Tag Archives: Reviews

Where Pilots Matter?: Amazon’s January 2015 Pilot Cycle

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 12.18.10 PMPilots are not made for normal audiences.

When you make a television pilot, your audience is a group of network executives who make final decisions and test audiences who are used as a barometer of how America will respond to said pilots. It’s why pilots tend to be bigger, and broader, and in general more attention-grabbing—for better or for worse—than episodes that come after.

In this way, Amazon’s “democratic” pilot process—in which they make their pilots available online for audience voting before making final pick-up decisions—is not necessarily out of the ordinary. Writers and producers have always known that their work would need to meet dueling expectations of executives and audiences, so we have yet to see a completely new approach to television pilots emerge from the process.

However, the way each of this year’s comedy and drama pilots—I’m excluding the kids’ shows—engages with the specificity of the Amazon experience has been particularly fascinating for me, even in its subtlety. Part of this stems from the overdetermined nature of the audience feedback within rhetoric surrounding the series: in Amazon’s universe, customers are selecting what shows go on the air. Forget for a moment their Golden Globe-winning Transparent drew the least customer votes and scored the lowest customer scores during its pilot process—in Amazon’s mind, this is about the audience, and so it makes sense for producers to angle harder in that direction and play to their assumed test audience.

Yet this is further amplified by the fact that there is even less clarity than usual regarding what precisely Amazon is looking for. Whereas working with a broadcast network or established cable channel gives you a basic sense of brand identity and programming strategy, Amazon has been all over the map, making it up as they go along. While we can start to see trends in their focus on Transparent’s awards success, we still have no clear sense of who their perceived audience is, or what their demographic priorities are. Do they want shows for men or women? Are they privileging comedy or drama? We don’t even know how many shows they’re willing to pick up, given that they have no “schedule” with empty slots, and have theoretically bottomless pockets from which to fund their move into original programming.

It’s plausible that those creating this cycle of Amazon pilots know more than we do about Amazon’s plans, but the fact remains that the audience is the clearer target, and there are a range of strategies that the pilots unfurl to ensure positive responses and high scores in the areas that they believe count most—or at least count a little—with Amazon.

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Review: Not Cool and Hollidaysburg bear the mark of The Chair, for better or for worse

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 11.41.15 AM

This week, after the documentary series The Chair—which I reviewed for The A.V. Club and covered with multiple interviews here at Cultural Learnings—reached the wrap of production on the two films based on the same script, Starz has made both Shane Dawson’s Not Cool and Anna Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg available on its Starz Play streaming site and On Demand. Viewers who watch both films can then register to vote for who wins The Chair’s $250,000 cash prize, with the results announced on November 8th.

While both films had brief runs in theaters in Los Angeles and New York—and Pittsburgh, where both were filmed—and have been available for digital download since late last month, this marks the best chance for those who have been watching the documentary series to see how the decisions made by Dawson and Martemucci actually influenced the final product. As much as one continues to presume that Dawson’s extensive fanbase will tip the scales in his favor in the end, the survey nonetheless raises a more interesting question of how our reception of these films is shaped by both the broad terms of the experiment—two versions of the same script—and by the behind-the-scenes knowledge we have about how these projects came together.

Accordingly, while the following are reviews of the films themselves, they are also inevitably reviews of how the films function as the “climax” of the “filmmaking experiment,” which is a distinct mode of evaluation that frames the films for better or for worse.

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Offsite Learnings: Cinemax’s Strike Back at The A.V. Club

Offsite Learnings: Cinemax’s Strike Back

August 31st, 2012

In the midst of completing a busy summer academically, I took on the task of reviewing Cinemax’s Strike Back week-to-week at The A.V. Club, which has been a nice chance to explore a show I enjoy quite a bit. I figured I should let those of you who continue to follow the blog and not my Twitter account know about it, and offer up an exclusive clip from tonight’s fourth episode of the second season; you can find my review of that episode right after it airs at The A.V. Club.

Review: Strike Back Season 2 – “Episode One”/”Episode Two”

Review: Strike Back Season 2 – “Episode Three”

Clip: Strike Back Season 2 – Stonebridge and El Soldat Negotiate

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Funny Business: Critical Analysis of Television Comedies, Part 2

The following is the second part of an ongoing, cross-blog conversation between myself and my A.V. Club colleague Ryan McGee. The first part of the conversation is posted at his blog, Boob Tube Dude, and can be found here (and should really be read before this, as certain references won’t make sense otherwise).

