Monday, December 22, 2014

Mad Men Season 3, Episode 2: Love Among the Ruins

Beautiful, young Ann-Margret is rushing up to the screen, singing her heart out against a blue screen.  It's a scene from "Bye, Bye Birdie" and Sterling Cooper's new client Patio wants to use it, frame for frame, in a copycat commercial pushing its new soda, a rival to Coke's Diet Rite Cola.  Who cares if it makes sense? If that's what the client wants, that's what they'll get.  So says new co-head of accounts, Ken Cosgrove.  On the creative side of the team, Peggy questions how that image will sell the product to women, but no one wants to hear her opinion.  Not when there's a casting call for Ann-Margret lookalikes on the horizon.

Betty is frazzled, and very pregnant.  Don worries she's not eating enough, she worries that Carla is stealing the Melba toast.  Betty picked now to do some home decorating and it's probably not a great idea to do anything while you're the size of a whale and feel like you've run three marathons.  She's working with a decorator but she'd like to take the family up to Tarrytown, a suburb about 25 miles north of the city, that has antique shops.  Don, model husband, agrees with her and they make a plan to go up there.  It's not riveting, just a slice of domestic life.

Pete is working on a PR nightmare   How to sell the newly-planned Madison Square Garden which will be built upon the current site of Penn Station, a Beaux Arts masterpiece.  Pete is the accounts man so he brings to the meeting Paul from creative.  Only problem, Paul is as outraged by their plan to scuttle the beautiful landmark as are those protesting the sale.  Paul is not the right man for the job and not what the client wants to hear and Pete should not have brought him to this meeting. They have to do a lot of damage control and quickly.

Lane's wife gripes about living in New York in this tense dinner.

But the men from MSG are not the only unhappy campers in New York.  Lane's wife hates living there and wishes she were back in London and nothing that Don or Betty do or say at that awkward, tense dinner will change that simple fact.  Betty is unhappy to learn from her brother that her father is not doing well and that his girlfriend/caretaker has moved out. Don is unhappy to learn that Betty wants her father, and her brother and his family, to come down for the weekend.  Mona is unhappy to learn that Roger's new wife expects to be part of their daughter's wedding and Jane is unhappy that her husband is unhappy that Roger is paying for the wedding (a wedding which Roger is now unhappy about).  Oh, and Bert Cooper is unhappy he had to walk across the office just to hear that the firm lost the Campbell soup account.

Peggy is bombarded with suggestions of what men want from women, how they want women to be sexy and flirtatious - whether it's Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie or Joan Harris at the office, sex is the commodity that she sees women trading on.  It weighs heavily on her mind as we see as she acts out the flirtatious scene from the movie alone in her apartment and then later acts out Joan's line at a bar after work.  I think she was shocked and disappointed that Don didn't agree with her and think the "sex sells" approach to Patio was obvious and shortsighted.  So Peggy tried on that other persona, the one who can pick up a stranger at a bar and have a one night stand.

Don looks wistfully at the free-spirited Ann-Margret
Most everyone in this episode is dissatisfied and not getting what they want.  They don't want to be told no - whether it's Roger being told his new wife isn't welcome at his daughter's wedding or the Madison Square Garden executives being told their new project is unpopular - even if the opposition is valid or at least fully understandable.  Sterling Cooper doesn't get the client Don worked so hard to keep and Lane seems just as frustrated that his hands are being tied by the folks back home.  And speaking of home, Don certainly doesn't want Betty's "bastard" of a father in his home, but he also doesn't want her being unhappy and so he gets a new boarder.

Hope versus decay, the future - a shining city on the hill - or the past. Those are the choices. Things will crumble and die, can something rise from the ashes?  Can Roger's relationship with his daughter be salvaged, can Sterling Cooper work under the restrictions of their new owners, can Don and Betty's marriage survive her father moving in with the problems that his failing mental condition brings with him, can Peggy find her identity?  Can Don resist the attraction of the shiny, new while pretending to be an upright family man?  

We know Don is not living his vow of fidelity, but still his captivation with Sally's teacher is jolting.  How he watches her gambol about, barefoot, flowers in her hair.  He had told Peggy that watching Ann-Margret made his heart hurt and you see in his face some spark, some rejuvenation, when looking at these young girls.  They are, like California, new and clean and filled with hope.

This episode is about the struggle and conflict, not the resolution.  No one seems content with where they are by the end, despite that shiny photo of the happy multi-generational family. 


Love Among the Ruins is an 1855 poem by Robert Browning which, in essence, spreads the message that all great things may come to an end.  But while the great and powerful empires may crumble,  love can survive.

Remember Polaroid pictures (maybe you remember shaking it like on in the "Hey Ya" song?).  Didn't remember that they were $3 a piece (and that's when gas was .30 a gallon).

There was great uproar about the building of Madison Square Garden.  An editorial in the New York Times said:
Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.
The NY Time writer they mentioned, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote, after losing the fight to save Penn Station:
Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.
Following what many saw as the desecration of a sacred architectural landmark, the state instituted a law to protect future historical sites from the same fate.

Betty's brother mentions what her father said in a earlier episode - that Don had no one at their wedding.  That's something that 10 - 9 years later is still bothering them. We also learn that Betty and her father "fought all the time." 

We the audience wince at hearing that Margaret's wedding is scheduled for November 22, 1963 as we know what will transpire the day before in Dallas, Texas will make any conflict between Jane and Margaret seem trivial.

The scene of Don watching the teacher dance, reminds me of the scene of Kevin Spacey watching Mena Suvari do the cheerleading number in "American Beauty," the same sense of obsession and menace (albeit with a more age-appropriate couple and a better looking potentially cheating husband).


Peggy: Clients don't always know what's best.

Pete:  My great-great-grandfather, Silas Dyckman, would have turned his boat around If he had known that this city would one day be filled with crybabies.

Paul:  Do you know where the greatest roman ruins are? They're in Greece, Spain, Because the Romans tore theirs all down.  They took apart the Colosseum to build their outhouses.

Joan:  Other than Wilma Flinstone, I haven't seen anyone carry that well.

Lane: Well, if this is where we wanted to end up, we all did everything perfectly.

Roger:  Oh, look.  Princess Grace just swallowed a basketball.
Betty: How are you, Roger? 
Roger:  It's not hard to adjust to happiness.

Mrs. Price (to Don and Betty): How long have you been together? 
(Simultaneously) Betty: Nine years.  Don: Ten years.

Roger:  Eat our sweetmeats, drink our wine.  I understand one of our copywriters took a Yetta Wallenda-sized misstep. 

Don: Let's also say that change is neither good or bad, It simply is.  It can be greeted with terror or joy-- A tantrum that says "I want it the way it was" or a dance that says "look, it's something new."

Don: If you don't like what is being said, change the conversation.

Betty: All you care about is the house.  You want to walk in there, see Daddy on the bottom of the stairs and have his last words be "take the house."

Don: It's pure.  Makes your heart hurt. 

Don: You're not an artist, Peggy. You solve problems.

Gene: The plans, the plans, the plans you make.

Spoilery observation (don't read if you're not caught up!): 

First time we meet Sally's teacher, first time we see Don see her. And he watches her free spirited dance as he  runs his hands across the grass and it's strangely sexual.  He comes so close to running off with her, stopped only when confronted by the knowledge that Betty has finally discovered who she's been married to all this time.

First red flag that the British overlords may not always be in sync with what the guys on Madison Avenue want.  Lane is not a mere mouthpiece for Puttnam, Powell and Lowe.  You can see how he is already on the other side of the us versus them, feeling more a part of Sterling Cooper than the mothership from where he came.  

