Mad Men: Week 4 in Review

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: A much anticipated episode of “Mad Men” begins and ends with balconies, one of our characters looking at them from inside a potential apartment, and one out on one looking over New York. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is tackled in this episode with that same disorientation and strength as was the JFK assassination in Season Three. The reactions from Pete, Don, Dawn, Megan, Peggy, Betty, and Henry show a range of emotions teetering on the edge of a very real understanding of the world they live in, but not quite able to process the very real implications of a society that would destroy such an influential and inspirational leader.

The repetition throughout this episode of people saying they don’t know why they are so surprised, or that they are not surprised, or they make some physical indication that they hoped that it wouldn’t come to this hit very close to home in the wake of recent national tragedies. You really don’t know how to feel, and you should be surprised, but for some reason you aren’t, and that’s terrifying. We have seen Don process loss and chaos with his usual stoic perseverance punctuated by a moment of depressing realization. Watching Don basically admit that he has never loved his kids in the way that he feels he is supposed to felt incredibly cathartic to me, because it always seemed so obvious to me that there was that ambivalent disconnect with his children. Sally and Betty have their own fraught relationship, but I never doubt that Betty loves her children because her entire adult life has been a labor of love. Don and Bobby, however, have rarely had the opportunities to engage and converse. Bobby’s line about people going to the movies when they are sad was very sweet, and very empathetic on his part, but it surprises me that it’s that moment that makes Don feel as if his heart will “explode.” Sally has shown her fair share of insight, empathy, and strength during this series, but Don does not feel that same swell? It is interesting, and I wonder if Bobby was just in the right place at the right time.

Ginsberg and his father, Morris, are two characters that I hoped we would see more of in this season, and I am very happy we did. “You gonna get on the ark with your father?” made me laugh hysterically. Morris pushing Ginsberg into his absolutely hilarious date with Beverly was a very necessary piece of comic relief during this episode, which was actually deepened and strengthened when they hear news of the tragedy together. Morris has followed the thread of wanting to see his son successful and happy in love since we were first introduced to Ginsberg, and it is a thread that sounds a particular note in this episode, when everyone is trying to take comfort in those they love.

Peggy, similarly, had no one to comfort and hold her when Abe took off uptown to report on the response to the assassination for The New York Times (“Don’t do anything stupid.” “It’s too late, I’m going to Harlem in a tuxedo”). However, Peggy is in such an interesting place as she tries to negotiate her newfound professional success and the implications of her position of power as it relates to her political/personal life with Abe and their flourishing relationship. Sure, she wishes he could be there to hold her in a time of tragedy, but from the small surprised smile on her face when Abe mentions the idea of having kids one day, I think that she knows that parts of her life are falling into place in ways she never had anticipated before.

NAVA BRAHE: After watching “The Flood,” I am convinced there will never be another television show that will accurately depict human emotional responses better than Mad Men. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, as experienced by a bunch of self-absorbed white people, could not have been more timely, as Sonia pointed out, so soon after this latest period of national turmoil.

For me, the two most telling scenes in the episode were the ones where Bobby noticed the uneven seam in his bedroom wallpaper, and Harry’s meltdown over lost ad revenue because of all the televised news coverage in the aftermath of Dr. King’s murder. I can personally relate to both because, as a child, I had textured “grasspaper” covering the walls of my bedroom, which didn’t stand a chance against my curious fingers. Bobby was indulging his childhood curiosity by trying to tear away what was covering his walls, revealing that underneath the badly hung wallpaper, there were more layers of mystery. Watching him do that sent chills up and down my spine. Harry’s ranting about all the “make goods” he would have to issue reminded me of a short-lived job I had at a New York-area radio station, where I had the misfortune of being present on the day when a legendary disc jockey had a fatal heart attack in the middle of his show. The entire sales department began squawking in unison about the very same concern, with no regard for the human life that ended so abruptly. My reaction was exactly the same as Pete’s, although I was in no position to voice it, much as I wished I could have.

I agree that Ginsburg’s father’s attempt at procuring a shidduch for his son provided much-needed levity in the midst of all the turmoil. Like Sonia, I wish we would see more of this father-son dynamic, the way we were given insight into Peggy’s relationships with her mother and sister in earlier seasons. Peeking into the lives of secondary characters is a welcome departure from the increasingly tedious angst constantly displayed by Don and the rest of the gang.

Speaking of Don, I was not surprised by his confession of not loving his kids; rather, I was saddened by it. Early on in the series he at least made an attempt: he built Sally a playhouse in the backyard, albeit with much needed fortification from beer. The older he’s gotten, the more self-absorbed he’s become. The older Sally and Bobby have gotten, the more they seem to notice that both parental units have checked out on them. It was heartbreaking to watch the phone interaction between Don and Betty, when she called to chastise him for forgetting to pick up his children, and it was even more depressing to witness Don’s reticence to attend the park vigil with Sally and Megan. It also didn’t seem like Bobby’s conspiratorial stomach ache had the desired effect; Don didn’t seem too pleased to have to sit through “Planet of the Apes” twice. I don’t even want to touch Bobby’s comment to the usher in the theatre. I might just short-circuit my laptop with my tears.



