Archive for the ‘TV Time’ Category

the group cover

Of course Betty Draper is reading Mary McCarthy’s bestselling book “The Group.” It’s her kind of book. The 1963 bestseller follows the the lives of eight Vassar women from their graduation in the depths of the Great Depression to the brink of American involvement in World War II. Cosmopolitan called it “juicy, shocking, witty and almost continually brilliant.” What’s not to love? For Betty,the Bryn Mawr grad and former jet-setting fashion model, this is just the sort of book that would capture her imagination.

In the episode “The Color Blue,” Betty is absorbed in the book, the way few characters seldom are on a modern TV drama. Like many people drawn into a good book, she is reading it all day long. She’s reading it while soaking in the tub and picks it up again after dinner while Sally does her homework.

This is entirely appropriate given the novel in question. Mary Mc Carthy was more than just a popular novelist. She was something of a literary legend. “The Group” is steeped in details, some imagined, but many of them subtle and not-so-subtle twists on McCarthy’s real-life college experiences. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1962, shortly before the book’s publication, McCarthy said that she conceived the book as a type of progress novel. She wanted to show the “idea of progress in the female sphere … economics, architecture, domestic technology, child bearing, the study of technology in the home, in the playpen, in the bed,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a history of the loss of faith of progress, in the idea of progress in that 20 year period.” The characters were composites of the girls she knew at school, but said that all of their mothers were in the book. “That’s the part I kind of like the best,” she said.

Critics focused, with varying degrees of approval, on what McCarthy called “the feminine sphere.” The New York Times was impressed by the book’s close study of women’s daily lives “in and out of battles, beds and rather contagious boredom.”

Because of its focus on housewives working women, society matrons and publishing assistants, it was easy to dismiss McCarthy’s decision to focus on consumerist details instead of The Big Issues. But even Norman Mailer, who led the charge on this front (and may have missed the entire point of the novel in the process) stopped to admire McCarthy’s ability to use the details of everyday objects and conversations to add depth and insight to her characters. “The real interplay of the novel, ” Mailer wrote, “exists between the characters and the objects which surround them.”

McCarthy’s relentless skewering of the male characters was also notable. “The men in their lives are satirized mercilessly,” the Times wrote. “[T]hey deserve their places in Miss McCarthy’s lampooning carnival. … I got the impression that she was reversing the cast of one of those minor war novels in which the leading characters are not quite human beings but rather representatives of carefully assorted milieus and callings. No heroes here, at any rate. A bunch of sad sacks, compared to the heroines.”

Even though the novel took place 30 years earlier, someone like Betty who’s focused almost solely on herself, her own vague unhappiness and dissatisfaction, she must have identified with McCarthy’s upper class college girls, their sorry consorts and the loss of faith in progress.


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Here’s the happy news from Clorox:  There will always be laundry. No matter how far we have come as a civilization. No matter how fancy and colorful our washing machines are. No matter how much money we make, where we live or who we live with.  Clorox is trying to make us feel that the circle of life includes laundry, we should feel connected to our great-great grandmothers — and to Clorox of course — by doing laundry,   but it’s really just depressing. If you are a woman, no matter how far you come in this man’s world, you’re going to have to do at least a few loads of laundry. And you’ll be bleaching your yukky little gym socks with Clorox. As a co-worker of mine from West Virginia used to say, “Accept it, bless it and move on.

Except, no.  My aunt had a cleaning lady named Evelyn who did the laundry. To this day, I’m not sure my aunt even knows how a washing machine works. My first boss, the coolest, hippest TV producer that ever lived, used to drop her laundry off at the laundromat and they’d do it for her.  My best friend would not even consider dating anyone who didn’t do laundry and her adorable husband washes his own smelly gym socks.  Women of the world, if you don’t want to do laundry, you don’t have to.

But aside from this depressing (and maybe a little sexist) vision of  middle-class laundry and the woman who sort it and fold it, is a much bigger question: Does anybody really bleach anything anymore? Tye-dyeing tee shirts does not count. My mother used to bleach things when I was little, in the sink in our laundry room, but she doesn’t do it any more. I don’t think I own a bottle of bleach.  I don’t think I’ve ever needed one.  The dirt and stains in my clothes come out just fine with the lemon-scented detergent that I bought on sale.  A quick visit to the Clorox web site reveals that Clorox and bleach in general can be very useful to kill bacteria but is also pretty toxic. Also there are a lot urban legends surrounding the uses of Clorox bleach that are funny at best, and a little  freaky at worst.