The secretary at the office tries to guess the sex of Betty's baby (who Betty refers to as "she"), but we know that the baby will be a boy (and will be named after Betty's father).  Again, we're whacked between the eyes with how different pregnant mothers were in the Sixties, what with Betty drinking alcohol, smoking and eating shellfish - the prenatal trifecta of no-nos!

William says - one thing I've learned from this is never get old. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Recapping Survivor San Juan Del Sur Finale: All hail Queen Natalie

How's this for a reality TV redemption arc?  Natalie Anderson lost The Amazing Race, twice, and irritated thousands of annoyed viewers with her grating, sniping relationship with her twin sister Nadiya.  Then, on her third time on an unscripted CBS series, she not only wins the game and the $1,000,000 prize but is beloved in the process.  All Hail Queen Natalie, the Most Bad Ass of them all.

How'd she do it?  With a combination of spunk, determination, and humor that made her as fun to watch as she was fun to root for.  Natalie was playing the game from day one and never seemed to let her eye off the prize.  So many steps she made along the way led her to the victory.  From allying with fellow superfan Jeremy, to developing a tight relationship with Baylor, to keeping in mind that strategic players get rewarded in the end, she made nearly the perfect move at every opportunity.

Remember how it was this little spitfire to got into the shouting match with John Rocker?  She stood up for herself, her tribe, and everyone who Rocker had ever maligned, leading to getting one of the strongest players removed by his own team?  She was the one who volunteered to go to Exile Island, twice.  She was the one who first thought of giving away her reward to build loyalty and trust.  She was the one who bounced back from having her loved one eliminated first and used it to her advantage.  She was the one who worked hard back at camp and was never seen whining or complaining.

But she was also the one who was able to scramble quickly when things didn't go her way.  When she was blindsided by the vote to oust Jeremy, Natalie could have had a meltdown, freaked out, and sealed her own fate. Instead, she pretended to understand, said all was forgiven, and snuggled even closer to her alliance - long enough to return the blindside favor to both Jon and Baylor.  When Reed almost maneuvered for Jon's ouster, at a time when the numbers would have worked against her - she quickly saw what was developing and saved Jon from himself.  When the numbers were getting low, and her eyes were fixed on getting rid of Jon, she figured out how to keep his biggest challenge threat in the game (by voting out Alec instead of Keith) and yet was able to play dumb and not let on that it was all strategy.

I cannot find a fault in her play over the entire 39 days.

It says a lot about Survivor that the first person eliminated was the identical twin of the last person standing.  Having a big personality, playing hard, can mean you're the first boot or the sole survivor.  Of course luck - which tribe you're on, what competitions you play, who quits, tribe swaps, etc. - has a part in who wins.  But there are some personality types that literally are of the go big or go home variety and the Twinnies seem to possess that exact makeup.  I saw in both of them strong, smart women who understood the game and came to play hard.  For one, it was an utter failure, for another it was a sublime success.

What I don't want to hear is how easy Natalie had it or how all she had to do was outplay the combine brain power of slack-jawed Alec, golly gee Jon, and the hillbilly spitter from Louisiana.  One, as I had drummed in my brain when I questioned Derrick's Big Brother 16 win against a weak field, it is often harder to play a good strategic game when you're playing alone.  Two, the critique about Natalie's competition this season ignores that there were true superfans on the show who played hard and failed gloriously, most notably Josh, Reed and Jeremy.

Maybe it's hard for Survivor fans to give women credit for strategic play, but for me Natalie Anderson will go down as one of the top ten Survivor winners.    Just look at her last week in the game:
She orchestrated Jon's blindside, decided to backstab her closest remaining ally (Baylor) and managed to convince both Missy and Jaclyn to take her to the final three.  She managed to outwit, outplay and outlast two superfans who had made it together through the merge - Josh and Reed - and get them not to target her as a threat to their game.  She played a stunning social game while also winning individual immunity and finding a hidden immunity idol.  
That's how you win Survivor.

My favorite players from this year were Natalie, Jeremy, Reed and Josh, and none of them disappointed in the end.  In fact, Reed gave what to me was the second best Tribal Council speech of all time (behind Sue Hawk's never-to-be-outdone rats v. snakes speech).  He very accurately portrayed what camp life must have felt like during the Missy and Baylor show and why the Blood v. Water set up is so ingenious.  Without Baylor there, Missy might have been the loving den mother, adored by all the tribe.  With her daughter there, well, we saw how she was seen by at least one of her fellow tribemates.

Jeremy also did a great job at tribal, pointing to the, uh, less aware jurors (those like Alec who looked to be a screen shot but were actually just sitting there mouth agape for an ungodly amount of time or those like Wes who were thinking more about their next meal than their next vote) who deserved the win, who played the best, who should get the title "Sole Survivor."  Sometimes it's important to remind people who are playing the game that the winner should be not their best friend or the one who did them the least harm or the person who needs the money the most, but the person who played the best game.

For Survivor San Juan Del Sur Blood v. Water 2, that person was Natalie Anderson.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Recapping The Voice Finale: Matt McAndrew takes us Over the Rainbow to find his Wasted Love

The boys' club that is The Voice Season 7's finale was a lopsided affair, with three members of Team Adam competing against the lone outsider, a country music veteran with deep ties in the Nashville community.  Will the outcome be based on on tonight's performances alone or will people vote for their season-long favorites?  Will those with strong connections to organized fan bases prevail over newer, less-connected artists?  Will Gwen stay awake after her energetic headlining performance at last night's KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas?  And will Pharrell rethink his strategy and wonder where he went so wrong (hint, rhymes with Cougar)?

Damien was singing one of my favorite songs, "A Song for You," which they attributed to Donny Hathaway, but I always think of as Leon Russell's. *Turns out Leon actually wrote it, so my associating it with him is not that crazy!  There's never been a question about Damien's voice.  He has a great tone, is always on pitch, and has a good range.  But sometimes there's something missing, a sense that he's singing the notes rather than the song.  And that was the feeling I got with this performance.  It didn't help that he stumbled a bit in the middle, but it was simply not electric.

Next up was Craig Wayne Boyd with an original song penned by his coach Blake Shelton, "My Baby's Got a Smile on her Face."  It's not a stretch to think that if this were a great song, Blake would have recorded it himself (I'm not buying that he was saving it for someone with a better voice).  Having said that, Craig did a solid job with the middling song.  He's got a bit too much twang for my taste, but for his genre, Craig has one of the better voices.  And he does a good job connecting with the crowd and working the stage.

Chris Jamison's transformation into Adam's doppelganger is now complete.  Their duet on Robin Thicke's "Lost Without You" was perfect, like scarily good.  As if they're the same person and using a split screen,or  maybe Adam cloned himself years ago so he'd never age, or one of them sold his soul to the devil so they could each hit their respective notes unfailingly, something weird like that.  Their voices blend so ideally, bringing out the best in each, they should run not walk to the nearest recording studio.

Just when I thought things could not get any better, Matt McAndrew came on to debut his original single, "Wasted Love."  It was an inspired choice, and fit him like an oversized pair of Harry Potter style glasses.  Usually "original song" means something watered down and instantly forgettable, this reminded me of the hit that Phil Phillips had following his American Idol win.  It was melodic and heartfelt and Matt's voice was perfect for it.  He can be emotional without being cloying or histrionic, conveying genuine feeling so that we all ended up hoping he found what he was looking for.  He should have dropped his mic and walked off the stage like a boss after that.

There's more?  Okay.  I guess you have to fill up the two hours, but did you hear that last song?