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Mad Men: Week 3 in Review

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: As a long-time viewer of “Mad Men,” witnessing this show’s hypocrisy and cheating, (professionally or sexually) should not phase me as much as this episode did. “To Have and to Hold” is a very fitting title for this examination of possession, success, and pursuit. Aside from having the strongest urge to yank off Harry Crane’s pretentious little sideburns, this episode really made me feel extremely angry and tired. To use one of my favorite Joan quotes: Mad Men, “you have gone from lubricated to morose.”

Bottom line, if Don had fired Scarlett for her misconduct, no one would have bat an eye. In fact, I would venture to say that SCDP would have feared him even more in a way that would elevate Don even higher in his elusive persona. But when Joan, a partner, fires Scarlett she is called “petty” and a “dictator.” Harry Crane has gone from being the sweet, nerdy executive of Seasons One and Two to having these delusions of grandeur for his mediocre existence, which involves him imitating Don’s sense of entitlement with women and work. The difference is, of course, that Harry Crane has never been a very impressive character, and this display in the partner’s meeting released some of that aggression that we have seen trickling out in the odd episode here and there. However, his comments towards Joan, ironically, look rather “petty” on his part, and though they cut in a way that dropped the jaws of everyone in my Smith dorm’s living room, they reflect the Harry Crane-helplessness that one wonders if it will ever be resolved.

On a lighter note, I must say that my favorite parts of the episode were Joan’s little movements and looks on her night out with Kate. Christina Hendricks is a brilliant actress, as we well know, for her total subtlety of expression (paired with the lack of subtlety in her presentation) that make her mesmerizingly both strong and sorrowful in her confrontation at the partners’ meeting, but also divinely comical with her distaste with the lack of alcohol at the soda fountain and her subsequent swigs from her flask in the taxi cab. It is very disconcerting to see Joan, a figure of the late 1950s and early 1960s, sticking out like a Rockefeller at a be-in as she sits cross-legged and poised, but bored, at the psychedelic dance club. What I gather from these micro-movements is that she is pretty fed up with what is going on around her: work, men, fashion, space, life. But letting herself have fun in the psychedelic club and getting some best friend re-charge with Kate seems to have given her some perspective on her own success and how it operates in the strange progressive/regressive limbo of SCDP, exhibited by her Austin Powers get-up when she returns to work. She’s got this, and whatever she wants is hers for the taking.

Don’s hypocrisy in flipping out over Megan’s love scene was totally exhausting to watch. We knew it was coming, and calling her a prostitute drew a cozy little parallel to the previous episode. But when Don visits Sylvia that night and she says that she prays that Don finds peace, there is an intimacy to their interaction and understanding that I haven’t seen since his affair with Rachel Menken. It’s a vulnerability and an honesty that strips the romance gently away like wallpaper from their fortified, but problematic affair. Is Don finding peace the same thing as Don “being at peace”?

NAVA BRAHE: Thank you, Sonia, for reminding me about Rachel Menken. It is maddening to witness Don’s sexual attraction to women who challenge him, juxtaposed with his hypocritical treatment of the women he has chosen to marry. I’ve always hated the concept of the “trophy” wife for that very reason: the women on the arms of successful men are merely decoration, while they have to find solace in the arms of women who are already spoken for. Rachel Menken wasn’t spoken for in the same way as Sylvia, but she made it clear that a long-term relationship was not in the cards for her and Don. As for what the future holds for Don and Sylvia, that all depends on how shoddily he continues to treat Megan. I remain convinced that it will be Megan who initiates the end of the marriage, especially after Don’s possessive nonsense. Megan has every right to her success; she does not need a cheating husband to shit all over it.

The most intriguing part of the episode, for me, was the expansion upon the civil rights issue as it relates to Don’s secretary, Dawn. She is clearly uncomfortable being the only African-American employee at SCDP, but she takes her job very seriously. I knew all along that her job would be safe, despite her misstep with Scarlett, for two reasons: one; Joan would never be presumptuous enough to fire one of the partners’ secretaries, and two; it would never fly with Don. I hope this storyline continues because I found it refreshing to see the world through eyes other than those belonging to timid, subservient women, and self-involved, misogynistic men. Dawn has the makings of what could possibly be a very influential character as the show progresses through the late 60s.

The fact that the secretary firing-ruckus involved Harry Crane was very humorous to me, because I’ve spent enough time in offices witnessing plenty of guys like him overstate their positions. Sometimes, you have to behave like Harry in order to get noticed for your contributions. Other times, it blows up in your face. Harry deserved the $23,000 check Bert and Roger gave him, but he made a fatal error in judgement by continuing to insist on a partnership.

Finally, it was wonderful seeing Joan having a substantial role in an episode. The Jaguar tryst she agreed to will always bubble just under the surface, and it is obvious that her “sacrifice” is becoming a heavy burden. She may be a partner, but she does not garner the respect, nor the salary Lane Pryce received for doing the same job. I would hate to see her character devolve into a puddle of self-loathing goo, but if that happens, who better to portray it than Christina Hendricks? Joan is lucky in so many ways, particularly in having her mother with her to take care of her son, and earning enough to be a truly independent woman. She is, however, inequality personified, even for women in today’s workforce. It’s sad that so little has changed despite the passing of five decades.



