Monday, April 30, 2012

Mad Men Season Five - Sisters (and Roger) Are Doin' It For Themselves

In September 1966, just as the Lovin' Spoonful's new album is set to "drop," Mad Men spent some time updating us on gender roles.  Like Season Four's The Beautiful Girls, this season's At The Codfish Ball tells a story largely through the eyes of the women of that time.  The set piece is a dinner hosted by the American Cancer Society that honors Don for (as Ginsberg called it) "the Letter" - Don's screw you to American Tobacco, his "I broke up with him, he didn't dump me" page length advertisement in The New York Times to get people talking about something other than the fact that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had just lost a client of 30 years.  

Megan's parents are in town, another couple of the apparent May/December type, who fuss and fight, only stopping to berate Megan for her lavish lifestyle (her dad is a communist, or socialist, or something, according to Don) or subtly compete for men's attention (her mom). Adding to the fun is the unexpected presence of Sally and Bobby, who were supposed to be with Grandma Pauline except she tripped over the extension cord to the phone in Sally's room and broke her ankle.  Of course, Sally is feeling pretty proud, both because "Blutto" landed on the disabled list, but also because she is getting accolades for her cool headed thinking while Pauline was squirming on the ground in pain.  Her reward?  A shopping trip with the generations Clavet, an attempt at the Nancy Sinatra look (complete with boots and make up, both nixed by Don), and an impromptu assignment as Roger's wing woman at the ACS dinner.  

The three generations housed under the Draper roof result in a light bulb moment for Megan, who comes up with a pitch for Heinz, just as Raymond Geiger is ready to jump ship to another agency.  At a dinner with the Cosgroves and the Geigers, Megan deftly feeds Don the pitch so he can take credit for its creation while embellishing the idea at key points to take advantage of Mrs. Geiger's fondness for Megan. The full court press works and Raymond, who has seemingly done everything to avoid saying "yes" to SCDP's work, finally capitulates. Megan's success is a double edged sword, as all things are when you are the boss's wife.  She switches from junior copywriter to Don's wife in the flash of a cab ride, but by the time the celebration ensues at work the next day, she appears deeply ambivalent about her achievement.  

Perhaps Megan's mixed feelings are because of her skepticism about her co-workers, who she describes as cynical, always smirking and not smiling.  Having bagged a client, she is not jumping for joy as Peggy expects she would be, and Peggy's comment that the experience of winning a client is as good as it gets at work leaves Megan empty.  Later on, she is pestered by her father, himself a failed academic who grasps for youth by seeking comfort in the arms of his graduate students, for giving up on her dreams (of what, we are not told, though we do know Megan moved to New York to be an actress).

Peggy is dealing with her own mixed societal messages.  She receives a breathless invitation from Abe to a nice dinner and confides in Joan, who indicates that men only do such things when a "proposal" is imminent.  Peggy lights up, taking Joan's advice to go shopping for a new dress and gets a proposal alright, one to live together, but not in marriage. All credit to Elizabeth Moss, whose reaction to Abe's idea is a mask of inscrutability.  The following day, Joan effortlessly shifts from June Cleaver to Gloria Steinem, congratulating Peggy on her "brave" decision to live with Abe without marriage while casually mentioning that the "paper" she has with Greg is less important than his "paper" with the U.S. Army. When Peggy invites her strict Catholic mother to dinner and tells her that she and Abe are now living together, she gets a stern (and predictable) dressing down about the perils of such an arrangement.  

At the end of the spectrum is young Sally, who is keeping in touch with an in-the-full-throes of puberty Glen and has already been exposed to divorce, dislocation and drugs (Seconal) in the last year.  Even at a young age, she is brimming with the self-confidence that signifies our teen years, and the attention she receives from Roger and others at the dinner does nothing to deflate her sense of self.  All of that comes crashing down when she excuses herself to go to the ladies room and walks in on Roger and Megan's mother in flagrante delicto, the older woman's head bobbing up and down in Roger's lap.  Asked by Glen during a call later that night how Manhattan is, her one word response is simply "dirty." She may think she's a mature young woman ready to use those white boots to her advantage, but when exposed to adulthood, her reaction is that of a child having another slice of her innocence destroyed. 

Of course, the men fare no better.  Megan's father is a neutered old man whose ambition is snuffed out and warns Don that like Megan, Sally will (as he put it in a hilarious misstep of French to English) "spread her legs and fly away." He is envious of Don's wealth, bitter at the lack of support he receives from his distant wife and openly mocks Pete, who cleverly puts Mr. Clavet in his place by feigning interest in his work only to end the conversation by explaining that faux flattery is what he (Pete) "does." Don too is cut off at the knees by Ken's father-in-law, a major player at Dow Chemical who, over drinks at the bar, tells Don that he is disliked by the heavy hitters who make up the board of directors of the ACS because his letter indicated disloyalty to a client, something that none of these masters of the universe can tolerate.  

Meanwhile, Roger's acid trip has seemingly turned him on to a new life perspective.  Instead of his pending second divorce making him shrivel deeper into the ball of misery and helplessness that has defined him in Season Five, Roger is reborn, connecting with first ex-wife Mona to get intelligence on the people he will meet at the codfish ball, shmoozing the executives at the party and embodying a looseness in his interaction with women that results in getting a blowie from Megan's mom.  

Of course, we know that Don believes people do not change, and Don himself is skeptical of Roger's newfound openness to the world around him.  The "table of sad" (h/t @thenewlolila) shot of Megan's parents (who are both deeply unsatisfied with one another), Megan and Don (who blow hot and cold) and Sally (scarred from witnessing such an overt sexual act) is more in keeping with the show's general theme of alienation and anomie.  Of equal interest is the lack of a true pivot point.  As a general matter, Mad Men tends to make its move to the second half of the season right about now, as they did in Season 2 (Don and Bobbi's affair exposed), Season 3 (Don and Suzanne begin their relationship) and Season 4 (The Suitcase/Summer Man), but last night's episode did not feel as meaningful.  There were no defining moments, but rather, another story of people slowly being destroyed by the things they do not have. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Obama Counter Factual

As the 2012 campaign gets started, some ink will be spilled about the President's record and progressives and liberals alike will squawk about the opportunities missed by the Obama Administration, particularly in the first two years of his term in office.  This is not a new phenomenon; indeed, way back in August 2010, Obama's then-Press Secretary Robert Gibbs bemoaned the "professional left" for being unsatisfied with the President's record. The general retort to any carping about the first two years of Obama's presidency focuses on some combination of Republican intransigence and the difficult situation the President inherited in seeking to give him a free pass for taking half, and more often, quarter, loaves when the times demanded more aggressive action.  

While there is some merit to this argument, it gives the President and his team more of a free pass than they deserve.  As reporting has leaked out and the discussions around the three major issues of the early part of the Obama presidency come into sharper relief, it is clear that when it came to economic recovery, health care and financial reform, the Administration staked out weak positions from which they quickly came off of in the interest of finding political compromise instead of moving aggressively with popular positions for fear of being on the receiving end of Republican fear mongering.  Unfortunately for the President, and more so "average" Americans who have suffered because of these bad decisions, the President was going to be on the receiving end of scathing attacks  by Republicans regardless of what he did; however, instead of doing what was right and needed, he opted for watered down bills that are already being attacked in court, in administrative agencies and are at risk of being defunded by Republicans in Congress.

