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House and the Kiss of Death

by Tom Watson
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HouseTen minutes into last night’s House, one of the famed doctor’s underlings gave their gravely ill patient a couple of pills and said: “Take these, you’ll be better within an hour.”

I turned to my daughter, a major House junkie.

“He’s a dead man,” I said, and so he was, but not for another 48 minutes, a time punctuated by the kind of medical madness that would cause the closure of House’s hospital even in less-regulated states than New Jersey. House is yet another occasionally brilliant show done in by its premise – by which to say, its formula. In year three, it’s clearly run its course and not even Hugh Laurie’s convincing portrayal of an American can save it.

Live-Blogging Mad Men: Some Things Don’t Change

by Tom Watson
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Last week, I just missed Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad up at Columbia, but I did dodge the motorcades and frozen zones around the United Nations, and undergo the requisite pat-down at the Clinton Global Initiative. What a wild week in New York, and it reminded by a little bit of 1960, the year of our blogging discontent. A year after Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill dodged assassins under the gaze of Hitchcock at the UN in the clearest stylistic model for Mad Men, Cuba’s Fidel Castro hit the streets of New York and the right-wingers in the press went wild. […]

Springsteen and the American Muse

by Tom Watson
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SpringsteenHere’s the lead: Bruce Springsteen’s deep and nourishing Magic, released today, isn’t on a par with Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. But it’s firmly on the next level down, alongside The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle, Nebraska, The River and Tunnel of Love. And that’s saying something for a rock star of 58 years in age who has nibbled around the edges of pop music for the last two decades without fully wading in.

Magic is a self-referential work of mature genius, a work of its time, and a record built on the foundations of others, from Brian Wilson and Roy Orbison to the Byrds and Dylan and Phil Spector. Unlike The Shamus, whose terrific review appears below, I’ve spent several weeks with Magic and have listened to its best tunes dozens of times – it’s frankly brilliant, and worthy of the best in the Springsteen canon. It’s the work of an older man, the rare record recorded by a star in late middle age who drops the teen angst and captures both those long decades and the deep pop groove, filled with happy hooks and fills.

Further, there’s a darkness there that I admire deeply – a writing in the shadows that rekindles what I first loved about Bruce Springsteen’s writing, when I was a skinny teen and he was a skinny 25-year-old.

Live-Blogging Mad Men: Here Is New York?

by Tom Watson
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Earlier today on another blog far, far away Blue Girl suggested that the last episode of Man Men (the best in my opinion) reminded her of far away New York and made her wish she was here. I didn’t see it – even the famed “New Amsterdam” episode (the only other one I actively enjoyed, outside of this blogging crowd) didn’t quite get there in terms of its Gothamicity. The whole thing seems confined to studio sets, and a bit too clean for an active represenation.

Then too, the accents don’t work because they’re basically not there. Not is the stance, the attitude, the posture. Any episode of, say, Sesame Street seems much more New Yawkish than Mad Men. Bugs Bunny too. And then there are all the TV shows gone before that were set in New York and its environs: The Odd Couple, the Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family (and Maude and The Jeffersons), Car 54, Seinfeld, The Cosby Show, I Love Lucy and the Honeymooners. Some filmed in studios here, most filmed in studios there – meaning California. And yet evocative.

Mad Men is too laconic for New York, too Steve McQueen and not enough Archie Bunker – who, after all, sat first in his chair in Queens just a decade later. Ironic, of course, that the rabid anti-Semitism portrayed in 1960 New York shuts its place-in-time cultural consciousness off from the dominant Jewish-inflected humor of the city. It’s a loss.

Dead Rock Stars: Heaven’s Best Pick-Up Band (Or Hell’s)

by Tom Watson
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Saw a headline right out of The Onion today: Rock Stars More Likely to Die Early. Yes, it was an actual study conducted by academics in England, the blockbuster follow-up to their famed Drunks More Likely to Suffer From Liver Maladies work. No kidding around, this was a real study: A study of more than 1,000 mainly British and North American artists, spanning the era from Elvis Presley to rapper Eminem, found they were two to three times more likely to suffer a premature death than the general population. Between 1956 and 2005 there were 100 deaths among the 1,064 […]

Live-Blogging Mad Men: The Nixon Men

by Tom Watson
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According to the previews, tonight’s episode brings the Nixon account to the fore at Sterling Cooper – the account being the 1960 presidential campaign of Richard Milhous Nixon, the bright young Vice-President from California. Widely viewed as the first mass media election in U.S. history, the Kennedy-Nixon race was fought on television and on a national scale, filled with advertising and slogans and images.

Nixon’s crew had some Mad Men in it, most notably the driven advance man H.R. Haldeman, a World War II vet and Californian who worked for J. Walter Thompson for 20 years. He failed Dick Nixon in 1960 but was widely credited for pushing Nixon over the top eight years later – and he later did 18 months in Federal prison for his role in Watergate.

A model for our man Don Draper? Perhaps, but Haldeman had moregoing for him than the dour and strange Draper. He had ambition, he had plans, he had moxie – even if he was a famed Republican felon in the end. The stiffs in Mad Men have none of it. They’re old men before their time, slumping through their days on booze and pathetic jokes.