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Mad Men: Week 2 in Review

NAVA BRAHE: Oh dear, Don Draper is having an affair with the heart surgeon’s wife. Does the fact that he spent his teenage years in a “house of ill repute” finally excuse his philandering? Are we supposed to feel sorry for him now that this nugget of his past has been revealed?

As the series heads towards its denoument, the characters’ storylines grow darker and more tragic. In conjunction with all the existential crises, the Vietnam conflict rages on, and America is in the throes of political turmoil, post Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK assassination. Watching these turbulent times almost makes me glad I was an infant during this time, blissfully unaware of all that was going on around me.

If the first three hours of Season 6 are any indication, the remaining episodes are going to be tough to get through. Call me crazy, but I got a vicarious thrill from watching all the previous drinking, smoking and clandestine debauchery Don, Roger, Pete, and the rest of the gang partook in, along with Betty’s overwrought suburban angst. As dramatic as it all was, it had an authenticity to it that I enjoyed. Moreover, it was thrilling to watch Peggy and Joan break ground as career women, as opposed to watching Betty light cigarette after cigarette as part of her stereotypical suburban wife façade. Now that they have a few more years of life under their belts, they still seem too young to be this miserable. Of course, Don is the architect of his own misery, but when you add in everyone else’s, it’s starting to feel like someone is trying to smother us with a metaphorical pillow.

I was surprised that the story lines didn’t really advance much from the first week, other than Peggy flapping her gums about Heinz ketchup, and Trudy standing up to Pete about his infidelities. The expression, “Don’t shit where you eat,” is something Pete should be all to familiar with, but he seemed not to care about the consequences. He was barely fazed by Trudy’s ultimatum to stay in the city unless she summons him home. Trudy’s strength was one of the few shining moments in the episode.

Megan’s miscarriage seemed a bit contrived, as does her and Don’s relationship. I don’t see it lasting much longer, but I do think she will leave him, rather than the other way around. Megan is less likely to adhere to 60s era conventions. I could see her having an affair with an actor on her soap, packing her bags and just leaving. It would serve Don right.

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: I am going to have to agree with Nava on this one and say that I see Megan taking the initiative to leave Don as their relationship spirals out of control. Though the miscarriage, I concur, was contrived, I think it might be an essential plot point that brings Megan dangerously close to Sylvia, and Sylvia and Don’s affair dangerously close to being revealed. The sadistic side of me very much wants there to be a very grand, very dramatic confrontation involving some sort of discovery on Megan’s part. Or Don’s part.

My favorite scenes in this episode involved the interactions between “the wife” and “the other woman” that occurred with Megan and Sylvia and Trudy and Brenda. Megan and Sylvia have a common Catholic upbringing, but mirror each other in modernity and manner. Both women are not afraid to pursue what they want, sexually or otherwise, but are both grounded in marriages that maintain a very specific structures in their lives, down to their laundry schedules. In terms of acting, I admire Linda Cardellini’s restraint juxtaposed with Jessica Paré’s melodramatic monologue. It is clear that she does not want to be in Don’s apartment talking to his wife, but one can see the struggle between the awkwardness of feeling like an imposition and wanting a form of female companionship. I like Sylvia a lot, and I want to see her and Megan become more friendly. Sylvia shouldn’t be cheating on that nice husband of hers, but she intrigues me, whether she orders Don the steak diavolo or the angel hair pasta.

When Brenda arrives at the Campbell household with a broken nose and it is very clear to Trudy that Pete has been having an affair with a wife on their block, Trudy does what Trudy does best: what she is supposed to do. She cleans up Brenda’s nose, gets her ice, makes her tea, and drives her to a nearby hotel. From Trudy’s earnest but focused demeanor, it is apparent that she knows exactly what has been going on and is not going to have her husband’s squeeze bleeding all over her beautiful kitchen. There is nonetheless a paralleled intimacy between these two women, a gentle but fierce understanding of the situation. The next morning Trudy is sitting like a mob boss at the kitchen table, reclined with her legs crossed prepared to get exactly what she wants from someone who has disappointed her. I admit to cheering when she lays down the law with Pete, just because we often see Trudy putting on such a good face, even if she thought there would be some “dignity” in her granting him “permission.” But I also fear for them. Trudy is not taking his bullshit anymore, and I truly hope she sticks to that.

Joan to Herb: “And I know that there are some parts of you that you haven’t seen in years.” Shazam. Need I say more?




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Modern Family: Season 4, Episode 20 — “Flip Flop”

KIP MOONEY: That wasn’t so hard, was it? Only two stories, given an equal amount of time? No rushing, no one getting short shrift. See, it can be done!

That’s right. This week’s Modern Family did what I thought would be impossible: reigning in its plot threads to give them some breathing room. That made this another standout episode, after last week’s season high.

The main story finds Phil trying to sell the house Cam and Claire—or as he calls them, “Clameron, which is what people will be doing for this house”—have been restoring to flip. He initially turns down an offer from his rival Gil Thorpe. This is the first time we’ve actually seen the man up close, and he’s played brilliantly by Rob Riggle, who’s absolutely perfect at playing these sorts of uncomfortably aggressive douchebags. But it turns out that offer was the best Phil would get, as the house sits on the market for two months. (That shows that the characters live in a much different world from ours, since many homes can stay on the market for more than a year.)