Health Care.  Considering that the President's signature accomplishment is 5 conservative votes in the Supreme Court away from being struck down, you would think he passed a law that creates a single payer program or at least offered people a so-called "public option,"  what with all the carrying on about "socialized medicine" and what not. Of course, you would be wrong.  Instead, a Democratic President and his Democratic allies in Congress (not one Republican in the House or Senate voted for the Affordable Care Act) enacted a law to give health insurance companies 30 million new customers - and not voluntary customers, mandatory customers.  For that, companies like United Health and Aetna should be sending bouquets of thanks to the President.  

The President made a strategic decision to not replicate what President Clinton did - hand a bill to Congress fully baked and refuse to negotiate.  Instead, Obama reasoned that allowing Congress to direct the legislative process would result in greater ownership of the final bill.  Obama failed to appreciate two things: (1) the failure of Clinton's initiative was as much in the packaging as it was in the actual plan.  Had Clinton handed Congress a simpler plan less open to nit picking, the outcome may have been much different; and (2) while extending an olive branch to Congress in allowing it to take the lead in shaping the bill, at critical points along the way, the President failed to articulate a clear vision of what the bill should look like - which resulted in exactly the kind of "sausage making" that ordinary Americans deride.  

In the meantime, he conceded two of his biggest bargaining points before serious discussion of the bill started.  Although language was adopted that would have allowed the bill to be passed in the Senate through a process called "reconciliation," which skirts the filibuster, Obama stated early on that he would not use it (even though he eventually did) and second, the framing of the bill in the Senate never seriously maintained the "public option" even though studies show that the health plans "run" by the government - Medicare, Medicaid and VA - have far lower overhead costs than the private sector.  Moreover, ideas like allowing people nearing retirement age to "buy into" Medicare could have gone a long way to (ironically) mollifying health insurers who don't like having older people on their plans anyway because they are (generally) at greater risk of filing insurance claims and would have allowed for some of the cost containment reforms Obama initially pitched (but quickly jettisoned) to be attempted. 

Instead, the Affordable Care Act got bogged down in a serious legislative morass, was overly complicated and subject to ridicule for things like the so-called "Cornhusker Kickback" - a "pay off" to Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson that would have ensured his state received greater (and longer) Medicaid reimbursement from the federal government.  Although that provision was ultimately excised, the overall impression of the bill was highly negative, aided and abetted by the lockstep opposition of Republicans, hyperactive town hall events and the right wing smear machine, that churned out bogus claims about "death panels" and other foolishness. 

While Vice President Biden rightly called passage of the ACA, a "big fucking deal," the final bill was far less than it could have been had the President exercised affirmative leadership, leveraged the bully pulpit and taken a more active role in crafting the bill.  Instead of chasing elusive Republicans, who, like Lucy and the football with Charlie Brown, would flirt with offering some tepid support of health care reform only to walk away when the rubber met the road, an early and aggressive push for a public option as a driver of coverage and lower costs would have been useful.  Had Republicans pushed back, the simple response would have been  that we already have "government run" health care for nearly 100 million Americans in the form of Medicare, Medicaid and TriCare (Veterans).  These programs have lower overhead and administrative costs and deliver basic services more cheaply than the private sector (and without much of the confusion and paperwork).  Republicans were going to call anything Obama proposed "government run" health care anyway, so why not defend the value of it and take a stand?  

Ultimately, the President was left with defending an idea initially floated by the Heritage Foundation (which, unsurprisingly, didn't impress the Supreme Court), that still fails to cover roughly 20 million Americans and is now subject to a low level guerrilla war in Congress, which is constantly looking to trim appropriations for the myriad programs created under the ACA.  Maybe not such a big fucking deal after all.

The Economy.  You remember the economy, right?  That thing that almost disappeared about 2 months before the 2008 election.  Yeah, that.  
Within a month of Obama's inauguration, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $787 billion piece of legislation was passed as an emergency effort to right the economic ship.  ARRA was actually several bills in one. It provided a tax cut for people making less than $250,000, direct assistance to state and local government, infrastructure investment, unemployment aid and funding for things like education and renewable energy. Unfortunately, because the bill attempted to do so much, but was artificially capped at a number that Obama's own economists did not think was sufficient to meet the needs of the time, it was not as effective as it could have, or should have, been.  Further, in an effort to gain Republican support and appear bi-partisan, Obama allowed people like Susan Collins to trim parts of the bill in the Senate.  Ultimately, no House Republicans, and only 3 Senate Republicans (Collins, her Maine colleague Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter, who would switch parties later that year), voted for it.  When it turned out that the economic meltdown was more severe than initially thought, and unemployment went up, not down, Republicans eagerly pounced on the "stimulus bill" as a waste of taxpayer money even though many eagerly lobbied for funds appropriated under the law. 

By the time the full effect of the Recovery Act was felt and unemployment fell, it was too late, between a shaky recovery and the health care debacle, Democrats were swept out of office in November 2010.  A hastily negotiated extension of the Bush tax cuts for two years in exchange for a 13 month extension of unemployment insurance and some other sweeteners (including a reduction in the payroll tax workers pay for Social Security) pumped an additional $860 billion in stimulus into the economy but the public's perception of the ARRA was fixed - it failed (even though it did not.)  

Could things have been different?  Without question. Reporting in Ron Suskind's essential Confidence Men and elsewhere confirms that Obama was provided with alternatives for greater stimulus than he ultimately settled on and that the larger proposals were ruled out entirely for political purposes.  At the apex of Obama's popularity, the President was already shrinking from a fight (that might not have happened) and bowing to what his advisors determined was not politically expedient. Ironically, when you calculate the additional "stimulus" that Obama ended up negotiating with Republicans during the lame duck session at the end of 2010, you get to around $1.6 trillion, which was where some on his economic team (including incoming Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christina Romer) recommended in the first place.  The problem is that instead of going "big" in the first place, which could have put more money into things like infrastructure (as he finally did in the American Jobs Act, which has been DOA in Congress but for a small provision for veterans), direct aid to states and localities (who ended up laying off close to 1 million public sector employees after the ARRA ran out), and unemployment insurance, the overwhelming majority of the second "stimulus" passed by Congress went to tax cuts, and much of those to the wealthiest Americans who did not need them in the first place.  

Wall Street.  As reported in Confidence Men, just two months into his term, the President called a meeting of Wall Street executives to discuss the economy, their companies and, among other things, the public mood toward the financial industry.  Obama noted that his Administration was "the only thing between you and the pitchforks."  For having given his stamp of approval for TARP, not nationalizing CitiBank and giving a pass on financial regulation until well into his second year in office, Obama has gotten very little from Wall Street in return except their enmity.  Further, not only were Wall Street banks provided hundreds of billions of dollars in support through TARP, Bloomberg has reported that the Federal Reserve floated more than $7 trillion in loans to a wide assortment of banks and other financial institutions, some of which weren't even American. 

While smarter minds than me have debated the efficacy of bailing out the banks, the bottom line is it happened, but the enormous opportunity the President missed was in demanding certain things from the banks in return for this government largesse - specifically, the Obama Administration has done little to help struggling homeowners, even three plus years into his term.  No obligations were placed on banks to, for example, lower principal amounts or mandate lower interest rates for homeowners as a condition of their government bailouts.  By the time Obama got around to settling an ancillary mortgage meltdown issue (so-called "robo signing") that purportedly includes some relief for homeowners, banks were more than happy to take a modest financial hit in exchange for blanket immunity from prosecution.  

