Thursday, September 23, 2010

Along Came Miss Blankenship

[ SPOILER ALERT: This entire post covers important season four plot points of "Mad Men." ]

From its beginning, "Mad Men" has been one of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time. And for good reason. It's smart, moody, attentive to detail, and depicts a range of tragically flawed characters you can't take your eyes off of. It's a master class in motion picture storytelling. It's strikingly original, and always plays against your expectations.

But then, earlier this season, "Mad Men" introduced a character straight out of a horrible, hackneyed sitcom. She was your classic Batty Old Woman character. She did her job with a put-upon sigh; she was barely able to perform the tasks of said job, and we were meant to laugh at her ineptitudes and failings; she said exactly what was on her mind, which was usually just south of appropriate. Her glasses and wig were just a notch too big to be taken seriously. She was even given a silly name - Miss Blankenship.

Everything about this character screamed "jumping the shark!" She was comic relief in a way we'd never seen -- or, frankly, asked for -- on this show. Tonally, she didn't fit in with the series. She was an overworked Neil Simon derivative, akin to The Dumb Blonde.

Here's a typical Blankenship scenario: A character waltzes into Don Draper's office. Don and the character begin to have a conversation. A second and a half later, Miss Blankenship's voice comes in over the buzzer announcing, "Mister Draper, [character name] is here to see you." Don rolls his eyes, and the conversation continues. Like I said, the stuff of bad sitcoms.

But it worked. It shouldn't have worked, but it did. Why? Why didn't this character signal the beginning of the creative decline of "Mad Men," as she would on any other show?

A cynic might say that the "Mad Men" audience drank the kool-aid a long time ago, and they'll give their darling show a pass on anything. This may prove to be true eventually, but it's not true yet. Season four is proving to be the series' strongest yet. Fan enthusiasm is well warranted.

One reason this character may have worked is precisely because she didn't belong. She was a new and unexpected brand of comic relief for the show. We never would have thought a show like "Mad Men" would drop the "ill-timed intercom gag" on us.

But that sells the show and the character a bit short.

For me, this character fell into place when Don delivered a particular line about her. Another character asked Don why he hadn't replaced Miss Blankenship yet. Don responded that Miss Blankenship was exactly the person Joan knew he needed. And now I'm going to take this opportunity to put up a bunch of pictures of Christina Hendricks as Joan.

Joan is the secretarial manager in the advertising firm that is the show's setting, so it was her decision to place Miss Blankenship as Don's new secretary earlier this season. Don's previous secretary -- young, pretty and vulnerable -- was forced to leave her job after Don took advantage of her. Joan's decision to assign Miss Blankenship to Don not only took away the "young and pretty," but added a dose of surly. Just what Don needed, indeed.

The reason critics, if not a wide audience, love "Mad Men" is because it's so carefully structured. Nothing happens in the storylines that doesn't come out of, and relate back to, the characters. Miss Blankenship wasn't there simply to give us some brainless laughs. She was there to make us consider the cleverness of Joan, the resigned acceptance of Don, and the casual rudeness the other characters demonstrate in the face of the elderly.

Then came the matter of Miss Blankenship's death. Even here, the writers dispatched with her in a classic hack-sitcom manner. A character was talking to Miss Blankenship, unaware that she was already dead. Getting no response, the character tapped Miss Blankenship on the shoulder, at which point her body slumped over in her chair, head thumping against the desk. How many times have we seen a character talking to someone he or she didn't know was dead, only to be hilariously shocked by the revelation? Too many to count.

As the sequence continued, a small team of office employees went about getting rid of the body in the background, while in the foreground Don conducted a Big Important Business Meeting. Don had to maintain his composure in the face of his clients, while he observed the chaotic handling of Miss Blankenship's body directly behind them. Again, the stuff of bad sitcoms. The only way to make this scenario more cliched would be to have Don on a date with two different women... in the same restaurant... at the same time!!

But even in this worn out madcap scenario, "Mad Men" elevates the material and makes it work. The comedy of Miss Blankenship's death is juxtaposed with a clearly saddened Bert Cooper, the eldest executive at the advertising firm. In a previous episode of "Mad Men," we discovered that Roger Sterling was working on his memoirs in which he alluded to Bert Cooper's sexual past. Given Cooper's reaction to Miss Blankenship's death, we're left to assume that the two had had a fling in their younger years, and that she had left a significant impression on him. Meanwhile, Joan and Roger relapsed into a fling that had been on ice for several years. Whether she knows it or not, Joan has seen her own future in Miss Blankenship's death - sitting behind the desk at a job that doesn't treat her nearly as well as she treats it, subservient to the men who pay lip service to her value but will never treat her as an equal.

The lesson here is that even the hackiest, most cliched storytelling and comedic devices can feel fresh and new if you know how to use them. Leave it to the experts over at "Mad Men" to show us the way.

And rest in peace, Ida Blankenship.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: The Paul Goebel Show

Genre: Pop culture

What It's About: Television and comedy. Paul Goebel, stand-up comedian and former TV Geek on "Beat the Geeks," brings his vast knowledge of television to the table as he and co-hosts Jim Bruce and Tom Griffin discuss current shows, controversies and other TV-related topics. Special guests, usually with comedy backgrounds, join the conversations.

Why You Should Care: There's a reason Goebel was the TV Geek on "Beat the Geeks." He's a nearly-unstumpable walking encyclopedia of TV trivia. More knowledgeable about TV history than the average critic, his podcast is an excellent filter for placing current shows in context. But most importantly, the show is a lot of fun to listen to. Hilarity and interesting conversations abound.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 1 hour

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: The Sound of Young America

Genre: Interview

What It's About: Stuff that's awesome! Though technically an interview show, The Sound of Young America is really more of a lifestyle show, committed to seeking, exploring, and sharing the very best of American culture.

Why You Should Care: Host Jesse Thorne is an admirable self-starter who began with a simple college radio show, turned it into an interview show worthy of NPR, and then actually got the show on NPR. His interviews are varied, ranging from the usual pop-culture mainstays -- actors, comedians, authors, musicians -- to the less common -- photographers, science writers, journalists, film festival programmers, painters. Not one to stick to the mainstream, Thorne's guests are frequently newly-emerging artists, so you walk away from the show with a new discovery to investigate and to share with your friends.

Frequency: Irregular (several per week)

Average Length: 40 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.