These posts stem from conversations we’ve had regarding how we approach comedies from a critical perspective within our own criticism and within criticism as a whole. We welcome any and all contributions to this discussion, and I apologize in advance for the lack of photos to break things up (which Ryan so helpfully deployed on Part One) – I have a strict “Big Blocks of Text = A-Okay” policy around these parts. – MM

Myles McNutt: Since your last missive, I spent an entire weekend sitting in a room of academics discussing television comedy, which dealt with many of the issues you discuss in terms of expanded potential of journalistic criticism. As scholars, we’re the ones who are expected to delve into these areas, and as someone who probably best identifies as a scholar-critic (provided I’m allowed to make up my own hyphenated terms) I like to think I bring at least some of this to bear.

However, I don’t do it particularly often, in part because my academic interests have less to do with the issues discussed in part one [feminism, ideology in general] and more to do with television as a form and as an industry. That’s not to say that this work is not valuable (it is, in fact, invaluable), but rather that it is very much work that you need to feel comfortable doing. Alyssa [Rosenberg, discussed in Part One] does, and I appreciate her work for it, but it isn’t more prominent because there is a perception that “people” (speaking here of a general perception of people reading television criticism) aren’t interested in reading that form of criticism.

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A Cultural Comeback: The Return of the Cultural Catchup Project

The Return of the Cultural Catchup Project

May 16th, 2011

On April 9th, 2010, I began an undertaking.

Fifty-seven reviews and over six months later, I had to put that undertaking on hold indefinitely.

There was some part of me who was naive enough to believe that I would be able to continue the Cultural Catchup Project while beginning my PhD, continuing to dig into Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but the truth was that it was never going to happen. While my dedication to the project never wavered, my free time during the year was going to go towards covering television as it airs, engaging in the post-air analysis that continues to draw me to writing criticism. Although I found some time to pull together the final reviews to finish out the series’ fifth and second seasons, respectively, the project went dormant for the better part of six months on November 25th.

Since that point, there have been a number of mostly well-meaning prods in my direction regarding the project, but for the most part the Whedon fans have been patient. It helps, of course, that Noel Murray has been continuing his reviews of the series at The A.V. Club, and that the Whedon fan community remains vibrant and active regardless of my contributions. While I hated to be absent from the discussion, and I very much enjoyed the engagement made possible through those reviews, I ultimately had to decide how I wanted to watch these shows, and the idea of trying to squeeze them into an already hectic schedule just wasn’t an option if I actually wanted to enjoy the experience.

But as the year comes to a close, and as the summer approaches, the season of Cultural Catchup approaches. There are no plans for serious overhauls: I remain vigilant in my efforts to avoid spoilers (although a few have sneaked in here or there, but nothing that I would consider major), I remain committed to doing both shows simultaneously (if only to add a bit of variety to my viewing, now that the crossovers seem to be slowing down), and I remain excited to continue the dialogue we began last year.

While I have no idea how many followers of the CCP last time around are still hanging out around these parts, and I have no way of knowing how many stragglers might return, I’m giving us all a few days to gather ourselves. The Cultural Catchup Project returns on the morning of Wednesday, May 18th with a review of both parts of “Bargaining,” the sixth season premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and continues later that very same day with a review of the third season premiere of Angel, “Heartthrob.”

Edit: Both reviews are now live via the links below!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Bargaining”

Angel – “Heartthrob”

From there, things might slow down a bit until the weekend, but after that the adventure picks up where it left off: a summer-long journey as far into the Whedonverse as three and a half months will take us.

I am hopeful that some of you will still be along for the ride, and that there might be some who are joining us for the first time: either way, the Cultural Catchup Project page offers the complete archives for those who want to relive it all again.

The Cultural Catchup Project Archives

In the meantime, spread the word – on Wednesday, the undertaking begins again.


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On Winter’s Doorstep: An Open Letter to the Game of Thrones Fandom

On Winter’s Doorstep: An Open Letter

April 16th, 2011

One of the features I often try to do for highly serialized and widely covered shows is “____ the Morning After,” in which I create a conversation between various reviews of a single episode of a series the morning after it airs.