And this is where I think the greatest frustration with Obama lies.  For whatever else one can say about our nation, at its core, there is a belief in fairness and what happened on Wall Street offended most people's basic sense of fairness.  How could the people who created the problem be let off with few repercussions while the tens of millions who were affected by those decisions left to twist in the wind?  And as to Obama, as a Democrat, whose party has, for the last 75 years, stood as the defender of the middle class, how could he be so blind to the visceral suffering of those stuck with underwater mortgages, evaporated equity and the worst employment picture since the Great Depression and more importantly, why wasn't more done?   

Gibbs had it wrong when he complained about the "professional left."  What progressives and liberals find disappointing about Obama is the sense of opportunity missed, of accepting trade offs that favored the politically expedient over what was both good public policy and publicly popular.  Unfortunately, all of this is down the rabbit hole because even if Obama wins a second term, his moment has passed.  The stars aligned in 2008 to give him an enormous mandate that, had he taken advantage of to make critical investments in infrastructure, create truly universal health coverage and provide needed relief for homeowners struggling to make ends meet, may have resulted in Obama being the transformational President many hoped he would be (not to mention stymying the nascent Tea Party and the retaking of the House by Republicans in 2010.)  While I have no doubt many disaffected Democrats will still pull the lever for the President in November, a victory will feel less like the beginning of a new era so much as the beginning of the end of one that never truly was.  

Friday, April 27, 2012

Five Reasons You Are Not Listening To Howard Stern

The Howard Stern Show is ever evolving.  Spend a random afternoon listening to the “Shuffle” program that runs on Howard 101 and you will see how different the show has sounded over the years.  Unfortunately, at least in this listener’s opinion, the show is currently in a particularly fallow period of its existence.  Here’s why:

Too Much Wack Pack. Air time whores like Mariann from Brooklyn and Bobo are guaranteed show killers at this point because they serve only one function - gratuitously sucking up to Howard.  It’s neither fun nor funny, but rather, predictable and boring.  On the other hand, a few minutes with Eric the Midget can be interesting (emphasis on *a few*) but the inevitable devolution into “ack, ack” sound clips, Eric cursing others and Johnny Fratto plugs serves to extend segments that outlast their shelf life.  And don’t even get me started on Debbie the Pet Lady.  Worst. Wack Packer. Ever.

Fake Staff Fights.  Did you hear Jon Hein and Jason Kaplan are mad at each other?  What about Scott the Engineer?  He and Shuli have beef.  Don’t believe me?  Just tune in for a 45 minute segment that conveniently ends like a scripted wrestling match.  Back in the day, staff members had dramatic fights that led to them quitting the show (Fred), calling in sick (Robin), or assaulting other employees (Artie).  Now? They find the closest microphone (not Teddy) to kvetch into in an effort to sell tickets to the next “Block Party.” No thanks and please shut Ronnie up.

Reliance On Ancillary Programming. Did you hear what happened on The Wrap Up Show yesterday?  No? Don’t worry.  Howard will waste 30 minutes talking about it.  What about that great new segment of Fine Time on Howard TV?  Don’t get Howard TV? Wow, you suck, just ask Bobo.  You won’t hear Rachel’s penetrating interview with Ronnie the Limo Driver over which male staffer he would want to blow him if he was forced to get head from a guy. 

Guests?  They Have But A Few.  One of the casualties of the “reduced” schedule appears to be the show’s guest list, which is unfortunate because Howard has nailed interviews with Rachel Maddow and John Cusack within the past month.  Instead of moving the show toward a format that feels something like: A Block – AGT (more on that below); B Block – news update/fake staff fight; C Block – H101/HTV show plugging; and D Block – News, more interviews would be a major plus.

AGT.  I know, this is Howard’s life, we all tune in because he doesn’t give a fuck about what we, the listeners think, and AGT is no different than when he was (fill in the blank) – doing his movie, the Channel 9 show, moving from terrestrial to satellite radio, talking about his divorce (oops, gotcha!), blah blah blah.  But Hollywood Howie is the least interesting aspect of his persona and the slurping up to other celebrities he once flamed, shameless plugging of AGT and appearing on shows he regularly trashes (e.g., The View) has sell-out written all over it. 

Howard’s ad nauseum recitation of his AGT experience notwithstanding, it’s really of a piece to a larger whole – the elephant in the room that is his relationship with Sirius.  Obviously, we all know about his lawsuit (and recent loss) against Sirius, but what’s become much clearer in the wake of his re-signing to a “reduced” schedule is not that Howard did not want to work anymore (which he claimed was true while negotiations dragged out), but rather, that Sirius wanted him, but at a substantially reduced cost, which he agreed to while exploring other alternatives.  Howard’s contract stipulates that he provide somewhere around 110 shows a year for Sirius (the actual number was mentioned recently), which, even with 10 weeks of vacation, averages out to less than three shows a week.  In the meantime, he recouped some of the money he “lost” by signing with America’s Got Talent.  Once the show starts broadcasting next month, expect what few original radio shows Howard airs to be heavy on AGT recap.  As for those vacations he will be taking, I guess the “tapes team” will be earning their keep. Just remember kids, *this* is what the revolution looks like.

Monday, April 23, 2012

I'm Roger Sterling & I Want To Take LSD

Season 3's seventh episode, Seven Twenty-Three, told three stories of private shame and wanting through flashback.  For Betty, it was coming to terms with her desire for Henry Francis, for Peggy, it was the aftermath of having been wooed by Duck Phillips to join Gray but ended with the two having sex, and for Don, it was avoiding putting his signature on an employment contract that would formally tie him to Sterling Cooper. Ultimately, Bert Cooper cajoled Don into signing, by first reminding him that Bert knew his secret and then, appealing to his need to avoid being tied down, by subtly reminding him that "Don Draper" did not really exist, and after all, "who is signing this contract, anyway."

While not directly analogous, the aptly named Far Away Places shares many similarities in its narrative construct to that third season stunner.  Like Seven Twenty-Three, this episode tells three stories in one - Peggy, driving herself at work is again shot down by the executives from Heinz, Roger, in a half-hearted attempt to satisfy his second wife Jane, attends a pretentious dinner party hosted by professorial navel gazers, and Don alights to a literal "far away place," a long drive to Plattsburgh to visit Howard Johnson's, a potential client. In their own ways, each story takes its character to a far away place. 

Peggy's trip is both literal and metaphorical.  After getting into a fight with Abe, she must prepare for a second presentation to Heinz, a client that has already shot down her first idea for an advertising campaign.  When the same outcome occurs, Peggy attempts to "pull a Don Draper" and convince the executive of the wrongness of his decision and, after pushing too hard, gets herself kicked off the account.  She goes to a local movie theater where a stranger offers her marijuana and, after she accepts, sits next to her.  A few puffs later and Peggy shows her gratitude with a hand job.  Later, after learning that Ginsberg was born in a concentration camp (an assertion she questions (and talk about a far away place!)) she feels regret and invites Abe to her apartment. 

Drugs play a role in Roger's actual "trip," as he ingests LSD at a dinner party.  Initially, I thought that the idea of Roger Sterling taking acid might qualify for a "jump the shark" moment for Mad Men, but like other awkwardly presented scenes from this season such as Megan's Zou Bisou Bisou performance and Peggy's girl's night with Dawn, the execution minimized what on paper seemed ridiculous.  It was not overplayed, no pink elephants or overt hallucinations, but instead, a point of clarity reached with Jane, each confessing they were miserable and wanted a divorce. 