Next up was Duet, Craig and Blake, on Randy Houser's "Boots On."  It's a nice, catchy, but ultimately insubstantial country song. They sounded good and I liked their version better than the original.  I did worry that Craig might hurt something trying to be heard over the cacophony behind him, but he did an admirable job getting himself heard over the noise.   Craig should have no trouble from here on, and it does make one wonder why he struggled so with such a good voice.  Really, what I got from this performance, was, man Blake is freakishly tall.

Adam was up for his second of third duets, this time joining Damien on Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me."  It must have been a difficult choice finding a song that would work for both of them as their voices and styles are the most disparate of Adam's three artists.  The song actually helped Damien highlight how he really has a strong, emotional voice as he sold the "although I search myself" line about as well as I've ever heard it.  Probably one of his best vocals of the year, really nice job.

Chris' original song was "Velvet."  It's a Bruno Mars-ish tune, with hints of old school Michael Jackson.  I'm not sure it worked.  I'm not a huge fan of sexy Chris or sexy dancing Chris.  It was the same problem I had with him singing "Sexual Healing" - it doesn't seem to fit him.  I'm also starting to think that Adam is overusing his excellent falsetto.  Didn't Adam's mother ever teach him just because you can do something doesn't mean you should?  A little more judicious use of the falsetto, and less dancing, would work better for me.

Adam's last duet of the night was with Matt on Maroon 5's "Lost Stars."  Okay, I've downed all the Matt Kool Aid because I fell instantly in love with his voice on this song.  It was so rich and mellow, it almost brought tears to my eyes.  Music is a strange thing, how some collection of notes, how some tone, will just hit one person like an arrow and maybe have no affect on someone else.  Matt has one of those voices that hits the sweet spot in my ears.

Craig was up next, doing Alabama's "In Pictures."   For me, this is where Craig shines.  When he's being vulnerable, not hiding behind a loud band or honky tonk melodies, when he's singing from the heart.  I know it's not conceivable to have someone only record slow, tender ballads, but that's the best showcase for Craig's voice.  He was just a man, singing about love and family, dedicating it to his son.  That's as genuine as it gets.  Really great performance.

I don't envy Damien having to follow that.  His original was called "Soldier" and it was a really moving song. I'm not a huge fan of the vocal tics (adding the "uh" and "hah" at the end of each syllable), but you couldn't ignore the sincerity in his performance. I know I've said this about a hundred times (and he's only sing about ten) but Damien has the best pure voice in the competition.  It's a little too churchy for me, but there's no disputing the talent.

It was inevitable that Chris would do Justin Timberlake and his last song of the night was "Cry Me a River."  I was looking forward to this, as I thought it would be in his wheelhouse, but I felt that he faltered a bit.  He was no match for the song, nor the memory of the original.   It was uninspired and watered down, not in the same league as his earlier duet with Adam.

Closing out the night was Matt with "Over the Rainbow."  I"m of two minds about this performance.  On the one hand, I felt that Matt was too restrained, too tentative and too faithful to the original.  Yet he had me on the edge of the coach, mesmerized, throughout the song and by the end, I couldn't catch my breath.  He is the most watchable of the four vocalists, the one I'm most eager to hear every week.  Does he have the best raw voice, the widest range, the best tone?  Probably not, but he's the one who consistently makes me feel something when he sings.

The outcome of this one will be close.  Adam is, of course, spreading his allegiance across three artists and, despite the fact that it was pretty obvious he has a favorite, he can't galvanize his army behind one contestant like Blake can.  Also, the country music fans are great at getting out the vote.  So I can see Craig winning and Matt coming in second.  But none of this matters as much as where their music takes them from here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Putting Johnny Manziel's first pro start into perspective

One of the most equitable headlines about Johnny Manziel's first NFL start was titled: "The hideous, shockingly awful starting debut of Johnny Manziel."  Probably not an article he's going to save for his grandchildren to read some day.

I watched Manziel's first pro start, against the Cleveland Browns' in-state rival Cincinnati Bengals, in all its agonizingly painful ignominy.  Johnny looked small, and lost, and tentative, and hopeless. The usually upbeat, glib, posturing "Johnny Football" was nowhere to be found.  He sprinted off the field with embarrassing haste after two interceptions, then sat on the sidelines, dejected, after numerous 3-and-outs.  The spark Manziel was known for as the Heisman-winning, successfully scrambling QB at Texas A&M was extinguished.  Even the most charitable person would call pro his debut under center a disappointing performance.

But I am not joining the beat up Johnny Football parade.  I'm not tweeting with the hashtag JohnnyInterception or any of the other unfunny puns the schadenfreude brigade filled Twitter with on Sunday.  Because while it was unrealistic to think Manziel was the savior who would carry the Browns into the playoffs on grit and spunk alone, so too is the claim that you can predict his future based on this one start.

Let's go through the history books.  Aaron Rodgers, now one of the preeminent quarterbacks in the league, had a worse debut.  In 2005, then 22-year-old Aaron Rodgers went 8-for-15 for 65 yards, for a completion percentage of 53.3 and average passing yards of 4.33.  He threw no TDs and one interception; his rating was 36.8.  He ran once, for 8 yards.

Matthew Stafford is no Aaron Rodgers, but with an 87.8 rating, he's not exactly chopped liver.  His first game he threw 16-for-37 for 205 yard with three interceptions.    And at 6'3" we know his issue wasn't seeing over the defensive line.

Terry Bradshaw may now be best known for his questionable hair styling, but he was once a star QB for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The former NFL MVP and Hall of Famer's debut?  He went 4-for-16, for 70 yards, and threw one interception.  The rest of his rookie season did not fare much better, but he learned and improved.

Pro Bowl QB Alex Smith was 9-for-23, for 74 yards, with four interceptions his first outing. Former Browns QB Brandon Weedon had his own inauspicious debut going 12-for-35, for 118 yards, with four interceptions.  John Elway didn't shine his first game, Tom Brady was shaky. And how well did you do your first full day on the job?

I get that anyone who calls himself Johnny Football, does more commercials than most seasoned players, hobnobs with celebrities, and parties like a frat boy on Spring Break, is asking for this type of scrutiny and this type of gleeful reaction to his falling short (get it, short?) of his promise.  But don't write Manziel off just yet.  This was one game and it's still too early to see if his inestimable skills can translate to the pros.  I can't say for sure he'll get there, but I know that we don't know the answer to that question after just one game.

For me, the book's still open on Manziel and I'm looking forward to see if there's improvement his next game, and the game after.  He may still show us some of what thrilled us all back at College Station.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Recapping Survivor San Juan Del Sur, Episode 12: Revenge is a dish best served ice cold

Cat while canary learns it's about to be eaten
Do not get on Natalie's bad side.  That girl can hold a grudge as long as she can hold a vase, which turns out to be just long enough to get what she has wanted for a long, long time.  Her desire for karmic payback, retribution, revenge can give her otherworldly powers, including the ability to defy the elements and get them to bend in her direction.  Jon lost that challenge thanks to a gust of wind which Natalie seemingly summoned out of nowhere to strike only his vase, leaving hers untouched.  Meanwhile, Natalie stood stone-like, immutable -- despite having just been on Exile Island for two days with almost no food and certainly no comfort -- and willed herself to win a strength and balance challenge against the perfect physical specimen that is Jon Misch.

Oh, Drew, you had it so wrong.  Natalie Anderson is this season's bad ass.

But not only does she posses powers over her physical environment, Natalie also can also exercise mind control, convincing those around her of whatever narrative she chooses.  After Jeremy's blindside, she told us that she was furious and would avenge him, but Jaclyn and Jon had absolutely no idea she was upset or held any ill will towards them.  After Jon won immunity, ruining her chance to vote him out last time, she hugged him and congratulated him and he had absolutely no idea she was still plotting his demise.  And after she switched her vote, saving Keith, she convinced Jon and Jaclyn that it was a simple mistake, and they had absolutely no idea that it was all part of her devious plan.