Given my interest in the response to HBO’s Game of Thrones, I had thought of doing a “Game of Thrones the Day Before” post to try to capture the pre-air response. However, this was a week ago, well before the internet has quite honestly exploded with reviews of this program (and reviews of those reviews). And with fan sites like Winter is Coming collecting those reviews, and with Matt Zoller Seitz doing yeoman’s work in breaking down the problems with Slate and the New York Times’ problematic reviews (the latter of which has already inspired a wide-ranging discussion of women and fantasy that has galvanized a larger fantasy community), the conversation has more or less already happened.

To be entirely honest with you, it’s a conversation that has surprised me in its voraciousness, although I shouldn’t really be surprised. In general, pre-air reviews are growing passe within this industry, replaced with post-air analysis which more readily allows for reader participation – while a pre-air review will draw conversation from those who have predetermined opinions regarding a project, the real discussion can’t really begin until the reader has actually seen the project in question, and things seem to be moving in that direction as a whole.

Of course, Game of Thrones is a unique example given that the most voracious participants in the pre-air conversation clearly have predetermined opinions about the project. This is understandable: Martin’s books have created dedicated fandoms, fostering a deep connection tested by reviews which actively challenge the legitimacy of the source material. As someone who has also read the books, and considers myself a fan of Martin’s writing style, I completely understand where these readers are coming from, and had similar reactions to those reviews.

However, as evidenced by my post last weekend and some of the Twitter conversations I have been having this week, I have found myself interrogating the fandom and their approach to these reviews. I’ve come to realize that this perhaps seems unfairly critical: the worst behavior has been isolated within a small minority, and it is equally important to call attention to those reviewers who have shown contempt for fantasy as a genre or fans in general.

Though this is true, I want to make clear that my criticism comes out of concern, not out of distaste. While the response to pre-air reviews may be understandable, I think the intensity of that response has brushed up against one of the biggest problems with pre-air reviews. Essentially, the reviewer and the commenters are coming from two completely different places: the reviewer has seen the show, and the commenter has not. While this does not mean that commenters are unable to take issue with the nature of the review, one can’t escape the fact that the situation is predicated on a dichotomy between a critic with access and fans following (comparatively) blind devotion to the source material.

I want to take a moment ahead of tomorrow night’s premiere to contextualize my concern, and to emphasize the value of this fan passion in the week ahead – we sit at an important turning point, one that will empower the fans who have been anticipating the show for a very long time, and I do not want my concern to prohibit the kind of discussion that I feel this fandom and this show should inspire.

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Questions of Taste: Dissecting the Dissection of Early Reviews of HBO’s Game of Thrones

Questions of Taste: Dissecting the Dissection of Early Reviews

April 9th, 2011

We are entering the period in which HBO’s Game of Thrones will be placed under the critical microscope – while a few early reviews (my own included, I guess) were overwhelmingly positive, it was inevitable that some less-than-positive reviews would filter in.

And thus begins the dance of deconstruction, as the reviewers interrogate the text and the fans interrogate the reviewers. It’s common practice in online criticism, although normally centered around films from beloved directors/studios or with considerable fan hype; by the time most television shows build up a substantial fanbase in later seasons, pre-air reviews are not particularly common, and are not nearly as contentious. At that point, the show has already been established, so a negative review is unlikely to make any real impact on a show’s success.

However, Game of Thrones‘ built-in fanbase has created a scenario not unlike the Rottenwatch trend within film, as each review is dissected and analyzed in order to explain – or, rather, explain away – the writer’s disappointment. Now, I have to be honest when I say that I generally find this practice problematic, especially since many of the people who are leading the charge have not actually seen the episodes in question (although I take their point that some of the reviewers make it seem as though they haven’t seen them either). While I think there is value in analyzing reviews of a particular program, and would certainly agree with some of the criticisms that fans have had for the reviewers in question, I find myself uncomfortable with some of the dismissal strategies being used in the process.

And, admittedly, I’m also uncomfortable that it’s only happening with the negative reviews.