Meanwhile, Don and Megan take a road trip to upstate New York but argue bitterly in the Howard Johnson's restaurant, resulting in Don taking off in the car without her.  After calming down, he returns, but she is gone.  He is frantic and worried, circling the parking lot, loitering in the restaurant and finally, calling his mother-in-law to see if Megan has called.  When he finally gives up and goes home, she is there waiting but does not want him in the apartment.  He breaks the lock and chases her down, the two collapsing in a heap on the floor.  When she tells him that fights like this erode what they have between them, he melts, as she stands, he clings to her desperately and having been so fearful of losing her, weeps uncontrollably. The catharsis is brief.  Although they return to work the next day all smiles, Don is on the receiving end of a short, but stern lecture from Bert that Don has been neglecting his job, handing over his responsibilities to "that girl" (Peggy) who Bert suggests is not yet ready for that task while Don has been on "love leave." In other words, "get your shit together because we cannot have our copywriters mouthing off to Heinz executives and putting accounts at risk."

In this way, Far Away Places acts as a nice book end to Seven Twenty-Three.  The dinner party discussion centered on the idea of truth and this episode allowed Don, Peggy and Roger to get to their own truth, albeit at some personal cost.  For Don, it was a flashback to the Disneyland trip with Megan, when the two of them were returning Sally and Bobby to Betty and Henry at their new house in Rye, and how happy he felt. Instead of fearing stability and permanence, he desperately wants it. For Peggy, instead of using her anonymous movie theater liaison as a final straw to break up with Abe, she is remorseful and wants his love and affection. For Roger, he willingly takes ownership of his life instead of allowing it to control him. He needed his much younger wife to articulate something he felt too, but the words having been spoken, he is unburdened and, when he greets Don the next day, proclaims it is going to be a "beautiful day." 

The episode also reminds viewers that much goes on off camera.  Roger's dissatisfaction with Jane was rarely articulated over the past two seasons, but they started out happy, like Don and Megan.  Perhaps they had their own Howard Johnson's moment where their love slowly began to crumble. Peggy is following in Don's footsteps in more ways than one - she drinks his same Canadian Club, takes naps on the couch at work and ditches her job to go to the movies, only she opts for clumsy hook ups instead of more discreet encounters.  And while Don and Megan's relationship has been largely positive, she knows enough about him to know how to insult him in a way that will set him off - "why don't you call your mother." ZING.  

To watch Mad Men now is a much different experience than it was when the show premiered.  If you are like me and keep an eye on your Twitter account while watching, commentary is instantaneous, and often negative toward particular scenes or themes being explored.  Indeed, much of the tweeting I read suggests the show has lost its fastball, is falling into camp and missing the hip vibe of earlier seasons. Viewers remind me in many ways of "Picky Deadheads," fans who used to critique song choice, or the playing of band members in real time but now speak ruefully of no longer having the band intact.  

But the truth is that the show is evolving with the times and some of the people who were "cool" are now "old" and the themes explored in this season have been darker but more inchoate. The world is no longer at a distance to the characters, who were able to use the walls of the advertising agency to keep the world at an arm's length.  No longer can Don jet off to Rome to inspect Hilton properties, he now must drive to a down scale Howard Johnson's.  Drugs, which were once tut-tutted by Peggy's secretary Violet, are now casually used, and of course, it is now racial and religious barriers that are being broken (Don's comment about not hiring a Jew "on his watch" from Season 1 is obviously no longer operative and the agency has hired its first black employee, Dawn). The times they are a changing, and if that means Roger "tunes in," or Peggy jacks off a stranger in a movie theater, I say, bring it on. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Roger Ailes Is Smarter Than You

"Let's face it, there are three things that the media are interested in: pictures, mistakes and attacks. That's the one sure way of getting coverage. You try to avoid as many mistakes as you can. You try to give them as many pictures as you can. And if you need coverage, you attack, and you will get coverage." 
- Roger Ailes (1988)

As quoted in David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt's book, The FOX Effect, Ailes dropped that line during a post-mortem of the 1988 Presidential election conducted at Harvard University a few months after he had helped George Herbert Walker Bush defeat Michael Dukakis.  That campaign was defined most memorably by the "picture" (and "mistake") of Dukakis, a veteran, looking ridiculous riding in the open hatch of a tank, and an "attack," a campaign ad about a black prisoner in Massachusetts, Willie Horton, who committed a brutal assault and rape while on a weekend furlough from jail, so Ailes was clearly onto something. 

Indeed, that Ailes would make such a prescient observation is unsurprising.  He cut his teeth 20 years before that rehabilitating the image of Richard Nixon, using tactics that are now familiar - the carefully scripted "town hall" meeting stocked with sympathetic voters, the use of wedge issues to mobilize the electorate and the staged photo used to convey an image and not a message. At the Presidential level, many in "the media," cowed by the aggressive tactics of Ailes and others on the right-wing, have largely shed their role as neutral arbiter of "facts" in favor of Greek chorus for the political food fight that passes for reasoned discussion in the Age of Obama.  And who can blame them?  The rise of the Internet and cable television has stripped away the traditional role that media at the national level - places like the newsroom at CBS and The New York Times, once held. Rupert Murdoch now owns The Wall Street Journal and an entire network that does nothing but ape Republican talking points while any reporting that even has a whiff of dreaded "liberal bias" is immediately pounced on to suggest the left secretly runs the media. 

While smarter people than me have written about the media (a great primer is the essential "What Liberal Media?" by Eric Alterman), Ailes's observation about campaigns plays an increasing central role in the way we select our Presidents.  Consider "mistakes."  We are at the point where full sentences are no longer needed to frame them; say the following and people know immediately what you mean: "$10,000 bet," "Etch-A-Sketch," or "Oops." These boo boos feed the news cycle, often for days and, if mistakes are repeated, begin forming a broader narrative of the candidate.  It is unsurprising that Mitt Romney comes off looking like some sort of latter day Thurston Howell III.  Not only did Romney, a millionaire many times over, offer to make a $10,000 bet on national television, he mentioned in passing that his wife owns two Cadillacs and referred to more than $350,000 in speaking fees he received as not a lot of money.  That he hired a lobbyist to gain a local zoning variance so he could install an elevator for the cars in his California's mansion seemed apt in the context of these other disclosures.  Rick Perry's inability to remember the three federal agencies he would shutter if he became President torpedoed his campaign and even though no one thought Herman Cain would ever be elected, his glib response to a question about Uzbekistan said all that needed to be said about his lack of readiness for the national stage. 

Of course, the best way to fight off mistakes is to attack.  Indeed, while the media will gladly feed at the trough of an offhand remark like "I like to fire people" or a modest slight about the source of cookies at a campaign rally for a day or two, what they really want is a manufactured dust up to drive the news.  Such was the case with Hilary Rosen's comment that Ann Romney could not relate to working women because she (Ann Romney) had not "worked a day in her life."  The blowback was immediate, with critics (including the President) rising to the defense of stay-at-home mothers.  Of course, candidates can "overreach" when they feign outrage, as Ann Romney did, by "defending" her "choice" to raise 5 kids (a luxury afforded her by her husband's great wealth) while telling a group of fundraisers that she basically manipulated the whole incident to garner sympathy (referring to it as a great "birthday present.")  Her husband got caught in the undertow as well when it turned out he had called for women with children as young as 2 to be forced to work if they wanted public assistance.  