Or maybe that isn't a superpower so much as recognizing how dumb and gullible Jon is and playing right into it.  Either way, it's a winning strategy.  Natalie, both figuratively and for one night literally, laid down with the enemy and they had no clue she was there, plotting their demise.  Even after potentially tipping her hand at Tribal Council by voting for Alec, Natalie was still able to deflect all negative attention and bury whatever red flags were raised by feigning stupidity and cluelessness.  Basically, she pretended she was Jon.  And he fell for it.

With everything smoothed over from the night before, it was time for the reward challenge.  I watched a "behind the scenes" video on and saw that the reward challenge was designed by a young fan of the show, Austin, as his "Make a Wish."  He even got to go on location to see his challenge be designed.  It was very cool and you can check it out here.   I don't know if part of his wish was to hobble Missy, but that was what ended up happening, as she came down hard on her ankle during the teeter-totter part of the challenge.

But despite her injury, and her team being behind throughout the challenge, she, Jon and Keith were able to solve the puzzle part of the challenge the fastest and won the spa treatment package.  Jaclyn, proving herself to be a good loser and concerned about Jon's well being, could not let Jon enjoy the victory for a single second.  As Jon was celebrating with his team, and talking about how a trip to the spa would help Missy (the 47-year-old mom who just severely injured herself) feel better, Jaclyn started the eye rolling.  She actually said that him being happy was pissing her off.  That is the sign of true love, when your happiness irritates your significant other.

So, following the tradition of this season, of course Jon gave up his reward, this time to Baylor, so that she and her mom could have the experience of a lifetime.  Jon, have you ever heard the expression "those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it?" You may not have before this, but you probably will a lot in the years to come.  I'm kidding.  I'm sure that giving up your reward will not lead to your being blindsided by the very person you just gifted.  I mean, that's what happened to Jeremy, but what are the chances that would happen again?  That's just silly.

In fact, Jon was so pleased with his decision to give up his reward, he told us in his confessional that giving up the trip to the spa to Baylor would only solidify their alliance and would improve his case to the jury at the finale.  Jon is great at thinking ahead.  He has his whole speech planned out on why he should win.  I see nothing standing in his way!

Meanwhile, Missy's ankle is swelling up bigger than Drew Christy's ego and Keith is enjoying his first spa day (which he poetically describes as knocking the funk off of him), dining on spa food (I'm going to whatever spa thinks brownies are healthy!) and getting his first massage and other "extra curricular stuff."  He worries a little what the guys at the fire station back in Louisiana will think about all that pampering, but I think he doesn't have to worry about his macho card being revoked.  I'm sure spitting in every episode keeps you in good "bro" status.

Back at camp, Jon and Jaclyn are still trying to make sense of Natalie's wonky vote for Alec.  Jaclyn considers, then dismisses, the thought that it was calculated, while Jon is 1,000% sure that Natalie made a mistake and he's going to be able to use it against her when they plead their case in front of the jury at the finals.  This is the dichotomy of their relationship.  Jaclyn questions, Jaclyn has her suspicions raised, Jaclyn thinks, then Jon comes in and tells her everything is great and not to worry her pretty little head.  I hope, in their future together, Jon decides to listen to Jaclyn more and she trusts in his blind loyalty and gullibility less.  Otherwise, they'll be giving all their money over to some Nigerian prince they meet online.

We see Natalie at Exile Island which usually means someone 's about to find the hidden immunity idol, but in this case it was for us to see the vulnerable side of Natalie and understand that behind her tough girl exterior is someone who really misses her twin and is exhausted and worn out but so close to her goal.  Without anyone around, she lets the emotions get to her, but when she's back on the island, she's all business.

Missy's ankle is now so big it's starting to have its own gravitational pull, so Jeff brings in medical which means a cute guy with an even cuter Australian accent will check her out.  Long story short, if this were early in the season, she'd be medivac'd out of there immediately.  But since there are so few days left, it's Missy's decision if she wants to quit and get her ankle x-rayed or stick it out.  She has zero interest in pulling a Julie and they agree to immobilize her ankle and let her stay in the game (even if she's out of the next challenge that requires, among other skills, the ability to say upright on two feet).

Jon now has a one in five chance of winning this immunity challenge and again foiling Natalie's plan. This quickly becomes a one in two chance when the others drop out of the challenge.  But while he stares down the vase, defying it to move, a sudden gust of wind (I swear, it was so strong I could hear it) blows his vase off and gives Natalie the win.  Natalie is so excited, she runs over and hugs Jeff.  In her head she's thinking, this is it.  I can finally get rid of Jon.  But she acts like this is great for the five-person alliance, that it's Keith who's going next and all is going according to plan.

I wonder if Natalie plays poker. I hope for their financial stake that Jon and Jaclyn don't.

Jon and Jaclyn barely consider that his not winning immunity could spell trouble, and are pretty quickly convinced that Keith is the target.  Jaclyn has a fleeting concern, what if Jon is the target?  But Jon cannot picture a scenario where his alliance turns on him.  At first, you think his trust is well-founded as Missy immediately balks when Baylor asks her to take part in a J/J blindside.  But then you remember this is Blood v. Water and what wins out in that battle?

Missy hobbling off to Tribal Council

Eventually, Missy makes it to Tribal Council and from the start it looks like Keith may sink Natalie's ship as he did Reed's.  Keith immediately, before Jeff even poses a question, starts talking about his failed attempts to pierce the five person alliance and how someone should use him to make a move.  Jon pipes up that they are solid and that he would be a hypocrite if he were to turn on his allies (cut to the jury rolling their collective eyes at this).

Natalie does a great job pretending to be worried about being the odd girl out in her alliance and happy to have immunity to keep her safe and Jon buries himself with his overconfidence and his thoughts of the endgame.  Missy does a great job by NOT pulling a Keith and crack or show signs that she might be planning something and the whole Tribal Council only reinforces Jon's belief in his safety.  And even Keith does a great job by not putting his recently pedicured foot in his mouth (a la Stick to the plan).  With no suspicions raised, Jon does not play his idol.

Baylor and Natalie orchestrate a 2-2-2 three-way tie (in case Jon wised up...hey, no laughing).  Jon didn't play his idol and on revote it was Mr. America, Mr. Prom King, aka Mr. Clueless who was the next voted out...once he went back for his torch so that Jeff could fully snuff it.

"No hard feelings, guys.  Nice move."  I'll give it to Jon, he perfected the classy exit.  He was not a hypocrite and he was not a whiner.  But he was also way too trusting, gullible, unclear on the rules of Survivor.  Yes, he orchestrated a blindside on Jeremy, taking one of the best players out of the game, but in the end he did not consider himself vulnerable and let his guard down.  You never want to be voted out holding an idol, you especially don't want to be voted out by someone who was like a mom to you.  But that's what happens when you forget that she was someone else's real life mom.

Natalie is in great shape.  She's atop the food chain, with a strong alliance with Baylor and with a newly-loyal fan in Keith.  She has the only immunity idol still in play.  And she's good at challenges.   I certainly don't want to tempt the Survivor Gods by saying it looks good for this twinnie, but I can say with assurance that we'll have our answer next week!

Jaclyn:  I'm so confused. Did Alec vote for himself?

Baylor: If they [Jon and Jaclyn] were smart, they'd know Natalie knew exactly what she was doing.

Keith (talking about Jon and Jaclyn): You mean Mr. Prom King and Miss Homecoming Queen?