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A Plea for Pawnee: The Return of NBC’s Parks and Recreation

A Plea for Pawnee: The Return of Parks and Recreation

January 20th, 2011

Parks and Recreation was my favorite show on television last year.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know this. Despite the series’ absence from NBC’s fall schedule, the series has loomed large in both year-end lists and in week-to-week discussion of every other comedy on television. History will remember Outsourced as the show which bumped Parks and Recreation from the 2010 Fall schedule, if it remembers it at all. Even as Community has put together a string of winning episode  and Cougar Town has gained a certain cult following, Parks and Recreation was hanging around like the ghost of DJ Roomba, replacing the endless loop of the Black Eyed Peas with instantaneous access to the sterling second season on Netflix.

However, let’s get real for a moment. You might not be a regular reader of this blog, and you might not have any idea what a “DJ Roomba” even is. You might be one of those people who watched some of the series’ inconsistent episodes early in its short first season and decided that it wasn’t worth your time. It’s also possible that you just never found the show, limiting your NBC Thursday viewing to The Office and whatever happens to air after The Office. And, who knows, you might have no idea what any of this means, and just got here by randomly searching “Black Eyes Peas instantaneous access.”

Whatever category you fall into, however, you really need to watch Parks and Recreation. It is returning to television as part of an extended NBC comedy block, allowing for a certain degree of promotional attention, and it is finally nestled comfortably behind The Office where it should have been all along. And, as if that weren’t enough, the first six episodes of the third season are enormously confident, delivering big laughs while seamlessly transitioning into a new ongoing story arc. There has never been a better time to watch this show, and that’s saying something considering that there is never a bad time to watch this show.

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Conan the Morning After: Critics Respond to the Premiere

Conan the Morning After: “Baa Baa Blackmail”

November 9th, 2010

Despite what their titles or tags may say, no one really “reviewed” Conan last night.

While an evaluative measure may have been undertaken by numerous critics, it is always with an asterisk: yes, we all had our opinions following Conan O’Brien’s return to late night television, but making a judgment based on a single episode of a show which plans to air four episodes a week is effectively impossible.

This should not, and did not, stop critics from being critical of his performance or from offering their perspective, but it does limit critics to what I’d consider to be “personal responses.” It becomes about what expectations we had going into the broadcast, and whether or not the “Baa Baa Blackmail” (the premiere’s rather fun “title”) lived up to those expectations depends on what precisely we wanted or expected to see.

By collecting some of these responses, i hope to be able to demonstrate that Conan and late night in general are many things to many critics, and that the show is in many ways “for” the precise opposite audience.

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Mad Men the Morning After: Critics visit “Tomorrowland”

Mad Men the Morning After: “Tomorrowland”

October 18th, 2010

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to stop in with an installment of Mad Men the Morning After, but with my students writing midterms this morning and more critics than usual getting their reviews up late last night, I figure it’s as good a time as any to return. I’m not going to be able to offer as much detail as I ideally would, as I’m still quite busy, but I think we still need to compile the collective wisdom of the online television critics on the divisive, yet unquestionably compelling, “Tomorrowland.”

First off, my own review here at Cultural Learnings.

Season Finale: Mad Men – “Tomorrowland” [CL]

“And there’s your central irony: in an episode named after an amusement park’s glimpse into the future, “Tomorrowland” is devoid of any clear sense of where this is all headed. Last year was, in many ways, simpler, but there was an upward trajectory: the agency was new, certainly, but there was unrealized potential. At the end of the fourth season, however, most everything seems to be headed in the opposite direction: Joan is about to start really showing, Don and Megan’s relationship could implode at any moment, and Betty and Henry’s relationship is more tenuous than ever.”

However, I also wrote up a short piece for Antenna, where a collection of scholars have been writing about the show all season – I link to all of their posts within my finale piece, and I definitely think they’re worth a read if you’re interested in more academic readings of race, music, history, gender and other themes prevalent in the series.

Mr. Draper’s Wild Ride: “Tomorrowland” [Antenna]

However, what I find most interesting is those moments trapped between action and reaction: was Don’s New York Times ad a confident action, or a desperate reaction to Lucky Strike’s departure? And was his decision to marry Megan an action to regain control of his life, or a reaction to the short-term stability she offered and its potential role in solving his identity crisis? When we start pondering Don’s motivations, we get trapped in a vicious cycle wherein his true purpose seems hopelessly lost, but this has always been the case. Don’s actions in the finale are just as confounding and complex as they were before, and so we can still frame this finale – as disruptive as it first seemed, to me at least – in the context of previous seasons.