And what was learned from this one incident?  Nothing.  And what political gain (or loss) was achieved? None. Polling done after wall-to-wall coverage of this non-story indicated that it changed no minds about who people would vote for.  In the balance, no greater discussion of the two candidates' positions was revealed, no critical examination of their policy views was deduced and of course, at least in Romney's case, no follow-up reporting/commenting was done by the news media (Romney rarely does press availabilities and generally avoids the media except when his poll numbers are lagging). But what it did accomplish was sucking up hours upon hours of cable news time, page views on myriad political websites and fake outrage.  Kudos.
Attacks matter both because they obscure the weaknesses of a candidate and define their opponents. Governor Romney's tactic of imputing on President Obama negative outcomes that Romney has himself been tarred with is a new spin on the Rovian idea of turning a candidate's strength into a weakness.  Thus, Romney claims Obama's presidency has been bad for women because of purported job losses they have suffered while he has been President glides over the fact that public sector job losses, in sectors like teaching where women predominate, are largely due to the policies of state level officials, and a refusal by Republicans at the national level to extend aid to states that would help avoid these layoffs.  It also obscures his poor jobs record as Governor of Massachusetts (47th out of 50) and the litany of layoffs and firings in companies he acquired as head of Bain Capital. 

By throwing out the attack, Romney also deflects attention away from policies he has taken that poll poorly among many women.  For example, Romney came out in support of a personhood amendment in Mississippi that would have declared an embryo a "person" and thus making all abortion, and many forms of birth control, illegal, and the Blount-Rubio Amendment in the Senate that would have allowed employers to refuse to offer contraceptive coverage in their medical plans on vaguely worded "morals" grounds.  But in the instant gratification, reductionist media of today, all that is heard is some spin about women making up 93% of job losses under Obama. For the media, so long as there is a good "he said/he said" narrative to report, the underlying facts are not germane.  Neither the manner of the attack nor the veracity of it is important, so long as someone is calling someone else a no good so and so, the blood suckers happily tap away on their laptops and iPhones, writing, blogging and tweeting about the latest contrempts on the campaign trail.  

Days are now spent talking about the U.S. Secret Service's prostitution scandal, with Republicans loudly inveighing against their conduct, but where were those Republicans when one of their own, David Vitter, turned up in the "little black book" of a D.C. madam?  Instead of raising that legitimate question of hypocrisy, journalists look for the slant on how it affects President Obama, who had nothing to do with it.  Same thing with the GSA.  A waste of taxpayer money? Of course.  Imputed to Obama, huh? In the meantime, legitimate stories about actual governance, as when members of Governor Romney's staff bought their hard drives at the end of his term in office, go unreported.  Might that action suggest a certain desire for secrecy we, as voters should be conceded about?  Sure, but the press is too busy chasing its own tail about the horse race and polling to focus on substantive issues. Why bother looking at how a person actually governs when ancillary stories that have nothing to do with the person are far sexier?  

Think none of this matters?  Consider the Republicans' favorite boogeyman, the national debt.  If you just listened to people like Paul Ryan, you would think this debt appeared out of nowhere when Barack Obama took office; however, rarely reported is Ryan's complicity in the creation of this debt through his votes for massive tax cuts (2001 and 2003), unfunded wars in Iraq & Afghanistan and the Medicare Part D drug benefit, all of which occurred under a Republican President who mocked a fiscally responsible position during the 2000 election to put the Social Security surplus in a "lockbox."  

You remember the lockbox, right? That was either the nadir or high point of the media's intellectual laziness (depending on your perspective). It was derided in the media, on Saturday Night Live and of course, by the Bush campaign. Simply put, Al Gore proposed taking the trillions in Social Security surplus that had accumulated and making that money off limits to the rest of the federal government, which, as a matter of course, had borrowed against that surplus for decades to make budget numbers look less bad than they were.  Gore's idea grew out of the budget surplus he and President Clinton helped create and the fiscally responsible idea that government should prepare for the retirement of the Baby Boom generation.  In other words, a "little c" conservative position to take to help ensure the country's future financial stability. 

We all know what happened next.  The media focused on important issues like Gore's sighing during debates, who voters would prefer to have a beer with and blithely looked away when shenanigans during the Florida recount occurred.  For their interest in the sizzle over the steak, we got the most fiscally irresponsible president in our nation's history. Instead of reserving the surplus that had assiduously accumulated, Bush spent it, all of it, and then some, on his tax cuts, wars and drug benefits, raiding the Social Security trust fund to help do it, and generated an enormous structural budget deficit that exploded in the financial meltdown in 2008.  Now, 12 years after that 2000 election, our fiscal house is in complete disorder and that army of soon-to-be seniors looms that much closer on the horizon.  Had the media focused on the risks of trillions of dollars in tax cuts in 2000 instead of whether Gore invented the Internet (something he actually never claimed to have done), well, who knows.  Of course, in the contemporaneous reporting on our fiscal problems these days, 2000 is down the memory hole, unfunded wars didn't happen and the Medicare D benefit might as well have happened under LBJ.  In the meantime, the media politely allows Republicans to whitewash their own history and push an agenda that would cover up their fiscal recklessness by destroying the social safety net.  

One thing W's team perfected was the manipulation of "reality" and how journalists who depended on fact and examination of policy to come to truth were missing the point - that Rove and his ilk could bend reality because there was no arbiter of what was and was not truth ( Once you have destroyed the Moynihan rule of "you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts" there is no end to the lying you can do in service of your ultimate goals because the truth no longer matters. This happens even when candidates and consultants are shown saying diametrically opposed things (Jon Stewart has owned this particular form of illustrating hypocrisy) or attempting to backtrack off of things previously said in the service of present day expediency (Etch-A-Sketch anyone?). 

This shit matters, people.  In fact, it matters more today than it has in recent memory because the precipice we find ourselves on is that precarious. As has been documented elsewhere, this Republican Congress is as conservative as has ever been seen and seems willing to burn down the village to save it - that is, to completely eviscerate the social safety net that tens of millions of elderly, young, poor, disabled and homeless rely on for a modicum of decency and leave the rest of us at the mercy of a privatized, for-profit world in which there are few regulations, little oversight and no accountability.  

Relying on the "mainstream" media to ensure coverage of the Presidential campaign that consists of more than pictures, mistakes and attacks is unlikely.  Reporters at the national level are well paid, largely unaffected when social policy changes and desirous of the cache that comes from being inside the heady bubble of Presidential politics.  Ultimately, that's the dirty little secret.  The media, at least most of it, is not invested in getting to some greater truth, some core of objectivity that will actually enlighten instead of entertain for fear they might get snubbed at the White House Correspondent's Dinner or not have their calls returned by the Romney campaign's political flacks.  The relationship between these campaigns and the reporters who cover them is both symbiotic and incestuous.  That it is also destructive to the political discourse in our country goes without saying, but I kind of think Roger Ailes is cool with that. 

Megan Draper Must Die

Megan Draper makes her husband Don happy.  She keeps an eye on his drinking, encourages him to socialize with his co-workers, and is sexually available to satisfy his kinks.  She's good with his kids, doesn't (overly) abuse her position as his wife with his co-workers, and has done nice things for him, like throw a surprise birthday party.  Don speaks glowingly of her, rebuffs the entreaties of a former paramour and tells Pete Campbell that had he met Megan before Betty, he never would have erected a double life of suburban husband and philandering advertising executive. 

Pretty awesome, right?  After watching Don's tortured life unspool over 4 seasons, he's now in a good place, with a wife he dotes on and adores and a healthier attitude toward work and people.  Unfortunately, this happy place has made the Draper character 99.9% LESS interesting than he was before we caught up with the Mad Men crew a month ago. While Season 5 has afforded the writers the opportunity to move peripheral characters more to the center (I'm looking at you, Pete Campbell), the show's core is Don Draper and this guy is someone who, as Peggy noted in the season premiere, is not someone we recognize.  This guy is just a square ( who, at worst, might experience some mild mid-life crisis (likely health related, as he's bedded more women than Wilt Chamberlain) but otherwise, appears eager to downshift into middle age with a wife he loves and children he adores.  How BORING.  