When Luke mentions he has a friend who’s interested in buying, Haley stalks him through social media, and the two couples try to make the house look like his man-cave. The fact that no one says anything about Luke having a 30-year-old friend is just the kind of nonchalant aside that’s typical for him.

But the guy freaks when the family starts letting too many specific details slip, like Cam saying the doggie door would be perfect for his pooch Otis, or Haley saying that he should move in soon, just in time for his birthday. Luckily, Gil Thorpe shows up for a counter-offer and Phil gets to turn the tables on him.

I almost loved the flip side of the story even more. Javier, Manny’s often absentee father, shows up with his new girlfriend Trish (Paget Brewster, always nice to see you). Unlike his previous array of ladies, this one’s an art expert at Christie’s, and her penchant for the fine arts makes her a perfect to be Manny’s stepmother. Gloria can’t stand this, but when Javier proposes, Trish is the one who turns him down. Gloria and Trish have a heart-to-heart in which the latter reveals she only said No because she feels like she’d have to compete with Gloria for Javier and Manny’s affections. Knowing she’s still on top, Gloria embraces Trish, saying, “Welcome to the family!” I’d be happy with all three guest stars hanging around more myself.

Cam, looking up while toasting the construction crew: “Paco, I wish you could be here right now.”
Haley: “Is he dead?”
Cam: “He’s on the roof fixing a shingle that he should have gotten right the first time.”

Phil: “Prepare to Phil the agony of Dunpheat! Both names!”

Gil: “You just got Thorpedoed!”

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Mad Men: Week 1 in Review

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: What an odd taste that first episode left in our mouths. In typical Matthew Weiner fashion, the premiere episode of this penultimate season of “Mad Men” teased us with fragmented tidbits of the lives of our heroes. The confusion that left us in a wide-eyed scowl derived from many sources, some of which were the constant references to mortality, death, suicide (Don still feeling guilty after the death of Lane Pryce?), loss, hunger, and change. A bit forced, yes, but these themes gave us goosebumps as we crept into a new season that has already given us so much to process.

So far this season, my curiosity lies with Roger, Don, and Peggy as they all seem to be taking on roles that make them more vulnerable. Roger is seeing a shrink and is constantly thinking about death: “Life, like this analysis, must end. And someone is left with the bill.” Roger struggles with mortality as his mother, and his shoeshine, both pass away, and as his family grows up and moves on before his eyes. He is left in the various gilded, sterling rooms of his life, where the sheets are tousled and his one liners bounce off empty walls and echo to himself. Mona is gone, Jane (thank God) is gone, but, as Mona says, they will always love him. But what is that to a man who feels emptiness and loss, or doesn’t feel and is only “numb”? Are we supposed to assume from his tearful moments that he was closer with his shoeshine than he was with his own mother? Or is everything coming to a head for Roger at this very unsettling “jumping off” point, like it is for Don?

Though I have my problems with Megan Calvet Draper (I hope she drops the pothead act, it is so boring), she was essential in taking Don outside of his comfort zone in acknowledging modernity, matrimony, and its respective overlaps. But noticing Don silent for the first ten minutes of the episode and Megan, very much telling her own story about her new fame and success as an actress, seems to foreshadow a potential unrest in their groovy marriage. To see Don in bed with another woman at the end of this episode made my stomach curl. It came out of nowhere, and asked us to contemplate the possibility of Thoroughly Modern Megan failing to turn Don into anyone but another version of himself. How often has he been unfaithful to Megan? What pushed him over the edge? Is Megan’s success intimidating Don (need we be reminded of Megan’s first day since quitting SCDP in Season 5, cooking for Don as he came home and she declares “You’re everything I hoped you’d be,” to which Don scans her as potential housewife, smiles, and replies “You too”)? What can we extract from these cryptic messages? And why is death so prominently on Don’s mind right now?

Peggy, however, seems to be soaring. It almost feels like the writers took Don’s usual script and gave it to Peggy. Her snapping at employees and negotiating her way in and out of possible crises with her copy shows a potential to be the next Don Draper in a very serious way. Her affect has changed insomuch as there is not the same questioning of her own curiosity, but rather a certain confidence in it (which we saw beginning to be fully realized in Season 5). We see this executed through her wardrobe and hair, which is more coifed and sophisticated in the office and decidedly playful in her downtime (those knee sox and pom pom beret were some funky touches). Peggy appears to be at the top of her game in a career she thrives in where those whom she answers to appreciate her work as independently hers. It is inspiring and exhilarating to watch.

But Matthew Weiner is leaving us with so many unanswered questions for next week, but with our usual feeling of disorientation that we have come to expect from these first marathon episodes. Stories must run parallel before they can overlap, but when there is so much abstraction in each of the stories, it is hard to know what is going on. Yes, this is intentional, and yes we are supposed to be feeling what these characters are feeling. And yes, all will become clear, for better or for worse.