Meanwhile, Alan Sepinwall continues his great coverage of the show (which will continue in a podcast with Daniel Fienberg later today) in his review – I specifically enjoyed his unpacking of Don’s romantic claim as he and Megan are engaged.

Mad Men – Tomorrowland: I spill your milkshake! [HitFix]

“He doesn’t seem well-adjusted so much as he seems like Stepford Don. Look no further than the moment, after proposing to a stunned Megan, when he asks, “Did you ever think of the number of things that had to happen for me to get to know you?”…[Here Alan delves into just that]… Don looks at this chain of events as some evidence of romantic destiny, where others (including me) might see him in that moment being not unlike Tony Soprano, a narcissist viewing other people’s suffering as necessary for his own personal growth.”

Not surprisingly, Don was the prominent subject of conversation for just about every critic, including Time’s James Poniewozik who makes a fitting allusion in his description of Don’s marital mind.

Mad Men Watch: Put a Ring On It [Tuned In]

“From a 21st-century perspective, the choice between Faye and Megan is, on the surface, one between a more enlightened version of Don and a more traditional one: the professional versus the secretary, the outspoken, tough woman versus the sweet accommodator. But Don’s picking Megan over Faye in this version of Bachelor ’65 is not just about his making the less feminist choice. It’s about him rejecting someone who really knows him and who he’s been for someone who knows “who you are now”—an idealized, and carefully fictionalized, version of him.”

Now, I don’t think many of us saw this much development happening this quickly for Don and Megan, but Keith Phipps at The A.V. Club speaks to how the unexpected contributes to the show’s success in his great review.

TV Club – “Tomorrowland” – Mad Men [The A.V. Club]

“The fact that I never know where Mad Men is going is part of why I love the show. But it’s not that I love the unpredictability of it, if only because the word “unpredictability” implies a much wilder ride than we usually get. It’s that these characters, so intimately realized in every detail, never seem like they’re being pulled along by anything so mundane as plot mechanics. There always seem to be bigger forces at work.”

Those bigger forces were pretty big this time around, though, and that raised some concerns. While there has yet to be an outright negative review of the finale, these concerns have been a topic of most reviews, although Maureen Ryan at AOL quite nicely demonstrates the thematic value of these forces.

Mad Men Finale – ‘Tomorrowland’ [TV Squad]

“The magic of the lyrical ‘Mad Men’ finale was that it beautifully conveyed that sense of falling in love — the feeling that time stops and the world only consists of two people who share an exquisite connection. In this hushed, quietly paced episode, we were inside Don/Dick’s head and heart as he fell for Megan. The finely calibrated moments, the pure intimacies — they all disarmed us just as Megan unwittingly disarmed her man. Who could resist?”

I would personally resist using the word lyrical to describe the finale, being that it was more a siren’s song than a beautiful lullaby in my books, but I certainly agree that Don and Megan’s romance had a powerful force behind it. As Jace Lacob points out, that force was obvious as soon as a certain object entered into the fray.

Tomorrowland: Facing the Future [Televisionary]

“Anna’s engagement ring was the marital equivalent of Chekhov’s gun: it had to go off before the end of the episode. In a way, it’s fitting that Don should choose to give Megan this particular ring, its weight heavy in his pocket. Just as he had stolen Don Draper’s identity so many years earlier, Anna makes his transformation complete, obliterating Dick Whitman not only with her death but with this final boon. But while Don came clean to Faye about his past and his mistakes, Don starts out his new life with Megan with a lie, saying that the ring has been in his family for a long time. Yes, he corrects himself by saying that it belonged to someone he cared for deeply, but the damage is potentially done.”

However, it is possible that this intense focus on Don within the episode was perhaps too powerful, in that other characters played only a cursory role. This was perhaps especially true with Joan, as Ryan McGee laments (in an overall quite positive review) that there wasn’t enough explanation for why Joan would make this decision within the text itself.