Jon (talking about Missy):  A spa day is going to completely rejuvenate her. She's going to feel as young as she looks.
Jaclyn: Jon, you're annoying right now.

Jon: I don't see Nat flipping.

Jon:  God's got a plan. ...  I've got to accept it.

Jaclyn:  Could I go home tonight?  Could Jon go home tonight?  You never know 100%.

Jaclyn: I don't think Jon or I are going anywhere.

Jon: I think about that final speech quite a bit.

Missy:  I'm pretty loyal to a fault.

Natalie (3)
Baylor (3)
Jon (5)
Keith (3)
Missy (2)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Recapping The Voice Season 7 Semi-Finals: Who's in the final? Who has achance to join them?

Tonight we learned which three artists were guaranteed a spot in next week's Live Finale.  With Chris Jamison having two song in the Top 10 on iTunes, and Matt McAndrew and Craig Wayne Boyd each having one, it would have been a huge surprise were they not the top three vote-getters.   That left Damien, who had one solid, and one weak performance, and Taylor John Williams, who had a mini meltdown on stage last night, in the bottom two.

Those two joined the rest of the remaining Top 12 to compete for one Wild Card spot into next week's finals.  The artists performed a roughly 90-second snippet to win their way back into the competition. It was a lot at stake in a very short time.  How'd they do?

Here's the run down on the singers and the songs they chose for that one golden ticket.  To listen to the performances, go to The Voice's official YouTube page here.

1. Reagan James from Team Blake with "Put Your Records On" by Corinne Bailey Rae
2. Jessie Pitts from Team Blake  singing"Zombie" by the Cranberries
3. Ryan Sill from Team Gwen singing "Marry Me" by Train
4.  Damien from Team Adam with "Grenade" by Bruno Mars
5. Taylor John Williams from Team Gwen with "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak
6. Anita Antoinette from Team Gwen singing "Waiting on the World to Change" by John Mayer
7. Sugar Jones from Team Pharrell with "Back to Black" by Amy Winehouse
8. Luke Wade from Team Pharrell singing "Have a Little Faith in Me" by John Hiatt
9. DaNica Shirey from Team Pharrell singing "Without You" by Nilsson

Top three performances - in my very biased opinion based solely on whose performance I'd want to hear again - were Luke, Jessie, and Taylor.  They were the ones who had the combination of passion, desire and artistry that made me feel they deserved to be in the finals.

Luke, in particular, gave his strongest performance in weeks, perhaps aided by the fact that with only six words to sing over and over, there wasn't much memorization involved.  But, finally, his unique, readily identifiable tone shined through as he connected with the song and the audience.  Jessie picked a perfect song right in her wheelhouse and did Dolores O'Riordan proud.  The quirky breathlessness worked beautifully and you could see the fire in her eyes.  Finally, Taylor, who looked on the verge of tears, put his own spin on the 80s classic and breathed new life into it. 

As for the remaining Top 12, I was under-impressed. Reagan seemed disinterested, Ryan had trouble finding/keeping the pitch, Damien was too overwrought, ditto DaNica, Anita was basically talking through the uninspired song, and Sugar screamed more than she sang.  From that group, I'd give it to Damien for past performances, especially his enchanting take on Adele's "Someone Like You."

If you want to see your favorite make it to the finals, you have to VOTE. The best way to guarantee their success is to download their song; just click on the iTunes links above.  You can also vote at, on The Voice App, and by calling 1-855-864-230_ with the last number being the number of the contestant above.

The winner of the Wild Card will be announced tomorrow morning on The Today Show!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Recapping The Voice Season 7 Semi-Finals: Twice the songs, twice the fun? Not for everyone.

Down to just five there's no place to hide, no room for a shaky performance or an off night.  Only three will move on after tonight.  Whose performances tonight earned them a guaranteed spot in the finals, who might be competing tomorrow for the wild card spot?  Let's dive in and see.

First up was Team Adam's Damien who was taking on Michael Jackson's "She's Out of My Life."  It's a sleepy song, not one of his biggest hits and in fairness to Damien I'm not a huge fan of the song.  Having said that, I cannot find anything negative to say about his performance. His voice is nearly flawless and he attacks the song with assurance and sensitivity.  Damien connects to every song he sings like he was listening to the song when he got the news his dog died.  Sometimes it's almost too much to take, I still wonder where he fits into the current music scene and whether he is unique enough to stand out.  But he did another strong vocal performance. 

Craig Wayne Boyd is the last member of Team Blake and he was given Merle Haggard's "Working Man's Blues."  Blake chose the song for Craig to rock out with, but I found it a bit underwhelming. Again, some of my reaction may be due to my anti-honky tonk bias.  I also wasn't crazy about some of his mugging and running around on stage.  But he does have a nice smooth tone, especially when he goes for the lower notes, that offers a great contrast to his rough-edged gravelly sound.  

Team Gwen's Taylor John Williams had been a favorite of mine since his audition but he had a shaky night.  His first song was "Falling Slowly" and I worry it might be a prophetic commentary on his Voice trajectory. Over all, I was not impressed with his version of the languid song.  He was too timid, too tentative and there were some distracting explosive consonants that interrupted the song's flow.  There were a few moments, a note here and there, that reminded me of why I liked Taylor, but not enough. 

Matt McAndrew is so far beyond the other semi-finalists that if this were a game the mercy rule would come into play.  He took a song I'd never heard before (Ed Sheeran's "Make it Rain"), in a genre I'm agnostic about, and blew my mind. He controls his voice like a virtuoso, making it do whatever he wants, molding it, bending it to do his bidding. He doesn't need any backing instruments or singers, his voice takes over a song and transports it. I cannot perfectly convey how awed I am by what he does on stage. 

Last up the first round was the third member of Team Adam, Chris Jamison.  The good soldier debuted Maroon 5's next single "Sugar" for his coach, which meant he was a bit handicapped by having a song absolutely no one had heard before (I kid, Adam).  I'm surprised Adam chose it for Chris since there's no way the original will live up to Chris's dynamic performance. I know I sound like a broken record (how's that for an outdated reference), but Chris keeps getting better and better.  He has gone from "what's with the Marine haircut" to "how did he hit that note?"  Of all the semi-finalists, Chris is the one who has the most current sound and he has both a great soulful groove and an incredible vocal range.  The guy is the complete package and that he can do so much with his voice is the cherry on top of a really tasty sundae.

Second time around Damien did Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait."  For the first time, there were some cracks (both literally and figuratively) in a Damien performance. He's been pretty perfect up till now, but there were a few missed notes, a few flubs, probably due to his moving around on stage more than usual.  It was far from his best performance and I can't imagine the song cracking the iTunes top 100, let alone the top 10.  I think this was an unfortunate step back for him at a time when he needed to bring his A game.

It's always smart to chose a song with "God" in the title or chorus when you're vying for votes and especially when you're the last remaining country singer in a competition.  So it was no surprise that Craig's second song was something you'd hear at the start of a Tea Party rally - Alan Jackson's "The Old Rugged Cross."  If that doesn't get the red states a-voting, I don't know what will.  Craig did a solid job, sounding every bit as good as anything on country radio today. It's not my favorite sub-genre of country, too old school for me.  But there's no question he has a very strong voice. 

The wheels fell off the wagon on Taylor's second performance tonight.  Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" should have worked.  He's taken pop songs before and sprinkled some magic Taylor dust on them and had a big moment.  But this was all over the place. He looked lost and scared and totally out of his element.  His voice was breathless and weak and his performance tentative, rather than quirky.  I have no idea what happened, but you could tell by his face that Taylor felt it too.