NAVA BRAHE: I must disclaim this, my first Mad Men review, by saying that I did a marathon catch-up on the series by watching all five seasons in the span of about three weeks. That’s a lot of Don Draper to contend with in a relatively short period of time, but it was worth it. Sonia once told me that she thought the series was the best on television, and I have to agree. I also have to acknowledge that Matthew Weiner borrowed heavily from David Chase’s Sopranos playbook, and I will explain how.

Season Five of The Sopranos foreshadowed the end of the series with many dark story lines, as did the first episode of the next-to-last season of Mad Men. In fact, most of the scenes took place in darkened spaces, particularly the Francis homestead, Don and Megan’s bedroom and Peggy Olson’s office. The only light seemed to come from the SCDP offices, even though Roger had to learn of his mother’s and shoeshine’s death in his blindingly white space. By the way, Joan’s absence was like a pink elephant in the room during those sequences.

The beginning of the episode was rather irksome, with Don not uttering a word until he is approached by the solider in the bar. He also seemed rather put off by the hotel guest who recognized Megan from her soap opera; his jealousy was written all over his face. In fact, the entire Hawaii segment did not seem to mesh well with the rest of the episode.

Overall, the two hour premiere did a great job laying the foundation for the rest of the season. I believe we will have many Betty/Sally conflicts to look forward to (with a still grumpy, still “reducing” Betty), along with a great deal of Megan/Don drama; I predict she will find out he is cheating on her; and the usual office shenanigans. I do hope there are more humorous moments, a la Don showing up drunk and puking at Roger’s mother’s memorial. We will be in some desperate need of levity if Mr. Weiner will indeed take Mad Men in the same direction David Chase took The Sopranos.

Lastly, I have to admit I find Don Draper’s selfish, philandering Lothario persona extremely boring. Maybe that can be attributed to my recent episode overload, but all the same, he deserves to get into some situation or other that he cannot charm his way out of. With the series ending, I believe that is surely on the horizon.

HOWARD MEGDAL: I am largely in sync with both of you; my primary irritation in the first episode stems from missing a trio of great characters, perhaps my favorites on the show: Joan, along with Mr. and Mrs. Pete Campbell.

But the brilliance of this show is that it has created characters requiring subtle storytelling to appropriately move them forward; taking Don or Peggy or Roger into the future, let alone all three, is a heavy lift.

Perhaps the best part of this episode is the way it has laid the marker for what is going to be an seizmic reaction, the moment Megan realizes her life with Don has more in common with his life with Betty than I hoped it would. It was plausible to make the argument that Don’s infidelity within his marriage to Betty was as much a function of her own highly limited emotional maturity as it was Don’s constant desire to find an exit. The marriage to Megan itself was another exit, from a meaningful relationship as well. And so my cockeyed optimism seems misplaced; Megan’s desire to fulfill both herself and Don is a non-starter for the marriage. Would a traditional relationship have sufficed? Doubtful, too. Makes for great conflict, but makes Don a harder client to defend in marriage court.

Betty’s confrontation with the counterculture was fascinating, as January Jones properly conveyed her twin desires to fit in everywhere, even an abandoned house off of St. Mark’s Place, and her concurrent desire to judge and hold herself above. Like anything else Betty does, from her reducing to her marriages, she abandons the violin belonging to Sally’s friend quite quickly. Let’s just hope she does the same with her rape talk-that certainly reminded us how far she’s come, in her ability to attract men, from her early-season ability to wow rooms when she’d enter.

That Peggy underling re-creating the unfortunate Tonight Show monologue might have been the highlight of the show, along with Roger’s daughter responding to Roger’s attempt at closeness with pitching him an investment opportunity. Let’s pray the balance between this Mad Men-type humor and the overwhelming examination of death finds a more even balance. Not that it wasn’t artfully done; but who wants to start the week that way all spring?

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Modern Family: Season 4, Episode 19 – “The Future Dunphys”

KIP MOONEY: This week’s Modern Family strikes me as among the best, if not the best, of a strong season. Even with multiple stories, the writers have woven them together beautifully, delivering an episode with laughs upon laughs and just the right amount of heart.

Much of the episode relied on visual humor, from Cam’s poorly timed accidental racism to Manny’s calamitous prep school interview to Lily with a shirt full of grapefruit asking, “When am I gonna get real boobs?”

That question leads Gloria to take care of Lily for the day for “girl time,” where she quickly announces she’s gay. Cam and Mitch try to talk to her about this, but Mitch can’t help but fall back on uncompassionate phrases like, “This is just a phase” and “You’re just confused.” Turns out she only she’s gay because her dads are, just like her classmate’s parents are Italian. So to get her in touch with her heritage, the dads take her to a Vietnamese restaurant where she promptly announces, “I hate Vietnam!” And the situation only gets more racist from there, in a gentle way of course.

Meanwhile, Manny’s interviewing at a prestigious arts prep school, which Jay initially finds too uppity. But then he turns his childhood frustration at the kids in blazers to jealousy, and pushes Manny perhaps a little too hard to nail the interview. Manny botches it hilariously, but the two have a heartfelt chat on the steps that’s among the sweetest moments the show has ever done. Any time you see the wall Jay puts up get cracked a little, it’s a good episode.