Mad Men – “Tomorrowland” [Boob Tube Dude]

“…in typical “Mad Men” fashion, Season 5 will probably start with Joan already a mother. Kudos to those that accurately predicted this, but I hate not that I was wrong so much as the choice to have her lie in the first place. It’s not like she’s lying about how many licks it took her to get to the center of a freakin’ Tootsie Pop, people. It’s a bit bigger than that, and while I’ll reserve final judgment for how the show deals with this in the future, I can’t say I’m particularly thrilled with this choice overall.”

Meanwhile, Nick at Monsters of TV has some interesting insight into the title, arguing that the scenario constructs an image of Don’s future he cannot refuse.

Mad Men – “Tomorrowland” [Monsters of TV]

“Don Draper has his own little Tomorrowland going. The moment he walks into the restaurant and sees his family in the booth, he looks at it almost like a model of his future. This is the paradise, the peace, the comfort he seeks. And while there are differences from what he knows, ultimately, this is just a relic from the past he sells to himself as the utopian future. So while you think about how Don’s actions in this episode are sudden and without motivation, consider his discussion with Anna when they first started discussing Betty in the Christmas flashback sequences. Seem relatively familiar? When Betty handed him the key to his house, she might as well have said, “Congratulations. Here is the key to the detritus of your past. You can match it to the building blocks of your future.”

Maybe my mind is failing me, but I remember a different Disney World ride where you see the model of a nuclear family, some sort of constructed image of who you are supposed to be. Disneyland (or World, take your pick) is the ultimate simulacrum, to the point where Mad Men is able to develop a fairly complex metaphorical meaning with only an episode title and a brief discussion of the park. It is the place which makes the commercial lyrical, and in some ways California as a whole serve a similar purpose for the show in terms of the dream-like state it creates.

However, that’s enough from me – I’d now like to turn it over to two critics who have been making some great observations about the show but who don’t have a direct home for their work. First, The A.V. Club and L.A. Times Showtracker’s Todd VanDerWerff (who is also, of course, a friend of the blog) offers his glimpse into “Tomorrowland”:

“Tomorrowland” struck me as the most Sopranos-esque finale yet. The Sopranos is the most significant touchstone when looking at earlier series that have influenced Mad Men. It borrows that shows “collection of short stories” structure, and it has a similar love of anticlimax. (The reason “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” felt so SATISFYING was because it allowed a bunch of stuff we didn’t expect to have a climax to have a climax.) In that sense, “Tomorrowland” is a nice callback to the show’s most important influence. Like most Sopranos finales, it promises a bunch of big, climactic moments that then fizzle out. The firm almost falls apart. Then it doesn’t. Don and Faye are having a great relationship. Then they aren’t. It’s an episode about what people do when they’re up against the wall and then abruptly realize the wall is no longer there. It’s also a pretty great reverse of the Sopranos season four finale, “Meadowlands.” In that episode, a relationship crumbles. In this one, a new relationship forms. Above all, “Tomorrowland” made me as nervous as the show ever has. I’m willing to give the Don and Megan thing a shot, since I think Jessica Pare is a fine actress and I liked that scene where the milkshake spilled and she didn’t freak out. But there’s even more of a sense of foreboding overhanging everything on the show now. I’ve found that the show doesn’t like to comment on the historical events surrounding the characters directly, but have the show’s emotional mood roughly parallel the nation’s emotional mood at that point in time. In that sense, the foreboding is appropriate. I wouldn’t say “Tomorrowland” was my favorite episode of the show, and it’s probably the weakest finale the show has done up until this point, but there are moments in it as strong as anything the show has done – the final scene between Don and Betty (funny how the seasons keep ending with scenes between these two), Joan and Peggy getting “real,” Peggy and Ken’s pitch to Topaz, etc. And I liked the continuing portrayal of California as a kind of heaven on Earth, where you probably shouldn’t trust how you’re acting, but you give in to how good it feels anyway.

And then, I was very pleased to get some thoughts from EW’s Jeff “Doc” Jensen, who has been writing weekend Mad Men posts at EW without any other outlet to analyze the respond to the series directly after it airs. As a result, I asked him he he would offer his own insights into the finale, and he was kind enough to oblige with some really fantastic analysis:

Why I’m Dreading Don Draper’s Tomorrowland…

Why Don’s Proposal Was Genius: Because of the variety of viewpoints its inspiring. It seems a lot of people have different opinions on whether or not Don’s proposal was a fulfillment of Dr. Miller’s cynical prophecy earlier in the season about Don (he’ll be married within a year) or a fulfillment of her exhortation in the early scene of the finale (make peace with the past; fresh start for the future). Is Megan yet one more escape or the expression of born again living? If it’s the latter, their relationship could still fall apart for a varety of reasons.