So what we are left with at the end of this walk through the history of modern American laundry methods is the idea that laundry has been and always will be a burden and Clorox is a quaint, arcane and vaguely dangerous product that hasn’t changed a bit in the last 100 years.

Watch it now, if you haven’t seen it yet.  I’m going to pass. On the idea of laundry as destiny and bleach as a necessity. Sorry, Clorox, accept it, bless it and move on.

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equal-pay-nowWhen Peggy Olson closed the door to have her sit-down with Don Draper, her boss, you didn’t have to be a student of history to know it was going to end badly. When women have conversations like this with their bosses about equal pay for equal work, it almost always ends badly.

Peggy’s consciousness-raising moment probably came after her liquid lunch with Duck Phillips. Trying to lure her over to Grey Advertising, he nearly drowns her in a sea of flattery. He says he admires her “focused ambition. He calls her a “free wheeling career gal with great ideas.” He promises her velvet pillows, riches and awards. But most importantly, he tells her that as a single woman with no mortgage or family responsibilities, this is her time. “Strike while the iron is hot,” he says.

She was also encouraged by the Equal Pay Act of 1963 which passed in June. The relevant portion of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 that Peggy read about in the paper said sex discrimination would be prohibited in the workplace. Employers could no longer discriminate on the basis of sex by paying female employees at a rate less than what is paid to employees of the opposite sex who perform the same work using the same skills under the same conditions.

However, there are also some pretty big loopholes contained in the act. Exceptions are made for salaries paid in accordance with 1) a seniority system, 2) a merit system 3) a system which measures earnings by quality or quality of production or 4) a differential based on any factor other than sex…”

But it still sounds pretty good to Peggy. Now she has to get paid the same as the pipe-smoking poseur Princeton grad Paul Kinsey. It’s the law! They have the same job, and as she accurately pointed out, she does it better. Kinsey trashed talked the Madison Square Garden people in a pitch meeting. Peggy landed the Popsicle account all by herself. She does pro bono work for her church. She had to share an office with a Xerox machine. She barely makes more than her secretary. So what the hell Don, give the girl a raise.

Sadly, it’s more complicated than that. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was the first step in a long march to equal pay for equal work that continues into the millennium. ” Much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity,” President Kennedy said in his remarks upon the signing of the bill. “[In 1960] the average woman worker earns only 60 percent of the average wage for men–this legislation is a significant step forward.” (In 2007, women made about 72 cents for every dollar a man earned.)

Even if Sterling Cooper wasn’t pinching pennies by counting paper clips and redlining expense reports, Don would have had several ready and legal excuses to keep Peggy’s salary right where it is. Don could tell her she doesn’t have the seniority or the numbers to merit a raise and there wouldn’t be much Peggy could have done about it. The law as it was written left a lot of room for a lot of excuses employers could (and did) use to rationalize paying women less than men. In the following four decades, a dozen lawsuits, additional legislation and a very vocal women’s movement will be needed to advance the concept of equal pay for equal work.

Social factors also contribute to the equal pay problem. Peggy works for an old school, old boys advertising agency. No turtlenecks or corned beef sandwiches here. Her boss stormed out of a meeting with a major New York department store because he wasn’t going to let a woman talk back to him. Her boss’ boss Roger Sterling throws parties at his country club where he performs in blackface. One of the account service managers was practically kicked to the curb for suggesting a client target black consumers. And let’s not forget the tragic Ann-Margret diet soda spot. Peggy knew it was a disaster from Day One and she said so only to be shot down by Don who tells her he understands women better than she does.

In 1964 Congress would pass the Civil Rights Act which includes Title VII which prohibits discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Eventually, it would get harder and harder, but still not impossible for employers to pay their female employees less. Peggy’s time has yet to come.

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The Saturday Evening Post, May 4, 1963

The Saturday Evening Post, May 4, 1963

Hello Patio, Hello lawsuit?

For the sake of argument let’s say that the Patio folks really liked Sal Romano’s Patio commercial. Let’s say they like it just the way it is. It’s an exact frame by frame copy of the opening sequence to the 1963 film “Bye Bye Birdie.”  An Ann-Margret wannabe performs the opening scene of the movie with “Bye Bye Birdie” changed to “Bye Bye Sugar.”