Finally, Claire and Phil have different parenting styles. Shocking, I know! But it’s how those styles are revealed that makes this episode so winning. Claire goes into the hospital for a heart check-up and her roommate has three kids that mirror Haley, Alex and Luke. When she hears how poorly they’ve turned out, she correlates with what those adult children described as a controlling mother. But when Phil hears that the oldest has four divorce settlements, the middle kid has a cat in a suit and the youngest is on probation, he fears the kids will end up like that because of his attempts to always be the good cop.

The kids assume the parents are suddenly reversing course because Claire’s on the verge of death. (Except Luke, who figures the only logical solution is that they’ve been kidnapped.) They arrive at the hospital just in time to get a “mom ok” text from Phil, which produces an outcry of, “You’re the worst parents ever.” Better they get angry now than screw up their lives later.

Cam, on learning about your heritage: “I think we would all be better off if people just went back where they came from.”

Mitch, to a flamboyantly waving Cam: “Just sit on ’em.” (It’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s delivery that kills it.)

Jay: “You know what was a rare book at my school library? One that didn’t have genitals drawn all over it.”

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Modern Family: Season 4, Episode 18 – “The Wow Factor”

KIP MOONEY: Much like family, sometimes it’s good to take a break from Modern Family. When you see them again, you’re hopefully happy for the reunion, but a little wary of their habits that drive you nuts. So it was this week. The jokes zipped by quickly and there wasn’t anything egregiously wrong, but there’s no need for four storylines in an episode, ever. Thankfully, the low stakes of this episode kept it from feeling like any of the stories got the short end of the stick.

We’ll make this easy and just go story by story…

1. The inspiration for this week’s title (“The Wow Factor”) comes from Cam hoping to find something to impress potential buyers for the house he and Claire are flipping. Did you remember this was happening? I sure didn’t. And that’s one of the problems with this show’s big pile of plot threads. You forget some even exist. Anyway, since Claire shoots down Cam’s plans for a fountain that includes a “fire feature” for the backyard, he recruits his lesbian friend Pam (Wendi McLendon-Covey from Bridesmaids and Reno 911!) for back-up. Of course Claire, a pro at manipulating people to get what she wants, flirts relentlessly with Pam to keep her on the within-budget side. Realizing he’s no match for Claire’s feminine wiles, he goes behind her back and installs a fountain anyway, but one that’s less dangerous. That is, until the fish inside the tank get sucked into the jets and become adorable projectiles.

2. Neither Gloria nor Jay want to take Manny to a stage reading of Moby Dick, but Gloria gets stuck because Jay promised to spend more time with Baby Joe. Emasculated that he’s going to have to sit through a puppet show, he lets a friend of Claire’s he runs into at the mall watch him while he takes her two sons to see Skyfall. As the rules of sitcoms dictate, Gloria has to see a strange woman holding her own baby and grills Jay. But the tables turn when he asks what she was doing at the mall in the first place, and realizes she lied to Manny about the reading being sold out. Then Gloria plays the ESL card, and everyone has a good laugh.

3. My favorite story had to be Phil’s attempt to teach Alex and Haley how to do simple chores like changing a light bulb and sweeping. Even though this seemed really hard to believe, especially for Alex, I always love seeing Flustered Phil. But when he can’t fix the water heater, even after Haley’s brilliant suggestion of filling it with hot water from the tap, he has to swallow his pride and “call a guy,” his dad Frank. Now, I think Fred Willard should be in just about every episode of every comedy (and probably even a drama or two—just look what Bob Odenkirk did on Breaking Bad), so any episode he drops by for will automatically bump it up a few points.

4. Finally, Mitch trying to beat a bully at Lily’s school in handball. This storyline didn’t provide a whole lot of laughs until after the credits, with Luke going all R. Lee Ermey on Mitch to whip into shape. “Close your eyes. It’s OK. We’re off the court.” Luke slaps Mitch, screaming, “You’re never off the court!” Any time Luke shows his evil side, I start smirking like the Grinch.

Claire to Pam: “Oh, look. My shirt is see-through.”
Cam to Claire: “And so are you.”

Phil, pointing at the water heater: “Let’s start with this baby right here. What are we looking at?”
Haley: “Photosynthesis.”

Frank to Phil, via Skype: “Are we gonna do that thing again where you try on different outfits like in Pretty Woman?”

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Modern Family: Season 4, Episode 16 — “Best Men”

KIP MOONEY: Modern Family never met a sitcom trope it didn’t like. That’s usually OK because the writers typically find a to tweak them so it doesn’t quite seem like we’ve seen it before. Unfortunately, this week’s episode failed to tweak anything. It was just rehash after rehash.

The first of tonight’s four (yeah, four) plots had Phil playing Cyrano for Luke, which it turns out Luke’s date’s mom was doing the same thing for her. Of course mom is single and starts hitting on Phil. Ty Burrell gracefully bumbles his way through this awkwardness, as he always does, but it all felt painfully familiar.

Then Claire tried to buddy up with Haley, and of course Haley bailed on her the second something more interesting came along. But their reunion at a coffee shop let them hear Alex’s band, which was actually pretty good. (This show’s finest musical moment will still be Dylan’s “Moonlight [I Just Wanna Do You].”) Again, nothing we haven’t seen before.