This is why Megan Draper must die.  I have nothing against Jessica Pare, or the Megan character generally (though her craptacular Zou Bisou Bisou serenade in the Season 5 premiere might have been the most painful 2 minutes in the show's history); however, stable, settled Don Draper who is open to client suggestions, meets his wife (instead of his lover) for lunch and isn't a raging alcoholic is simply no fun.  Admittedly, manufacturing some crisis to take Don down a dark path may be contrived, but Don Draper without existential angst and a tortured psyche is just another 40 year old white collar professional quickly falling on the "Perry Como" fault line of the 1960s.  

There are three ways to play the 2d Draper marriage and killing off Megan is the most plausible of the three.  Consider:

Don & Megan Start A Second Family:  This is the most obvious direction to go in.  The cliche of the middle aged man starting a second family with the "trophy wife" would not be breaking particularly new ground and anyway, Megan made an off handed comment about not being able to have children while Don was getting handsy on the way back from the Campbell's dinner party in Signal 30.  Even if they went with the baby angle, what could it really be mined for?  Either moving Don and Megan back to the suburbs (which Don equated to blowing one's brains out) or keep them in the city with her at home and he conveniently going back to his adulterous ways?  Implausible, I say.

Megan Turns Out To Not Be Who We Think She Is:  Possible, right?  She's an actress after all and what do we really know about her, other than she's French-Canadian and has an overbite (sorry, mean).  Is it possible that Megan is really a grifter or some sort of soulless temptress who is going to … what, exactly?  Take Don's money? Have an office affair? Other?  No realistic way to expound on this theory considering there's been no suggestion she's into hanky-panky with anyone in the office and has not been sending secret coded messages to persons unknown.  Sure, she might have some friends Don finds a bit unusual, and he might get dragged to Fire Island to see them, but if anything, that would confirm his security in his marriage, not undermine it. 

Megan Is The Victim Of City Violence:  This scenario makes the most sense and is the most consistent with the vibe and theme of this season, which has been littered with references to death and mayhem - riots, mass murder, random shootings, allusions to suicide, the Vietnam War and Don scribbling a hangman's noose on a pad of paper.  1966 may mark the cusp of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but it's also the harbinger of a lot of societal turmoil in our cities - major riots in places like Detroit and Newark, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, massive protests against the Vietnam War and of course, the Manson Family. Mad Men has already been touched by random violence (the mugging of Roger and Joan) and with the increasing lawlessness our country was facing in the mid-late 1960s (consider the exterior at the end of Signal 30 - a dark, foreboding and menacing building), would something like a pretty young woman getting killed in Manhattan seem that far-fetched?  I say not.  

The benefits of killing off Megan are three-fold - (1) total game changer in terms of story telling; (2) a buzz worthy (and plausible) story line and (3) it would completely devastate Don Draper.  Yes, I am rooting for Don to return to his dark and broken past because I cannot tolerate this man's happiness.  I'm sorry, Megan, you're collateral damage in the war to make Don a miserable (but eminently watchable) bastard.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Howard Stern Lawsuit - DISMISSED

Earlier this week, New York Supreme Court[1] Judge Kapnick dismissed, with prejudice, Howard Stern’s lawsuit against SiriusXM Radio. Howard filed a lawsuit based on his belief that a performance-based payment clause in his 2004 contract with Sirius required them to pay him up to $300 million based on the company’s reaching certain subscriber numbers.  Howard’s case was predicated on the belief that once Sirius acquired XM, all XM subscribers must now count toward the performance standard because XM became part of Sirius, the company.  Not surprisingly, Sirius argued the opposite – only subscribers to the Sirius service, even after XM was acquired, counted. 

The dismissal, via summary judgment, was a bit of a surprise to me[2], but the judge’s opinion[3] made clear that she found the language of the contract unambiguous – for the purpose of the performance-based clause negotiated by Stern and his agent, Don Buchwald, only subscribers to the Sirius radio service, not the merged SiriusXM company could be counted.  Moreover, she pointed out that the parties included a separate provision that paid Stern $25 million when Sirius and XM merged[4], which, she held, evinced the parties “explicitly distinct treatment of subscribers acquired by merger[5].”  Taken together, the Court concluded that the understanding of the parties at the time the contract was signed and the plain language of the agreement precluded, as a matter of law, the interpretation Stern claimed. 

There’s no way to spin this decision as other than a complete and total win for Sirius.  Even though the Judge’s opinion was brief, just 11 pages, let me answer some questions that you might have and throw out a few random thoughts of my own:

What is Summary Judgment & Why Is It Important?  Summary judgment is often used at the beginning of a case by a party that thinks the lawsuit filed against it is frivolous. It is a concept that says, “even if every single fact the non-moving (i.e., the party that did not file the motion, in this case, Stern and Buchwald) party alleges is true, as a matter of law, you have to rule in our (i.e., the party that filed the motion, in this case, Sirius) favor.” Summary judgment affords the court the opportunity to dismiss meritless cases quickly, and without significant legal cost. 

In this case, to rule in Sirius’s favor required the Judge to look at the October 1, 2004 contract and essentially, nothing else, in making her determination.  That is, Judge Kapnick said that as a matter of law, the language in that Agreement was unambiguous and not subject to more than one interpretation. In fact, because the only interpretation that could be read into the Agreement was that “Sirius Subscribers” meant subscribers to that service, not a merged company that included XM subscribers, none of the performance-based awards Howard sought in the lawsuit were triggered and therefore, the case must be dismissed.

This decision is important for a couple of reasons.  First, in opposition to Sirius’s summary judgment motion, Stern argued that the motion must be denied because the terms of the contract were either plain (in his favor) or ambiguous.  By granting summary judgment to Sirius, Judge Kapnick not only said the terms were plain in Sirius’s favor, but that no fact-finding was necessary to reach her conclusion. In other words, Howard was denied what’s called “discovery,” the phase of a lawsuit where each side must produce non-privileged information and submit witnesses for depositions (sworn pre-trial testimony) to the other regarding the lawsuit and from which, each side constructs its case.  Second, by dismissing the case with prejudice, Howard is precluded from refiling the case utilizing different arguments. 

What Happens If Howard Appeals?  But Scary Lawyer Guy, you say, the case is not over!  Howard said on his radio show that he will appeal the judge’s ruling!  Victory is close at hand.  Not so.  Let’s be clear.  As of right, Howard can appeal; however, because the judge has dismissed Howard’s lawsuit, the best outcome for him at the appellate level is for the court to overturn the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case and allow it to proceed.  That is, the appellate court would be saying the contract’s terms are not unambiguous and discovery must occur.  Because Stern did not file his own motion for summary judgment, the appellate court cannot rule on the underlying merit of his complaint – i.e., that the contract is unambiguous in his favor.  On the other hand, if the appellate court upholds the trial court ruling, the dismissal with prejudice will hold and the case will go away forever. 

How Long Will The Appeal Take?  It will likely take a minimum of 9-12 months for the appellate process to unfold.  First, Howard’s team will file a notice of their intent to appeal, followed by submission of a legal brief explaining why the trial court erred.  Sirius will file its brief (court rules vary state-to-state, but I’m guessing 45 days after Howard’s brief is filed) explaining why the trial court should be upheld.  It is possible, though I do not know the New York court rules, that Howard’s team will get a chance to submit a reply (or rebuttal) brief within 10-15 days after Sirius’s submission. After all that is done, the Court will set an oral argument date, which is usually several months later.  Oral argument will occur and then, well, we wait.  Appellate courts do not issue rulings the same day as oral argument and they are under no time restriction for when an opinion must be issued.  It could take a few weeks, it could take a few months, it is totally up to them.

