It’s been a week and I am still recovering from the excitement of the season finale of AMC’s Mad Men. In this column just a few weeks ago, before the finale or the extraordinary penultimate episode of the season that dealt directly with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I said that it would be “absolutely fascinating to see how Kennedy’s murder [would] impact the employees of Sterling Cooper,” noting that the tragedy “shook the entire world as it changed the lives of every American citizen old enough to realize what had happened.”
Sure enough, Mad Men creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner didn’t disappoint. Quite the opposite: He exceeded all expectations. Once that first Special Bulletin interrupted the daytime programming Harry had been monitoring (before he turned away to listen to Pete rant about career issues), everything about the everyday lives of virtually every character on the show was suddenly somewhat “off,” as if the world suddenly went out of sync. Weeks later, as depicted in the season finale, the lives of every character on the show had indeed been dramatically altered, whether by bitter divorce preparations (in the Draper home) or sweeping corporate changes (at Sterling Cooper, resulting in a mass exodus by almost all of the characters we have been following and the launch of a new agency in a room at the Pierre hotel).
I knew Weiner would see to it that life would not be the same for his characters after that fateful day in Dallas, but I never expected him to rip his entire canvas to shreds and begin putting the pieces back together in so compelling a way. Has there ever been a series as successful as Mad Men that has been subjected to so thorough a structural upheaval so early in its run? We now know for certain that it will never go the way of so many past dramas (important or otherwise) that have cannibalized themselves through relentless repetition. In other words, it will never be boring or predictable, no matter how long it runs. The only character I’m concerned about is Betty Draper, who will have no direct connection to the show’s primary narrative once she is divorced from Don and television’s most engrossing dysfunctional marriage is brought to a formal finish (this after a season that largely revolved around their endlessly fascinating relationship). What could possibly keep them connected, before, during or after the finality of a divorce? (A health crisis brought about by smoking, perhaps?) Regardless, Mad Men won’t resume until next summer, and it will be an eternity to wait.
There’s also a bit of a wait coming up for fans of ABC’s popcorn thriller V, which is scheduled for a three-month hiatus after it completes its current four-episode pod. Given the critical acclaim and strong ratings that greeted the arrival of this show I’m relatively certain the network will find a way to bring its sensationally slick Visitors back sooner rather than later. I’m hoping for a good long entertaining run, though I wonder how long the V writers can put off some kind of ultimate showdown between the aliens and the humans. Would mankind really be so easily duped on a long-term basis? (The Vampire Diaries, the cool new drama on The CW that distinguishes itself from the multiple youth-ensemble serials on that network by including vampires in its sexy mix, faces a similar problem. Exactly how long can devilish Damon continue feasting on residents in a small southern town before the F.B. I. and a cable news crew or two show up to investigate the growing body count? Diaries takes place in a very different world from HBO’s True Blood, in which vampirism has been globally acknowledged and accepted and supernatural shenanigans tantalize rather than terrify most people.)
Regardless, I cannot recall a drama series (on broadcast, basic cable or pay cable) that began life at so breathless a pace as V, which has within two one-hour episodes placed giant alien space vessels over 29 cities around the world, seen their occupants make peaceful contact with people in all countries, established the fact that these aliens have been secretly infiltrating all societies and cultures for years, revealed a rag-tag group of “good” aliens determined to stop the rest from doing whatever they plan to do to the people of earth, and introduced a handful of human characters caught up in this crisis from a number of different angles. This show isn’t perfect, but it’s more entertaining than ABC’s other new serialized media magnet, FlashForward. I hope it doesn’t burn itself out too soon.
Meanwhile, fans of Joss Whedon are reportedly in full meltdown over Fox’s decision to terminate its sci-fi serial Dollhouse so early in a sophomore season that it didn’t deserve in the first place. I have yet to hear or read an explanation of this show’s narrative baseline that doesn’t sound contrived and depraved. What must have seemed exciting on the page has been a great big icky bore on the screen. Whedon has been quoted as saying he isn’t sure what he’ll do next. I’d like to suggest a sequel to his Internet sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and an expanded commitment to Dark Horse Comics’ remarkably consistent Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a comic-book continuation of the much-missed Buffy television series that he oversees and which, after thirty issues, continues to evoke the tone and savvy emotional mix of the show. Buffy the television series ran for seven seasons. Buffy the comic book is accurately billed as Season 8. Whedon could do much worse than to stay with the ever-expanding story of Buffy, Xander, Willow, Dawn, Giles, Andrew, Faith and Oz as they continue to face down the big bads of their wild world.
And speaking of Dr. Horrible, did anyone notice the extraordinary vocal performance by Neil Patrick Harris as the villainous Music Meister in the recent episode of Cartoon Network’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold titled Mayhem of the Music Meister? (I had missed it myself until a friend recently brought it to my attention.) In the story, melodious arch-criminal Music Meister had heroes (Aquaman, Black Canary, Green Arrow) and villains (Joker, Two-Face, Grodd, Black Mantra, Clock King and others) alike under his control, making them all sing and dance as he orchestrated his sinister plans. Only Batman remained unaffected (thanks to special earplugs). The original music in this half-hour treat was almost as much fun as that in the now-legendary Buffy musical. This had been an amazing year for NPH. I wonder what else he will dazzle us with before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve?
Thinking ahead to the New Year, I hope we don’t have to wait that long for NBC to do something about its nightly hour of dead air, The Jay Leno Show. I’m on record as saying that the idea of a nightly talk and variety show with Leno as host is not necessarily a bad idea – but when I said that I was under the impression that The Jay Leno Show would closely resemble The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. There have been rumors that the former will finally be reworked to more closely resemble the latter, something I have advised NBC to do since before Jay Leno made its debut. Here are some ideas for the network to keep in mind. Leno’s humor and comedy bits and his big-name celebrity guests are all good, but everything else has to change. A more intimate, less cavernous studio setting would be a big help (something Leno insisted on when he redesigned the remains of Johnny Carson’s classic Tonight Show format three years after he took it over), bringing the audience and the band closer to Jay. The set overall is an eyesore that looks more like a sterile hotel lobby than the setting for what should be a lively entertainment program (never underestimate the power of an appealing backdrop), but assuming it can’t be completely redone, how about losing those big blue chairs in which Jay’s guests look so uncomfortable? Park him behind a desk and plunk his guests in a seat that doesn’t have them tugging at their clothes. Cut the strained segments starring unknown comedians, the tiresome Ten@Ten thing (we don’t need to watch Jay talk to a screen) and the deadly dull, ridiculously repetitive Green Car Challenge. And lose those shrubs that look like they were schlepped in from the nearest Home Depot and scattered about the stage. Small boxwoods and arborvitaes look fine in gardens but they look really stupid as set dressing behind movie and television stars.