Why Don’s Proposal Wasn’t Genius: If this was the set-up for next season–a season in which Don will be married to Megan and we get episodes devoted to their relationship and its unraveling (or flourishing)–I find myself dreading, not anticipating, next year. I simply don’t know if I find that story promising or interesting. I feel almost deflated by the thought, actually. Which is disappointing. Mad Men finales usually leave me feeling elated, ‘I can’t wait for next year!’ Not this one. See James P.’s line: “… Mad Men somewhat returning to scenarios and conflicts we’d seen play out before…”

I really kinda believe that Matthew Weiner will end the show with the fifth season. If he does, I bet the first ep of next year is constructed to mirror the pilot, in which we spent a day in the life of Don, building to the “twist” ending that this man who seemed to be a raking bachelor actually had a wife and kids in the suburbs. The season premiere will do something similar. It’ll be set 6 mos-1 year in the future, and we’ll spend a day in the life of Don, building up to him returning home… and we find out he’s living alone, or with Dr. Miller, or even with–eek!–Betty.

I guess this is me saying I didn’t like “Tomorrowland” or didn’t like the turn it took, even if we were prepped for this all season long. As shocking as Don’s decision was, I get it. KINDA. I do think, to some degree, Weiner sacrificed character logic for theme here. (I think Joan’s decision to keep the baby–a sort of analogous “change for change sake” move–was more credible.) But if we were to learn right away that Don quickly sobered up from his California high and recanted of his rash, impulsive, idealistic proposal, we’ll all be revisiting “Tomorrowland” and reconsidering it. In fact, I find myself taken with the notion of rewatching the finale with exactly that frame of mind, and processing it less as forward-spinning set-up for next season and more as a stand-alone piece that comments on Don’s season 4 journey. I think it’ll work better for me–because as much as I like Megan, I really don’t want to spend 13 episodes next year–or even just a few–waiting for it to all fall apart.

Megan. Finally, an “other woman” that succeeds in doing what no other “other woman” has done before: Inspiring Don to leave his blonde bedrock. And yet, she has married him knowing he’s a cheater. I have to think that suspicion and paranoia will quickly settle in for her–especially after that first biz trip.

I haven’t really considered the role that guilt may have played in Don’s proposal. Early in the episode, we saw Don dreading his visit to California. There could be many, California-specific reasons for that dread, but one thought I didn’t consider until this morning is this: Don knows what happens to him when he travels. When he travels, he becomes unsettled, as we all do. But when Don gets unsettled, he risks becoming utterly unmoored, and he is tempted to stray. And so, going back to the beginning of Tomorrowland, we saw and heard Don acknowledge that he had a good thing going with Dr. Miller; I wonder if his is dread had something to do with knowing that he was putting himself in a position where he could easily sabotage his own happiness. After all, he knew he was heading right toward that Cal-Berkeley girl that had tickled his fancy earlier this season.

Well, he was tempted, but by what Megan represented, and he succumbed. But it could be a measure of how far he’s come–and how far he still has to go–that he responded to his latest infidelity/indiscretion by trying to redeem it, trying to make it “mean something.”

To put another way: He felt guilty. And Don doesn’t like feeling guilty; he doesn’t want to even believe in the concept. And so the way he rationalizes away this latest wrong is to make it gloriously right. Hence, these epiphanies that run absolutely counter to Don’s allegedly nihlistic, utilitarian ethos. And so now he loves her. He has always loved her, for as long in fact! And suddenly, it seems something like fate has conspired to bring them together…

From this perspective, Don’s latest manifestation of “Donnishness” doesn’t seem as egregious; from the “rationalizing guilt” perspective, I am left feeling kinda bad for him, actually. If there’s a story to be told about the Don/Megan marriage, I hope it’s one in which Don realizes the real reasons for wanting to marry Megan, but doesn’t let that epiphany defeat him, but rather let it reveal to him that he actually believes in something, and wants to believe in something. I just hope he can have that epiphany without totally ruining that girl.