Could Matt top his great first performance?  Well, not top, but he had another amazing showing.  My only complaint, if you can call it that, about his take on U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" was that it was too faithful to the original.  Matt actually sounded a lot like Bono which, of course, is a compliment.  But you also want to have your own sound.  Matt doesn't look like he should be able to so ably tackle an epic, arena-sized power rock anthem but he did. 

Last up was Chris with Bruno Mars' "When I Was Your Man."  Chris has slowly but inexorably moved up the rankings to the top spot.  Pretty good timing on his part. I cannot think of one thing he could do to improve on this performance. He is so effortless as he moves up and down from fuil voice to falsetto and back again.  If he's not in the finals, Sarah Koenig can investigate that crime on next year's Serial podcast. 

Best performers of the night: Chris, Matt and Craig.  

Tune in tomorrow to see which three will automatically be in the finals and also to hear the rest of the Top 12 sing for the one remaining wildcard spot. And let me know what you thought of tonight's performances in the comment section below. 

Recapping Survivor San Juan Del Sur Episode 11, Pt. 2: Natalie makes a move

If you thought part one of tonight's two-hour long episode was predictable, then you must have been yawning your way through the second hour where the most exciting thing to happen this episode was a rat scurrying across the ground during Tribal Council.

After Reed was voted off, Alec tells us he has no one and Jon confirms for him that his position is pretty dire.  Jon trusts his five person alliance and doesn't see any crack developing.  No matter how many times Natalie tells us in her confessionals that she wants to blindside Jon, and I think it's up to about 20,000 times by now, that doesn't seem to be happening any time soon.  The only question remaining is will it be Alec or Keith who goes tonight.

But before we get to that, there's another reward challenge, aka another chance for Alec and Keith to watch the majority alliance squabble about who gets to enjoy another huge meal.  This time it's spaghetti in bed, which isn't really a thing.  I'm part Italian and could eat pasta at every meal and I enjoy spending time in bed probably more than most people, but I've never thought of combining the two.  Regardless, this is an ooh and aah invoking reward that ultimately Natalie wins despite Jon's assertion at the beginning that he was going to lock it up.   Jon needn't have worried.  Natalie decides to take Jon and Jaclyn into bed with her, so she can tell the folks at home that she's literally sleeping with the enemy.

My favorite moment was Missy complaining about not being chosen for the reward (she did chose Natalie after all just three days ago) missing the point that, one, she just had a reward and, two, if you want to keep your alliance together you might want to include them in a reward now and then.  And Reed thought Baylor was the brat.

Did I mention that Natalie wants to blindside Jon to avenge Jeremy?  I should mention that as often as I can because it's such a subtle point you could probably miss it.  Natalie is so circumspect on the subject, if only she let us know what she's thinking.  I mean, sure she tells us in the confessionals every time a camera is pointed at her what her plans are for Jon.  Sure, she took Baylor aside to tell her of her plan to blindside Jon to get revenge for Jeremy.  But what does Natalie "if he wins I will literally kill myself" Anderson really feel about Jon?

I won't go into how annoying Jon was with the wine and how he couldn't even spell sommelier (which I did without spell check, mind you) and how I want to put him in a giant glass and swirl him around until he pukes which was what I wanted to do hearing him go on and on about wine, because he then mentioned his dad and it all got real and serious and sad.  So, moving on....

Natalie tells Baylor that sharing the reward with Jon was "probably the worst experience of my life."  This obviously means she's a very lucky girl or Jon was a lot more boring and annoying than we saw in the one minute snippet the producers showed us of the reward.  Regardless, it reinforces to Baylor and us that NATALIE WANTS JON OUT.  Even Baylor says she wants Jon out.  Which, in Survivor speak, means Jon is totally safe tonight.

Post-reward, Jon's Spidey senses tell him that there is something weird going on around camp.  Jaclyn is concerned as well.  How much can they trust Natalie?  Are they solid in their alliance?  But just as soon as Jaclyn raises those really valid questions, Jon shoots them down.  He may feel some strange vibes, but he knows without any question that he can trust Missy and Natalie.  So, he's batting .500, which is great in baseball but not so good on Survivor where one little misstep could be your last.  The only thing Jon has going for him is his physical strength, the fact that his loved one is still in the game, the fact that Missy adores him, and the Survivor trope that Natalie's repeated promise to vote him out makes him bulletproof.

And just like that, Jon wins individual immunity, to go along with the protection of the hidden immunity idol, which means he's not going anywhere despite how many times Natalie tells us she wants him out.  The only play now is whether to vote off Keith or Alec.  Why is no one, say, Natalie, thinking of going after Jon's closest ally Jaclyn?  Excellent question (I always ask the best ones!).  Because Natalie is so blinded by her single-minded hatred of Jon that she's not thinking strategically any more.

They make what is a pretty unimportant choice seem monumentally significant.  Jon and Jaclyn want to save Alec for one more vote.  They like him, and Jaclyn enjoys his flirting, and he's young and beautiful and those people should get every benefit in life.  So Keith is their target.  Natalie realizes that Alec couldn't win a contest unless it was "if you're related to Drew, you win" so she wants Keith the 50-something expectorating fire captain to stick around and give Jon some competition in the upcoming challenges.

The alliance of five agree to split their votes, in case Keith or Alec have an idol, with three votes for Keith and two for Alec.  But Natalie, who is desperate to make a BIG MOVE in the game, decides to flip it by casting her vote for Alec, having him go out next.  This is a dangerous move because it shows some dissension, a potential crack in their solid alliance, and she wants Jon to continue to see her as loyal up until the moment she orchestrates his ouster.  But the only way her plan to get rid of Jon works is if he doesn't win immunity and Keith looks like the only real threat to Jon.

A lot of time is wasted on the Alec v. Keith vote, focusing on Keith trying to talk strategy and Alec flirting with Baylor.  There are no sparks between the two young 'uns, so the flirting doesn't pan out, and as for strategizing with Keith, just ask Reed how well that goes.

The 3-2 split sending Alec, rather than Keith, out of the game does shock Jon and Jaclyn and we'll have to wait a week to see if Natalie will pay for her decision or whether she can continue to con Jon into thinking she can be trusted.

Jon:  Unless I am reading everything wrong, which I haven't yet, I'm still  controlling and steering the direction of the game.

Jon: The more I get to know Natalie, the more reassured I am of the strength of our alliance.

Natalie: It's just about them and their perfect life together as a couple.

Jaclyn: I don't trust anyone out here.

Natalie: I could totally flip the entire game.

Natalie (5)
Jon (5)
Jaclyn (3)
Baylor (2)
Keith (2)

Recapping Survivor San Juan Del Sur, Episode 11, Pt. 1: Couple's therapy replaces strategy

In retrospect, nothing happened in Wednesday's two-hour episode that we couldn't have predicted the week before.  It's a testament to the hardworking producers over at the venerable reality show that they could hold our attention for what ended up being totally expected.

After the failed coup at the previous Tribal Council - thanks to Keith's now famous "let's stick to the plan" - Jon was still there and in the majority alliance.  On one side there was Reed, Alec and Keith, the other Jon/Jaclyn, Missy/Baylor and Natalie.  Jon was sitting pretty.  The only way Reed, Alec or Keith weren't going next was if Baylor and Natalie decided to make a big play and switch sides.  But Jon couldn't imagine that happening.  Baylor was not about to go against her mom and her mom is Team Jon all the way.  And Natalie has been loyal since day one.  Jon had no clue that she was still stewing over the Jeremy blindside and just waiting for the chance to deliver Jon his karmic payback.