Manny, meanwhile, has been drawing the female form extensively as an ode to his little brother’s somewhat buxom nanny. Of course, anyone is petite compared to Gloria. Manny’s candlelit dinner for his new love interest ends exactly as you’d expect (especially since the nanny is in her 20s and Manny is just now going through puberty). I was specifically reminded of Everybody Loves Raymond in the former section and dozens of other sitcoms in the latter. Yawn.

Finally, Mitch and Cam get a visit from their old pal Sal (Elizabeth Banks) who announces she’s getting married. There was plenty to be mined here about a former party girl deciding to settle down, but it’s a little difficult to get there when you’ve got three other pots to compete with. This didn’t feel so much like a lot of other sitcoms, just like the last time we saw Sal.

Jay to Gloria about the last time she breastfed at the dinner table: “Phil almost ate a candle!”

Mitch: “Hashtag politics.”

Luke: “Kids don’t eat dinner.”
Phil: “What do you mean, you don’t eat dinner? What do you do?
Luke: “I don’t know, you just walk around and jump off stuff.”

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Downton Abbey: Season Finale in Review

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: You know, for a finale to such an amazing season, this definitely fell short for me. The highlights of the final episode of “Downton Abbey” this season were none of the gigantic and lame plot twists, but were the small moments. Bates and Anna’s picnic. Rose grabbing Anna when it was time to dance the reel. Thomas and James at the beginning of what hopefully will be “a beautiful friendship.” Carson carrying baby Sybil. Cora getting choked up talking about revolutionary, modern daughters. Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes sharing a spot of tea and laughing over presumptuous grocers. But throughout the entire episode, it felt like little tiny mounds of conflict were being made over sticks of dynamite that just kept being added to and added to as the episode went on, and one by one they exploded, awkwardly, with some piles still intact for next season.

The Edna and Branson storyline made me angry because it wasn’t very well thought out. Of course it’s too much to ask for a vengeful zombie Sybil to rise from the grave and cause harm to any tart who looks Branson’s way, but this little dalliance was boring and stressful. And of course Branson deserves to be happy (I guess), but whomever rises to that occasion has some enormous shoes to fill, which Branson certainly knows. But to introduce us to that prospect through an underdeveloped and silly character like Edna doesn’t do justice to Branson’s character (who looked thoroughly uncomfortable around Edna, despite his being friendly to her) nor to any understanding of how he might grow as a character. Thank heavens for Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson who swooped in to end whatever was going on there.
Since Sybil’s death, my favorite characters on “Downton Abbey” are moving from upstairs to downstairs, in favor of Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Thomas. I have always loved Carson and Hughes for their banter and personality quirks, but they are truly beginning to emerge as the grandparents of the house, in a way. They have both run Downton for so long and have seen the children of the house grow up. The scene with Carson and the baby, joined by Mrs. Hughes, brought to light a sweeter, gentler nature to their ever-bustling dispositions. Though Carson reminds us there’s no reason to get “sentimental” about this, there is an immense amount of respect that the Granthams have for the dynamic duo of Carson and Hughes, and baby Sybil and Mary’s son will come to know them both in that same manner.
Matthew’s death was a device that most of us knew about before the episode aired, so that Dan Stevens could be free of his contract with “Downton Abbey” and pursue other projects. His death certainly felt like a copout, and read as anticlimactic after Sybil’s death (a plot device that occurred for the same reasons as Stevens’). I loved Matthew, and his level-headed nature and his devotion to Mary, but his death felt so cliched and corny and intentional that it was rather easy to make fun of (2 minutes left, better hope a car comes along on this one-lane dirt road or Dan Stevens won’t get his movie contract– Oh! There we go!). Though this wasn’t the happiest note to leave the season on, and hence should have been more tragic and meaningful, I’m finding myself less than enthusiastic about next season. With Rose coming to Downton (Quick! Bring in another young girl so we can have an easy canvas on which to paint the changing times!), Mary as the mother of this little conveniently timed heir, and Downton’s continuing financial troubles, I’ll be hoping for some more development along the lines of what they did with Thomas, Anna, Bates, Carson, and Edith in the coming season.
HOWARD MEGDAL: There’s a key question left unanswered by those who have explained that the death of Matthew is the only feasible way for Julian Fellowes to have closed the Matthew storyline once Dan Stevens decided to leave, and that is this: is the show able to survive at close to its seasons 1-3 level without him?
Sure, the story of Matthew chasing and catching Mary had ended. But Matthew, as Sonia mentions above, is central to so many aspects of what make Downton great. He is one who bridged from outsider to insider, allowing him to both communicate with people as different as Rose, Branson, editor Michael and Lady Mary. Really, he is at the confluence of personalities, and that has been true in every season. Sybil was a worthy character; Matthew was the crux of it all.
I also take issue with the idea that absent volatile, huge plot points, that somehow Matthew/Mary ceased to be interesting. Quite the contrary: this show is at its best when the characters are having large responses to what are little problems, in the larger scheme of things. Moreover, the idea that Matthew and Mary would be conflict free as they raised a child defies common sense. This was a rich area to mine, and now it is closed off.
If anything, Anna and Bates seem to have reached that dead end. The quiet moments are lovely for them, but they hardly sparkle with the wit present in Mary/Matthew, and neither one appears to be difficult enough to create problems for the other. That’s a dramatic problem.
So without Matthew, what do we have left? Well, there’s Carson, doing Carson things. Lord Grantham needs to be given more story time, with Hugh Bonneville far more capable than his season three arc would suggest. (It’s almost as if Fellowes was too influenced by seeing Bonneville’s bumbling character in 2012.) Thomas is around, while O’Brien might have gone to Scotland, where the downstairs staff seemed like the O-Pee-Chee to Downton’s Topps.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if the death of Matthew marked the end of this show as compelling as it has been. It’ll be up to Branson, the last character with the kind of backstory and subtlety to carry a show, to do far more. If he’ll be up to it, let alone be interesting enough for us to ignore how irritating Rose is, remains to be seen. I’ll watch, but I’m not optimistic.
NAVA BRAHE: Well, there we have it: Matthew has been conveniently killed off in the spirit of high drama that occurs on the most commonplace of soap operas. I must admit that it was a huge disappointment for me as well, and I agree with Howard that “Downton Abbey” has likely “jumped the shark” with Dan Stevens’ departure.
My hopes for the next season, for which I believe production is already underway, is that Branson will play a larger role in the family; he seems the logical replacement for Matthew, in terms of keeping Lord Grantham tethered to reality, as opposed to floating away on a cloud of renewed privilege. All the gossip I’ve read so far this week has been about a new love interest for Mary, and which actor will get the chance to woo her. It will piss me off greatly if Julian Fellowes plays the fortune hunter card, and conjures a character who intends to swoop in and seduce her with charm, all while concealing ulterior motives. I am hoping Mary will be smarter than that; after all, she did say she has done her duty to preserve Downton.
One thing the last episode did well, albeit a tad too predictably, was to juxtapose the upstairs/downstairs experience with the servants at the fair, and the events at the highland estate. It was so much more enjoyable to watch the tug-of-war, the games and the drinking (although not the beating Thomas took on Jimmy’s behalf), than the stodgy stalking and fishing.
Despite the unsatisfying end to this season, I am looking forward to the next chapter. There is so little quality television out there that once I invest in something, I can’t help but want more of it. My fear is that the qualities that have made “Downton Abbey” so magical will fade before I am ready to resign myself to giving them up. After all, nothing is made to last forever, much as we wish it could be.
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Modern Family: Season 4, Episode 15 — “Heart Broken”