When Will This All Go Away & Allow Me To Stop Reading Your Blog? Good question. Howard could choose not to appeal and the lawsuit will be over.  If he does appeal, the parties could still hammer out a settlement under the theory that Sirius would carry some minor litigation risk if it lost at the appellate level and the case was remanded to the trial court; however, I do not think that is likely.  With a dismissal at the summary judgment stage in its hand, Sirius’s negotiating position is strong and they have little incentive to pay anything to Howard at this point.  If the parties go through the appellate process, see above.  Even if the appellate court rules in Sirius’s favor, that won’t happen until late this year or 2013. 

If Howard wins and the case is remanded, you may see more meaningful settlement discussion because we now know Sirius’s downside risk is more than $300 million.  Of course, the trial court has already tipped its hand on the merits of Howard’s lawsuit.  What is also important to note is that while Stern supporters may think discovery would unveil some “smoking gun” document, if such a document existed, it would have likely been produced by now.  That is to say, Howard’s team would have led with more persuasive documentary evidence for its case than some 10-K filings and press releases and/or Sirius would have done the same.  Moreover, if Sirius knew that documentary evidence existed supporting Howard’s position, they would not have stiffed him on the performance payment in the first place. In short, we can reasonably surmise that no contemporaneous notes, emails or documents exist showing the parties contemplated counting potential merged subscribers as part of the contract, leaving Howard, if he is able to resuscitate his case through a successful appeal, opting to continue spending a lot of money on lawyers on a case he is unlikely to win. At that point, he may take a slice of the loaf and hope that Sirius might agree to pay legal fees and some modest settlement amount, but I would not count on it (good thing he’s got that AGT money rolling in now!).

Anything Else?  I would still encourage people to get the facts about the lawsuit, which you can do be accessing all of the electronic records filed in this case.  I’ve listened to Howard for almost 25 years and enjoy him immensely as an entertainer; however, it’s also important to not get sucked in by the spin and slant he provides.  In his view, the Agreement is clear, but if you read it, as I did, you will find that not to be the case.  He never publicly mentioned the $25 million merger payment he received until after the court issued its ruling and then, as I mentioned above, gave an entirely different explanation for that clause than what his lawyers said in their court filings.  From an equity perspective, it is also difficult to feel sorry for Howard.  He was paid (literally) hundreds of millions of (well earned) dollars; however, if his agent inserted a bad, or inartfully written clause into his contract, he should blame his agent, not his employer. Howard is about to experience a mainstream rebirth when America’s Got Talent premieres with him as a judge.  If I were him, I would stop trying to squeeze money from my employer and be content with the riches that have already been showered on me and the acclaim from a whole new platform I am about to receive. 

[1]   In New York, state trial court is referred to as “the Supreme Court.”
[2]   My full analysis of the lawsuit can be found at:
[4]   After the Judge rendered her decision, Howard claimed on his radio show that the merger provision was inserted for his protection in the event XM acquired Sirius and sought to terminate his employment.  In the legal filings, he argued that the purpose of the merger clause was to defer some of his compensation so the financial hit to Sirius was not as hard when he signed. Judge’s Opinion at 8.
[5]  Opinion at p. 11.

Mad Men Season 5 - Boulevard of Broken Dreams

What if I told you that you would get everything you want, but you would still be unhappy?  For five seasons we have watched Pete Campbell claw his way to the top.  Professionally, he first tried to usurp Don (way back in Season 1, Pete's goal was not head of accounts, but creative director), then tried to blackmail him. He ingratiated himself to Duck, only to cut him off at the knees when he realized Don was the true power player in the firm.  He was pitted against Ken in a competition to see who would earn the title head of accounts and lost, but was scooped up for the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Last season, he came into his own, standing as the solid core of the firm, working hard to ensure its survival, even turning down an offer to leave for another agency as a name partner.  

Meanwhile, Pete, who bedded Peggy days before his wedding, had a predator's view of women.  His liaisons were either clumsy and awkward (in his office or in the apartment of a model living with her grandmother) or forced, as when he assaulted a nanny in his apartment building as a "thank you" for having replaced a soiled cocktail dress for her without her host family being the wiser. That incident seemed to have been a turning point for Pete, as his eye no longer wandered, his wife Trudy became pregnant and the idea of fatherhood appeared to ground him.  He had even come to grips with the fact that Peggy had given birth to his child and put the baby up for adoption. 

As it turns out, and as we discover in Signal 30, all of that effort has been for naught.  The Pete Campbell who we see in this episode is every bit the petulant, venal and self-centered asswipe we were first introduced to six "years" ago when the show started.  Suburban ennui is hardly a new topic, but Pete's dislocation is particularly acute.  Having grown up in New York City, he is ill suited to the suburban life, with its leaky faucets, varmints and commuter trains.  His dissatisfaction with his wife is more inchoate.  While he alluded to what we would now call postpartum depression at the beginning of this season, there does not seem to be anything wrong with Trudy per se, or at least nothing that her being a blonde teenager with saucer blue eyes or a high class hooker who calling him "king" would not fix. 

In an interesting bit of role reversal, it is Don who tries to remind Pete of all he stands to lose by carousing. Don's paternal instinct toward Pete played out beautifully in two of the climactic scenes of this episode - first, in the cab ride from the whorehouse they patronized with a potential client, and then, in the elevator, after Pete has mouthed off to Lane and received an ass kicking to show for it. Pete has misinterpreted Don's own infelicitous past as an excuse for his own boorishness, but Don tells Pete that those things he has - the house in the suburbs, the doting wife and the young child - are precisely the things he (Don) wanted, just, as it turned out, not with Betty, but Megan (Don even makes a drunken suggestion to Megan that they have a baby). When Pete tries to process why no one stepped in to stop the fight between the two, Don essentially says "grow up," at which point Pete crumbles, weeping at how he has nothing.  Having worked hard to achieve the things he thought he wanted, Pete looks in the mirror, to the person sleeping next to him, to the house he lives in, the office he inhabits, and fails to see all that he has. 

Wanderlust, ruing, and the disappearance of youth, hope and opportunity, all of these feelings that something has been missed or lost were also expressed through Lane and Ken, the former's ambivalence about his own marriage and lot in life was well known, while the latter has been an under the radar screen account man uninterested in making waves.  For Lane, his opportunity to seize some semblance of the life he wanted is reflected in the solicitation of a fellow Englishman who works for Jaguar.  When his attempts at landing the man as a client fail, Peter, Don and Roger swoop in to close the deal, only to have it unravel when it is discovered they took the man to a house of prostitution.  A dressing down by Pete and a rejected pass at Joan further emasculate Lane, who only recovers some modicum of his dignity by knocking Pete out during a partner's meeting. Lane never had the adventurous life of war or the suave glibness of an account man, he has been a bean counter his whole life, an indispensable man based solely on his ability to make the trains run on time, but, like many men who achieve a certain station in life, questioning what could have been.  Unable to break away from a wife he does not love, he is now resigned to his fate.