Most of the episode concerned a rift in the relationship between Jon and Jaclyn, or why you shouldn't spend 24/7 with your loved one under any circumstances.  They were both right, both wrong, in their various dust-ups.   Let's do a little couple's therapy and try to see this dispute from both sides, as rational, clear-minded people.

Jon made a good point that giving credit to others for clever moves was not a good strategy when thinking about getting the jury's vote.  Jaclyn made a good point that Jon would be dining at the Ponderosa had Natalie not saved his butt at tribal.  Jon made a good point that they were in a solid position in their alliance and nothing would be gained by allying with the boys against Missy and Baylor.  Jaclyn made a good point that Natalie was closer to Missy and Baylor and they're at the bottom of the five-person alliance. Jon made a good point that after two days alone he wanted a hug and not to immediately be hit with Jaclyn's thoughts on strategy.  Jaclyn made a good point that they're playing Survivor and all they should be thinking about is strategy. Now that I look at it, neither of them have a good point.  Jaclyn is a spoiled brat (note to Reed, you missed the mark on that one) who must be tended to constantly and Jon is a clueless lug who needs to learn how to talk to his girlfriend respectfully.

Back to Survivor.  I'm a Survivor purist.  I don't like Jeff making deals for food or flint, I don't like him being easy on people who quit.  Basically, Jeff's gone soft. The new, touchy feely Jeff took the teeth out of an old favorite challenge.  The pecking order reward challenge used to be a great way for people to learn where they stand in the tribe and in their own alliance.  Instead, this time the challenge was as exciting as watching rice cook.  Natalie, following up on her great gameplay the last few days, looked to Jon for advice on "what are we doing" rather than risk showing her cards.  She adeptly solidified the us versus them and confirmed to Jon her allegiance to him.  Meanwhile, in confessionals we know that she feels nothing but blind rage at Jon for his blindsiding Jeremy.  Perhaps if the challenge had played out to the end she would have showed her cards, going after Jon or Jaclyn. Instead, she was able to continue playing the devoted ally.

Thus, the majority alliance, predictably and in unison, targeted Reed, then Alec, then Keith but when it was finally going to get interesting, when the five will have to show who's at the bottom of the totem pole, Jeff gave them an out.  Since it's obvious they're working together, who do they want to win, he asked.  Rather than letting them knock out each other in order from least important to most which is precisely what this challenge is designed for, they all get to agree to give Missy the win.  They also agree on who's going to Exile Island.  No blood on anyone's hands, no tipping their hands.  A waste of a good challenge.

The only intriguing moment came from Missy having to make a "tough" decision - basically, does she want to take Natalie or Jaclyn on the reward and who should go to Exile Island.  If Natalie were thinking, she would not have wanted Missy to send Jon to Exile Island.  Her plan, in case she didn't mention in enough, is to avenge Jeremy by blindsiding Jon.  So why let Missy send Jon where he can find the hidden immunity idol?  Also, since Natalie's plans hinge on getting Reed, Alec and Keith to go along with her plan, why let them spend time alone with Jaclyn?  None of this made any sense.

Immediately, Jaclyn is upset with Missy's decision.  Jon "sacrificed" by agreeing to go to Exile (her mischaracterization of a move that probably guaranteed him the million dollars) and she's stuck with the butt end of the deal, as she refers to the prospect of spending the afternoon with the three remaining guys.  The guys, especially Reed, swoop in and try to take advantage of the situation to get Jaclyn to question her allegiance to the Missy/Baylor/Natalie alliance.  Jaclyn eats it up, loving how she and Jon some how always end up in the middle (not realizing there's nothing magical about it - they choose to be wishy-washy so they're always in the middle).  She can't wait for Jon to come back from Exile so she can tell him her epiphany that they're at the bottom of the five-person alliance.   

It was, unfortunately, very expected how this would all play out, from the minute Missy chose Natalie.  Predictably, Jon finds the idol on Exile.  Predictably, Reed and Alec convince Jaclyn that she should ally with them, that Natalie and Missy/Baylor have a final three deal that doesn't include Jaclyn/Jon (which is true, but seems like something a desperate person would say to save themselves). Predictably, Jaclyn gets paranoid about her alliance and wants to be the swing vote and switch things up for the fiftieth time.  

But when Jon comes back from Exile, he doesn't want to listen to her concerns.  He's tired, hungry, dirty, and just wants a little love and attention from his woman.  Rather than discussing strategy, they have a huge blow up, she flirts with Alec, he goes off to talk with Missy, and somewhere Reed is wondering how his game came down to one errant sentence by an old guy who spits more that a camel using chewing tobacco.  Reed scrambles, making his best pitch to Jon.  In the wink of Jon's eye, it looks like perhaps Reed is going to be able to make this happen.  But, unfortunately, the usually clueless Jon even sees through Reed's desperate attempt.  Or, more likely, he's too exhausted from his fight with Jaclyn to do anything other than the easy vote.

Reed, prophetically, says he's worried that the silence between Jaclyn and Jon will mean they won't be able to consider his offer to them and that he may end up eliminated because the two whose votes he needs won't talk to each other.

In the end, it's Reed - the biggest challenge threat and only one of the three guys who can spell strategy - whose torch is snuffed. 

Sad to see Reed go, especially as he was within minutes of flipping everything the last tribal council. If you ever meet him, do not tell him to just stick to the plan. That line will probably haunt him for a long time to come.  

Reed: There's nothing worse than angry girls.

Jon: Best blindside sniff out ever.

Jaclyn: Who's the jury, what are you talking about?

Reed (after Jeff tells him he has no chance at the horseback riding reward): That's okay, my family has twelve.  

Reed: I'm a people person, Baylor.  You're a brat.

Alec:  It's like cream cheese.  You can't hurt many things by putting cream cheese on it.

Reed:  My life hinges on those two talking to each other.

Alec (2)
Natalie (5)
Jon (4)
Jaclyn (6)
Missy (2)
Baylor (2)
Reed (4)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mad Men Season 3, Episode 1: Out of Town

Today is Dick Whitman's birthday, but that means nothing in Donald Draper's world.  He takes some warm milk to his pregnant, sleepless wife, goes into work to deal with a final round of post-merge layoffs, and heads out of town on a business meeting like it's any other day.  But in a parallel universe Dick Whitman is another year older.  On his non-birthday, Don learns he's not the only one living a lie, not the only one with deep secrets.

Don stands at the stove and imagines back to the night he was conceived and the day he was born.  How much was told to him, how much he made up, we'll never know, but the story he sees in this strange hallucination/false memory is of his father impregnating a prostitute who dies in childbirth, leaving the child to be raised by his father and the man's childless wife (who had suffered many miscarriages).  Not the most savory of backstories, not a warm, fuzzy memory of how he came into the world.  But then, that is Dick Whitman's origin story, not Don Draper's.

Don and Betty have gone ahead with the reconciliation Don begged for at the end of last season and they're very sweet together.  But we are reminded that Don and Betty had split for a while and that but for her pregnancy they might not have reconciled.  Sally certainly has not forgotten that there was a time that her dad was not living at home and she didn't know when she would see him again.  We discover that she's so concerned about losing her daddy that she broke the clasp on his suitcase so Don couldn't leave home again.

The British have come to Sterling Cooper, following last year's merger with PPL, and if there weer any question who would win the war between Don and Duck, the answer is not surprising.  Duck is nowhere to be seen and Don is the one in charge.  The British overlords are represented in New York by Lane Price and his secretary right hand man, Mr. Hooker.  Lane is the financial officer whose first job is to take care of "redundancies," i.e., trim the fat.  He accomplishes that feat by, among other cuts we hear about but don't see, firing the Head of Accounts (Don gets to do the honors as Roger was late to the meeting).  In an inspired move, Lane splits the job between two junior account executitves, Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove.