Late Summer Reading: Books About Terrible People

by Tom Watson
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Most of the characters in Claire Messud’s lush and vicious fourth novel, The Emporer’s Children, are funny, bright, entitled New Yorkers – and they’re all fairly horrible human beings. You recognize them, you walk along with them, but you don’t sympathize. And why would you? The “emporer” of the title is lordly literary genius Murray Thwaite, an overblown writer and man of both letters and talking head territory – a haughty waste of a man surviving on his reputation and cruel to boot. He seduces his 30-year-old daughter’s best friend, ignores his loyal wife, looks down his nose at his upstate relations, and enables his daughter’s failures.

Yet, the world of Messud’s tale revolves around Murray’s dwindling light – until the karmic bill comes due in September, 2001. I appreciated that Messud didn’t avoid stereotypes; she plumbed their depths and found some wellspring water instead. And she captured the climbing, selling, soul-numbing existence that’s necessary – absent evident and productive brilliance – in New York’s literary business.

In the end, these truly horrible people finally confront an emotional crisis and the idea that that an outside world can indeed puncture the ambition of their reading circles. The question at the end is simply “why?” Were these self-absorbed people worth plumbing – or was their shallow narcissism the very point. Messud’s book came out last year, but I read it last week and it seemed a good marker against some of my other summer reading, fictional side of the coverlet. It left me unsettled and unsatisfied; I admire the skill in crafting the relationships and the storyboard, but wondered about the flimsy underlying message – did I somehow miss it?

In terms of self-absorbed New Yorkers – and women who write and aspire – I much preferred Laura Jacobs’ 2003 novel, Women About Town, which I read earlier this summer. Why? I liked those characters, especially the loony lampshade designer with the blue-blooded pedigree. They were more of a gas to hang out with. (So call me shallow. Go ahead. I dare you.)

Live-Blogging Mad Men: The Debt to Cary Grant

by Tom Watson
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Mad Men

“With Summer TV this Good, Who Needs Fall?” asks the TV Addict. And I’d answer: me. I’m looking forward to the new season, and hoping against hope that House will be less formulaic. I think the summer season is vastly overrated – I’m don’t care for John from Cincy, except to see old Deadwood actors gainfully employed. Damages? Army Wives? The Closer? Nah, parting gifts for all, Johnny Olson.

But Mad Men…well, it’s held our interest. And I do mean “our.” I’d have checked out halfway into week two without the crowd on this lovely blog. (I’ll admit it here: The Bronx is Burning is better than I originally gave it credit for). But I must admit, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about George Blandings.

Now, Mr. Blandings was first and foremost an advertising executive, before he tried to be a general contractor on a fixer-upper in Connecticut – a good 60 years before Flip this House hit cable. I’ve also thought a lot about Mrs. Blandings. that would be Myrna Loy, but it’s for a whole other reason, and really a bit prurient for this post, I’d think. Myrna Loy. Well.

But back to Cary Grant’s George Blandings. A dullard really, with good comic timing – and not much of an ad man besides. Sort of like Don Draper – except for the comic timing. Don’s a dullard, a lousy ad man, and he’s no fun at parties. Can’t do the pratfall. No self-deprecation in his bag of tricks. No, Blandings was the better character. And his slogans were better than Draper’s:

Compare the price – Compare the slice. Take our advice: “Buy Wham!”

If you’d buy better ham, you’d better buy Wham!

This little piggy went to market,
as meek and as mild as a lamb.
He smiled in his tracks when they slipped him the axe –
He knew he’d turn out to be
Wham!

Beats the hell out of the Bethlehem Steel work, that’s certain. Amazingly, Cary Grant played not one but two crucial ad men on the screen: Blandings and Roger O. Thornhill from North by Northwest. Both careers were merely foils, silly little pursuits that set up situations the directors could exploit – comedic or dramatic, or both.

Live-Blogging Mad Men – Chain-Smoking Tough Guys

by Tom Watson
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Once upon a time in the west – and in gritty noir backlots – rough and ready men carried guns, drank hard liquor, and made violence a part of their daily lot. That’s the way they were portrayed, at least. And the idea of “real men” inhabiting a cushy mid-town Manhattan office building was a ludicrous as, say, Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill being a secret agent in North by Northwest. See, Hitchcock got the joke. But as David Hinckley points out in today’s Daily News, our idea of tough guys has changed. “Mad Men” also reflects something else that’s been […]

Live-Blogging Mad Men – Darren Stevens or Cary Grant?

by Tom Watson
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Mad Men episode 2
Tonight is the second episode of what has already become something of a touchstone series this summer, AMC’s Mad Men. To be sure, what has drawn viewers and thoughtful critics – like our own M.A. Peel – is the pure style of the thing. Matthew Weiner’s vision comes as an onslaught of slim-cut suits, deep colors, Barcelona chairs, panelled walls and office chic. It’s just a thing of beauty to look at.

And really, isn’t there just as rich a vein in our television and film consciousness about exactly this group of people – the same depth of cultural experience that both informed and propelled The Sopranos? Not mobsters, of course, but the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), North by Northwest (1959), The Apartment (1960), and Bewitched (1964). We knew Tony Soprano so well because we knew Michael Corleone and Jimmy Conway; we know Don Draper because we knew Roger O. Thornhill and Darren Stevens.