There’s been a lot of love thrown the way of the Peggy/Joan scene. Allow me to be a slightly contrarian voice. I as amused by the scene and thought it added to the whole. At the same time, upon reflection, it feels forced, and I find myself thinking this thought: Was Matthew Weiner calling out and responding to some criticisms regarding the season’s treatment of women with that scene and the whole episode? The whole episode both seemed to promote and subvert its female characters at the same time. Peggy landed an account; her success was overshadowed. Joan got a new, fancy title; but no real substance to it, certainly no money. Megan got engaged to golden boy Don–but may have also just said “I do” to much future pain. Betty let go of the house, yet burned every possible bridge and was confronted by the fact that she is utterly alone. With that as context, the Peggy/Joan scene stands out provocatively and oddly. The scene basically had them bitching about being marginalized, and when Joan tried to rationalize her disappointment, Peggy called bullshit. That seems ripe for some discussion about the possibility that Matthew was being meta about his own show and the growing disatisfaction with its depiction of women. That scene, to me, seemed to be Matthew trying to say, “I call bullshit on your criticism of my female characters! My show’s depiction of women is honest to the period–but yes, I hear you, it’s getting frustrating to watch.” (I reserve the right to refine the point Weiner may have been trying to make; this is being written under duress of needing to catch a flight pronto!)

As promised, the rest of the reviews as I read them:

Heather Havrilesky [Salon]:

“Thank God for the brief scene where Peggy and Joan bemoan the stupidity of men marrying their secretaries. Finally, Peggy calls Joan on her lies, and Joan laughs in response. It would be so nice to see these two actually join forces – but of course, there are a million and one ways that the norms of the times will keep them on opposing teams.”

Linda Holmes [NPR]:

“The matter of Don’s identity has always been one of bifurcation: Dick Whitman or Don Draper. He was pretending to be one, when in reality, he was the other. But this season was not about the dichotomy between Don and Dick, but about the fact that there are not, in fact, two men — there is one man, a man who is neither of those men exactly, and that one man still has to figure out what to do next. Choosing between his names is utterly beside the point.”

Ginia Bellafante [New York Times]:

“An hour after viewing and mulling this over, though, I still can’t come to a resolution over whether Don’s decision to make Megan the next Mrs. Draper is reasonable or insane.”

Eric Deggans [The Feed]:

“I have been told by much more accomplished storytellers than myself that this season was among the series’ best. But I have been deeply ambivalent about the episodes, and Sunday’s finale left me more convinced than ever that we have seen a gifted TV showman dazzling us with misdirection and craft when the actual story falters.”

Matt Zoller Seitz [The New Republic]:

The whole episode had (for me, at least) a pleasurably off-kilter feel. It was written and performed as a straight drama with comedic interludes, the show’s go-to mode. But the courtship-to-engagement story played out so fast—and came about so suddenly, as Don’s finger-snap solution to Betty’s depriving him of child care by impulsively firing Carla—that by time Don hauled out that ring, “Tomorrowland” felt a couple of degrees removed from farce.

Tim Goodman [S.F. Chronicle]:

One of the interesting issues here, of course, is what she’s worried about with Glen. Maybe she thinks he’s creepy and, since he couldn’t have her, is now after her daughter. Or maybe it’s the other way around – Glen pursuing an interest in Sally is another rejection of Betty.

Cory Barker [TV Surveillance]:

I think I can objectively say that this is one of the most, if not the most frustrating hour of the series yet. But how or if does that influence the analysis, which in the case of this series, seems much more interested in extracting themes, making connections and doing more, I guess, analysis than criticism?

Cultural Observations

  • The lingering question: where do we place this season? James Poniewozik suggests that it slots in just behind Season One, but it’s interesting that “Tomorrowland” has the opposite effect of “Sit Down. Have a Seat.” That finale made the entire season look better than it was, while this finale might make this season seem comparatively worse if you are displeased with the results.
  • For even MORE discussion of the finale, the Firewall and Iceberg AND Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcasts both have episodes about the finale (the latter featuring Todd VanDerWerff), the new Extra Hot Great podcast covers the finale in their second episode, and I participated in the Mad World Podcast‘s finale episode earlier today, which will go up sometime soon.


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