The interplay between Pete and Ken over their promotions was great.  How they each handled their meeting with Lane, how they dealt with the news, how they interacted with each other. Pete pretends not to now Burt was just fired, Ken lets it be known that he heard the fallout.  Pete doesn't even ask how much money he'll make in his new job, Ken asks about his new salary first thing.   It was a throwback to the office comedies of the 40s, very cute but also telling about each character.

So about that marital bliss?  Don may be the loving husband at home, but when he's out of town, he's back to his old ways.  And that involves making up a new identity and finding a girl to cheat on his wife with.  Shelly the stewardess (back before "flight attendant") is more than game to take ol' Bill Hoffstadt for a little roll in the hay.  She's engaged and looks at the handsome stranger as her last chance.  But as Don/Dick/Bill tells her, she'll have lots of chances.

While Don is pursuing an extramarital dalliance in his room, Sal is similarly finding someone other than his wife to spend the night with.  The bellhop who comes to fix his thermostat has amazing gaydar and recognizes Sal as interested in what he has to offer.  The two start having sex in Sal's room, while Don and Shelly are taking their sweet time getting to the same place up in his room, when the hotel's fire alarm goes off.  During the evacuation down the fire escape, Don peers into Sal's room and sees him in flagrante delicto.

The next morning, Sal is late, and visibly nervous, at the meeting with London Fog.  This was one of Burt Peterson's clients and Don and Sal's job is to alleviate their discomfort with Burt's leaving and deal with their concerns about their business.  One of the latter is the shrinking market for raincoats - basically, after you've bought one, you don't need to buy another.  The client wants to look into divesting into accessories, but Don (a bit of a dinosaur) says not to panic, not to go where other companies already are, and to stick with their strength.  It's safe, but not very forward thinking.

Don and Sal never talk about what happened at the hotel, what Don saw.  This is 1963 and if you think coming out is a big deal in 2014, imagine in back then.  Sal is a married, closeted man and his cover's been blown.  But Don knows a thing or two about not being who or what you say you are, about keeping secrets and being in fear of being found out.  So he does what he thinks is the kindest thing he could do for Sal, he ignores it.  He lets Sal know that as far as he cares he saw nothing and while that may comfort Sal that his secret won't be spilled, it's not the same as being free to be who you are.  So back into hiding Sal goes.

At the office, Peggy is griping to Joan about her secretary Lola and about one of the many distractions in Lola's way, Lane's secretary right hand man.  Joan blows off Peggy's concerns.  Joan is so over the office at this point and can't wait till she's a doctor's wife, living the life eating bon bons on Park Avenue.  Meanwhile, Pete Campbell is furious to find out that he is co-head of accounts with Ken Cosgrove, while Ken could not be happier to be sitting at the big kids' table regardless of whoever else is sitting there.

In the end, Trudy convinces Pete to grin and bear what he views as a slap in the face and he pretends to be happy with the promotion.  For their part, Sterling Cooper show him that he's appreciated.  As the company is taken over by the British, it's nice to have an old time Yankee on their side.  The partners may be enjoying the spoils of war - their raises, the imported vodka and cigars - but they still have to deal with living under someone else's rule.  How long will that last?

Mad Men knows how to pull on our heartstrings, while making us a little sick to our stomach at the same time.  Thus we have one final scene, back at the Draper residence at the end of the work day (following his return from Baltimore).  Seeing Sally, so sad that her dad might leave home again, so excited to think he brought her a present home from his trip.  But the present is a remnant from daddy's latest one-night-stand.  Then we watch as Don wells up with emotion, telling Sally the story of the day she was born and we know that he knows that he's a cad and doesn't deserve this sweet moment or this love.  He's fallen back into his old bad habits and only a crazy person thinks you can do the same thing and get a different result.


Oh, Burt Peterson.  He is one of the most interesting characters on Mad Men.  He operates in this world of Madison Avenue ad men, an accounts man with his Rolodex of clients who flits from agency to agency.  It is through characters like this, who stay part of the story whether in the main or on the periphery, that the world of Mad Men seems so real.  We first heard of Burt back in Season 2, Ep. 5 "The New Girl" in this quote: "Duck called Burt Peterson a Mongoloid."  He came up again in Ep. 12 "The Mountain King" when he supposedly complains about someone's expenses and they reply: "Why doesn't he just die already?"  We finally met Burt in this episode, but it won't be the last time we see him.

I love how this episode starts, not with something to tied you back to the end of last season, not with a by-the-numbers introduction into this new season.  Instead, it's a bit of a jolt.  A thematic set piece, not a flashback nor a memory, but a mini-play that Don imagines being performed for his benefit.

There is such a matter-of-fact feeling to this episode as we see the new normal at Sterling Cooper following the big changes at the end of the last season.  Not much time has passed, Betty is more pregnant but not bursting at the seams.  Lane Pryce is just there, in Bert's office, apologizing to Don for sending him to Baltimore, while calling him the face of the business (and showing us definitively that it was Don, not Duck, who came out on top).  He gives us a factoid we didn't know - there's no fog in London. I love how Bert Cooper seems incredulous and dubious despite the information being presented by the guy with the British accent.

Speaking of Lane, it's a great introduction of a character.  No fanfare, no phony external dialogue to set him up, he just appears seamlessly in his new job and we learn about him from how he interacts with the other characters.  He is smart, understands people, is a little awkward and yet is very aware of how he is perceived. It is he who tells Mr. Hooker that demanding his own office is unseemly and he knows how not to step on toes.  Hooker complains that the office is a gynocracy - no doubt feeling that Joan runs things - but so far, Lane hasn't had any problems with her.

Betty:  She's taken to your tools like a little lesbian.

Burt:  Fellow comrades in mediocrity, I want you to listen very carefully. You can all go straight to hell! 

Pete: I don't even know if I'm getting a raise. I didn't ask; I forgot!

Ken: I wouldn't be much an account man if I didn't ask what it pays.

Don:  I keep going a lot of places and ending up somewhere I've already been.

Shelly: I'm engaged.  On the other hand, you might be my last chance.
Don:  I've been married a long time.  You get plenty of chances.

Sal: Well, our worst fears lie in anticipation.

Don: Limit your exposure.

Pete: Why does it always have to be like this? Why can't I get anything good all at once?

Sally:  I'm sorry I broke your suitcase.
Don:  Find out how much it is to repair And it'll come out of your allowance.
Sally: I don't have an allowance.
Don:  Then don't break things

SPOILERY OBSERVATIONS (Don't read unless you're caught up):

Burt was mentioned again in Season 5, Ep. 10 "Christmas Waltz" when Don and Joan were sitting at a bar reminiscing.  Don mentions that when he first arrived at Sterling Cooper, "Burt Peterson told me you were the one person in the agency I shouldn't cross."

Poor Burt, happy and successful at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, was once again fired (following his new company's merger with his old) by Sterling Cooper in Season 6, Ep. 7 "Man with a Plan."  Two episodes later, we hear that Bert landed on his feet again as Duck Phillips got him a job at McCann Erickson.

Sal's homosexuality comes to a head when Lee Garner, Jr., of Lucky Strike, makes a pass at him that is rebuked at the end of the season.   Garner does not take rejection well and gets Sal taken off the Lucky Strike account which leads to him getting fired.  This was not one of Don Draper's shining moments as his response to hearing about Sal rejecting Lee was that Sal should have gone along for the good of the company.   It marks the end of Sal at Sterling Cooper and, sadly, the end of Bryan Bratt as Salvatore Romano.