Ken, on the other hand, has quietly pursued his real passion of being a writer to such a degree and level of success that a book of his short stories may be published under his nom de plume.  He writes of the future, no more gold violins, and is encouraged by his wife, a quiet woman who seems to fit his personality well.  Even when Roger chews him out for his hobby, suggesting that by having enough time to write he is not working hard enough, Ken is non-plussed.  He continues to write, just under a different alias.  Perhaps it is that Ken does not live for his job like the others do (he famously passed on trying to hit his father-in-law, a senior level official at Corning, for work in the wake of the Lucky Strike fiasco) and does not see the corner office as the end all/be all of his existence that allows him to blithely ignore Roger's directive or that he appreciates that he is still young and can make a life the life he wants for himself that keeps him writing.  Either way, he refuses to be like the robots in his stories, blankly doing what they are told.

In this way, the episode nicely shows the men of Mad Men along an articulable continuum.  Kenny, still young and vibrant, and unwilling to bend.  Pete, sliding quickly into the morass of drinking, infidelity and moral compromises that defined Don's prior life, Don, wizened by the destruction of his own first marriage and yearning for the simpler life he ruined, and Lane, reaching for that last vestige of dignity a man sliding into middle age clings to.  As Roger notes in a bracing moment of self-awareness, he is now Emeritus Head of Accounts, put out on that iceberg referenced way back in Season 3 who can still woo a client and get him laid at a whore house, but otherwise, waiting for the final curtain to fall. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Beauty Myth

I have made it through more than 40 years feeling as though I know less about women the older I get, but it seems as though women are clearly having their moment, or at least their latest moment, the moment after Betty Friedan, Fear of Flying, bra burning, the ERA, the Phyllis Schlafly backlash, sky rocketing divorce rates, cracking various glass ceilings, the mommy wars and a lexicon of acronyms for white, upper middle class marriage and all its discontents and battles (don't believe me? Check - it's all there).  I half expect TIME to preemptively name this the Year of the Woman.  

In the past year, popular culture has made a meaningful pivot to consider the role of women in post-housing bubble America.  While TV has been feeding us a steady diet of Real Housewives, Kardashians, and other tripe that dates to Jessica Simpson being unaware that Chicken of the Sea was a brand of tuna fish and not chicken, Kristen Wiig's breakout movie Bridesmaids (which this viewer thought not particularly funny and about 20 minutes too long) heralded a string of potty-mouthed (and brained) TV programming that showed women could think dirty thoughts, do dirty deeds and have raunchy conversations about their vaginas and sex just like men joke about their dicks. Why scaling that particular comedic mountain was important is unclear to me, but nevertheless, Wiig spawned Whitney, Two Broke Girls, Don't Trust the Bitch In Apartment 23, and Best Friends Forever (any maybe one or two others, I didn't do an exhaustive check), all of which share a more ribald, and sometimes more cynical view of women's empowerment.  

Invariably, the protagonists are unmarried, or recently divorced or unsure whether they want to get married, or some combination therein.  In other words, marriage is still the alpha and omega - just as it was for Barbara Billingsley in the 1950s (look it up, kids), Mrs. Brady and a whole part of TV's family tree that holds up marriage and children as the defining role for women in society, it's just that today's female leads are more ambivalent about it, even though, deep down, we are led to assume they really do want marriage and kids, just like women of prior generations. Whitney Cummings may be a tart tongued ingenue, but she lives with a good hearted guy and fears/wants marriage.  The women of Best Friends Forever are respectively, living with a man and divorcing one (but already looking for her next mate). In this way, the language and attitude may be different, but the underlying theme is unchanged - marriage is to be valued and desired. 

The latest entrant to this genre is HBO's Girls, which examines the lives of twenty-something white women in Brooklyn navigating that delicate, and as portrayed in the show, aimless period of time after college but before any sort of responsibility is accepted.  As a commentary on entitled, upper middle class white people, the reviews suggest the show is a home run.  But if Lena Dunham is not archetypal for the majority of Americans who didn't go to a small liberal arts school and have accomplished artists as parents, the story she tells says something about middle class yearning, or more specifically, the idea that these young women were sold a bill of goods.  Having been coddled and babied growing up, with the "helicopter parents" and the shadow of 9/11, they have been birthed into an adult society they are ill-equipped to handle, the gains made by the feminists of yore handed back in the grimy hook ups on filthy couches, trips to free health clinics and a deep cynicism that would have those who fought for women's rights two (and four) generations ago, spinning in their graves (or leaping onto cable TV to bemoan.) 

Of course, in 2012, never has there been a time when art and life are further apart.  In the real world, there is, depending on who you believe, either a "war on women," or said war is just a manufactured drama made up by a bunch of liberals to make women hate Republicans.  Hilary Rosen stirred the mommy wars by indelicately stating something most people understand to be true - the wealthy have options to have a parent at home that the poor and middle class often do not - and when forced to make sacrifices in support of those actions, those with lesser means than Ann Romney have a better handle on what is important to women than she does (unless we're talking about which of one's two Cadillacs to drive.)  

Meanwhile, legislatures across the country have passed more laws restricting access to abortion than at any time since Roe v. Wade, the term "transvaginal ultrasound" is now widely known thanks to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of Texas, and a near majority of U.S. Senators voted to approve a law that would have permitted any employer to refuse to provide contraception options within their health plans to their female employees based simply on "moral" objections. Mitt Romney bemoans job losses experienced by women but fails to mention that they have largely occurred in the public sector, where professions disproportionately represented by women, such as teaching, have been among the hardest hit by the cutbacks that have happened in states throughout the country.  

And therein lies the disconnect between the pretend world that Hollywood manufactures and the far more nuanced world we live in.  Ironically, all of this is playing out while the voices of those who are truly affected are rarely heard.  Lena Dunham is hailed as a voice of her generation, but what generation is that exactly?  Surely, it is not the generation of women whose boyfriends and husbands enlist in the military or the single moms in their mid-20s who did not have the luxury of attending pricey private universities. In the real world, where policies take away things like funding for Planned Parenthood and budgets are cut that remove teachers from classrooms, the laugh track does not cue the happy ending after 30 minutes.  

Hollywood produces what it thinks is profitable.  Tabloid magazines exist and flourish because people (primarily women) buy them.  As Americans, we enjoy piously judging celebrities, their flaws, weight gain, embarrassing photos and actions while being deeply envious of the lives they lead yet we wonder why the flesh and blood women in our lives are self-conscious about their weight, their looks and growing old.  Interestingly, rarely in modern times has the distance between what is being produced on television been so removed from the reality women are experiencing.  There is no Roseanne meditating on the paycheck-to-paycheck existence of blue collar America or Mary Tyler Moore representing the liberated woman of the 1970s. 

If anything, the entire movement runs the risk of collapsing on itself.  On the one hand, women have never been more accomplished - they matriculate into college, law school and medical school in greater numbers than men - yet continue to be underpaid for doing the same work, and are underrepresented everywhere from the CEO's boardroom to the halls of Congress. Perhaps their antennae is warped because the mixed messages society sends them about being career oriented  but having that dreaded "clock" ticking toward the oblivion that will be their barren uteri (?) at a time certain.  The closest analogue to where women are in 2012 is not in Brooklyn, but Manhattan, circa 1966 in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  There, women of another age are grappling with the problems and limitations that today's political reactionaries seek to relitigate - of sexual freedom, of being able to work and have children, of not being reliant on men to provide, of being able to make choices with one's life that are not dependent entirely on your ability to give birth to children.  Watching Mad Men through the looking glass of today's fixation on women is fascinating precisely because it feels current, which is sad.  One would have thought those battles had been fought and won once and for all. But like I said, I know nothing about women.