KIP MOONEY: In relationships, sometimes you have to try new things. You’ve got to break up the routine, do a little role-playing or be totally spontaneous.

And so it was with this week’s episode of Modern Family. Not just with the characters, but the show itself. Instead of cutting back amongst all three stories, this episode just showed each one from beginning to end. That said, there was nothing groundbreaking in this episode, despite a development that’s interesting but might have nowhere to go in the coming weeks.

So let’s just knock ‘em out in order. First we had Phil and Claire doing their annual Juliana-Clive rendezvous, which gets interrupted by Claire having a “heart episode” that sends her to the emergency room. Turns out she has hereditary arrhythmia, which she’s never even mentioned to Phil. Now, one of these characters developing a medical condition has the potential to be very interesting and rewarding, but I’m afraid the writers aren’t going to know what to do with it, except maybe end with Claire having a heart attack at the season finale, which would just be the worst gimmick I could possibly imagine. What I did like about this story (and about all three in general), is it showed both partners having a healthy interest in sex. Unlike so many shows that are all affairs and hook-ups, or couples without intimacy, I found it refreshing that each mate wanted to get it on as badly as the other.

Then we move on to Jay and Gloria’s post-partum honeymoon. After waiting the requisite six weeks, Jay and Gloria are both ready to jump each other’s bones. Gloria lets everyone explicitly know that she was never into Jay for his money (which the show never had to, and besides, this is Southern California; if Gloria wanted a rich guy, there are plenty of wealthier options). She finds him sexy, and never more so than when he’s crossing off every item on the to-do list in a snazzy suit. Yet there was still time for a sweet little Manny story. Jay debates whether to follow Manny to a party he surely believes only exists as humiliation, but he lets him go and finds Manny returning even more giddy than usual, his secret admirer being very real indeed.

Finally, the least interesting story of the bunch. Cam and Mitch wake up from their valentine’s shindig to find a wrecked house and a new roommate (Dylan). I dug that even when they’re drunk, Mitch and Cam’s shenanigans are as ridiculous and fabulous as they are. Between a pink cat, stolen Christmas decorations and still hanging around Pepper, the writers find clever ways for this duo to get into hijinks. I would like to see the show develop these two a little more. They’ve been a little adrift since their second adoption fell through, and I want to see some of the layers of how they’re throwing themselves into things (musicals, hobbies, parties) to avoid dealing with their sadness.

Phil, on why Claire had a mild heart attack: “I think I may have been too sexy.”

[Lily interrupts Jay and Gloria’s make-out session.]
Jay: “And I’m losing it.”
Lily: “My daddies kiss a lot.”
Jay: “Flatlined.”

Manny: “They said bring your hat with the feather in it. And I said, ‘Which one?’”

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