct voice asks, “Is that all there is?” we see Don left alone in the diner contemplating his life. He has been shaken to his core by Rachel’s death, but also by how much she lived and how different and unpredictable her life was when they were apart. Life went on without him. It’s an important lesson for Don to learn. Because he’s so self-centered, he often forgets that the women in his life – Betty, Megan, Sally, Peggy – they aren’t merely satellites that orbit him – and he’s always caught off guard when he’s confronted with the realization and knowledge that the women in his life aren’t there to be appendages to him. Don needs to make some major changes in his life, otherwise, he’s going to be left behind.

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Why I won’t apologize to bigots

So a gay woman apologized to the family that runs Walkerton, Indiana restaurant Memories Pizza for the gay left’s “intolerance.” One of Memories Pizza’s owner, Crystal O’Connor decided to let her fly her bigot flag high and announce to the media that gay customers are welcome to the restaurant, but that the restaurant would not cater gay weddings because Memories Pizza is a “Christian” establishment (was it baptized, I’m curious).

So, along with the rest of intolerant Indiana, O’Connor and Memories Pizza got a shit storm, including lots of pissed off gay folks who supposedly drove Memories to temporarily shut down. Before you cry tears for Memories, the company’s gotten a reported half million in donations as a result of the shutdown (who knew being a bigot was so lucrative? I’m in the wrong business).

So, on Brian Carey, a writer for Downtrend reported about a gay woman who reached out to O’Connor to apologize for the gay left’s horrible sin of being pissed off at discrimination. Carey’s article starts off with the wonderful, “Here’s proof positive that not all gay people are hateful, anti-Christian bigots.” Yup.

Obviously death threats are wrong and what this stupid law that Pence has to now fix proves is that Internet trolls and asshats come in all sexualities. The gay folks who have threatened business like Memories with violence are dicks and need to get their head checks.

However, I’m not apologizing for them because as a queer person I have no responsibility over my stupid brethren. Just as I hate when people look to Muslims to prostrate themselves over every act of terrorism, I’m not about to shoulder the responsibility of idiots who choose to act just as bad as the dum dums who support Indiana’s “freedom” of religion law.

But since we’re on the subject of apologizing, I’m waiting for Conservative Christians to apologize for Scott Esk, the Republican candidate for Oklahoma’s House of Representatives who “didn’t have a problem” if someone brought in legislation to kill gays (don’t worry, gays, Esk has no plans on doing this, though…whew).

Or how about Ted Cruz who has labeled equality as “radical?”

Or how about First Baptist Church pastor Clint Echols who compared gays to axe murderers?

Let’s be clear – the Right has been working to infringe on the rights of gays for years, couching this discrimination as a bid for religious freedom.

But the issue isn’t religious freedom because if in this weird bizarro world two gay guys decide they want pizza at their wedding and reach out to Memories Pizza, O’Connor won’t suddenly be forced to gay marry (let my position be clear: I’m against forced gay marriages). In fact, once she’s done with her job, she’s free to go on Facebook, Twitter, Instigram, etc., and lament about how she had to serve gay folks (poor lady).

You see, religious freedom is important but it goes both ways. I have to tolerate religious people and serve them too. I serve Christians, Jews, Buddhists all the time doing my work. Never once did I feel compelled to become a Christian – never once was my freedom to be an atheist threatened because I served Christians. And to be honest, I probably feel about Christianity similarly to the way a lot of these homophobes feel about the gay.

And to be honest, I kind of feel bad for Mike Pence. After all, it’s clear that he did this to score points with his conservative base. I don’t think Pence cares all that much about gay people. He signed this bill, not realizing how bad this backlash would be – it’s a bit sad to see him scramble to make himself look reasonable (after all, he’s probably running for president someday, and something like this doesn’t look good…I bet Hillary Clinton’s feeling mighty fine that all she has to worry about are emails).

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TV Land’s ‘Younger’ is a sign of great promise for the channel

Just a few years back, TV Land looked like a WPA for out of work actors. Given that Hot in Cleveland (which is ending its six year end this season) was a sizable hit, the channel started pulling former TV superstars and throwing them into hacky sitcoms. Watching some of TV Land’s original programming felt like jumping into a time machine and landing in mid 1990s network television.

So I have to be honest, I didn’t have high expectations for Younger, which was a mistake because judging from the first two episodes, it’s a charming, funny, and smart comedy. Moving away from the “live from a studio audience” mode of the other TV Land shows, the single-cam Younger owes more to Sex and the City – which makes all kinds of sense because one of its creators is Darren Star. Like Star’s classic HBO dramedy, Younger takes place in New York City, and features a cast of beautiful, fashion-forward women.

Besides being on TV Land, the other reason I was worried about Younger‘s chances is its premise: a middle-aged divorcee has trouble returning to the work force after years of raising a child, so she successfully passes herself off as a 26 year old. Despite the gimmicky (and questionable) plot, the show works well.

Broadway vet Sutton Foster is Liza, a 40-year-old single mother who is struggling with finding work after a financially disastrous divorce. Because of agism, Liza finds herself left behind, and unable to get a job. After being mistaken for a twentysomething at a bar, Liza lies that she’s in her mid-twenties, and gets a job, assisting publishing exec Diana (Miriam Shor).

Younger‘s pilot works well because Star manages to cram a lot in the 20 minutes, and none of it feels too forced. The jokes all land, and Star makes some great commentary about how society tosses off women who are over 30. It’s an important point to make, and Younger deserves all kinds of props for doing that. In TV Land’s other show Hot in Cleveland, agism is often trivialized by the show’s treating of the characters as comedic monsters. The tone in Younger is subtler and the poignancy isn’t marred by hokey jokes.

But in Younger, Liza’s problems – despite her privilege – are real. She has difficulties in trying to fold herself into the world of a twentysomething. At her publishing firm, she has an ally, junior editor, Kelsey (Hilary Duff). The two women forge a friendship that helps Liza figure out how to be a twentysomething in 2015 (there are lots of trendy references to social media and celebrities which may date the show in the future).

At home, Liza has wonderful support from her best friend, Maggie (the faaaaaabulous Debi Mazar). The two have a great relationship that is beautifully played by the two actresses. Mazar is a great character actress who deserves work like Younger that takes advantage of her sullen comic timing. Like Sex and the CityYounger is at its strongest when it examines female friendship, and Foster and Mazar have great chemistry. Foster also has great scenes with Duff, who has developed into a very good and appealing actress. Poor Shor is saddled with a one-note role that tries too hard to be Miranda Priestly, but the actress does what she can – hopefully as the show progresses, Diana will be allowed to be more than just a cartoon of female corporate power unhinged. In fact, the Diana character plays like a major regressive comment on how business and ambition is likely to turn women into corrosive and frightening shrews. In a show with the kind of feminist tone like Younger, such a choice is bewilderingly tone deaf.

As mentioned earlier, the show’s main problem is its reliance on pop culture trends and tropes – not always a smart way to go because fads often fad within a few months. But the show’s main message and point is so slyly served that viewers won’t feel as if they are being lectured – and that’s when comedy works at its best: when it’s teaching you something and you don’t realize you’re learning.

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