Let’s further assume that the British bean counters at Putnam, Powell and Lowe (parent company of Sterling Cooper) were willing to stick a crowbar in their wallet and pay the appropriate licensing fees (which would pre-empt any copyright issues and could run anywhere from $10,000  to over $1 million in 2009 dollars. For the title song from one of 1963’s top grossing movies featuring one of the year’s hottest new stars, it could be closer to the top of the scale rather than the bottom.)

Let’s say it airs in prime time. Let’s say during “Bonanza.” Let’s say during “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “American Bandstand.”  Let’s say Ann-Margret sees the ad and has the same reaction Peggy Olson had.

That is to say she hates it.

In this hypothetical and fictional situation, Ann-Margret not only hates the ad, but she has never heard of Patio and wouldn’t drink “dietetic” soda on a bet.  In 1963, what could she do?

Well, it depends on whether or not PepsiCo and Sterling Cooper asked her permission. (Ann-Margret on Mad Men! What a great episode that could be.  Imagine Ann-Margret coming in for a meeting. It would make the epic American Airlines presentation in “Three Sundays”  look like a tea party.)

Sterling Cooper American Airlines Presentation

But what if they didn’t bother to ask? What if they didn’t think they needed to? If Sterling Cooper didn’t get her permission, she could sue for violation of the right of publicity.

Simply put, the right of publicity is the right to control one’s identity.  The most significant suits involving recognizable images of pop culture celebrities such as Jacqueline Onassis, Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler and Tom Waits didn’t arise until the 1980s.   So, If Ann-Margaret sued Sterling Cooper in 1963, 20 years ahead of when the first suits were filed, it would have been the first in a series of  important “impersonator” cases involving a celebrity asking for an injunction and/or monetary damages because their image was used in an advertisement without their permission. Ann-Margret Olsson v. Sterling Cooper would be a landmark right of publicity case that law students would still be studying 45 years later.

But suppose Sterling Cooper (wisely) decided to scrap the Patio ad, but decided to use the singer’s voice and the jingle with different visuals that didn’t include an Ann-Margret look-alike?  Based on the outcomes of existing case law, Ann-Margret would again be a legal trailblazer a good 25 years before Midler filed her famous lawsuit against Young & Rubicam. In Midler v. Ford Motor Co. 849 F.2d 460 (9th Cir. 1989), Midler refused an offer to sing her hit song “Do You Wanna Dance” in an ad for the Mercury Sable. In a move that would make Bert Cooper proud, Y&R hired one of Midler’s back-up singers to perform the song in her stead.  Several years later, Waits refused a smilar offer from Frito-Lay and a “sound-alike” was found to mimic his  distinctive voice. (Waits v. Frito-Lay, Inc. 978 F.2d 1093 (9th Cir. 1992).

Both artists won their suits on right of publicity claims. Midler was awarded $400,000 and Waits received $2,500,00 several years later. The Midler case turned on her claim that the impersonation featuring her distinctive vocals would lead viewers to think that she was singing the song and therefore endorsing the car. And Ann-Margret’s vocals are nothing if not distinctive.

If Ann-Margret decided to sue, it’s likely she’d  prevail in what could have been a multi-million dollar lawsuit (in today’s dollars) against Sterling Cooper, which could have been disastrous for the agency. And since series creator Matt Weiner has said he’d like to see the series move into the 1970s, it’s probably a good thing the Patio folks decided to pull the plug.

hello patio!

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I can totally see Trudy Campbell at Woodstock.

At Roger Sterling’s Kentucky Derby soiree in the third episode of “Mad Men” Mrs. Pete Campbell  stole the show with her hat, her manners and her fantastic Roaring Twenties dance moves. The butter churning steps were just to die for.  (Alison Brie, who plays Trudy, said the couple has been practicing for about a month.)

Their joie de vivre was charming.  (I immediately wanted to find an Arthur Murray Dance Studio and sign up for dance lessons.) Tea dancing was a part of the core curriculum for society kids like Pete and Trudy, but still, can’t you just see them practicing at home?

The character of Trudy may have started life as a shrill, spoiled Upper East Side Princess (and actually, what’s not to love about that? It works for  our beloved Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf.) but she’s evolved a little bit into a charming, stylish and confident corporate wife.

Of all the women on “Mad Men,” Trudy is the only one who seems genuinely happy with her husband and her life. (She is having problems getting pregnant, but this is a TV drama and nobody can have everything.)

While Peggy, Joan and Betty are struggling to fit into pre-conceived 1960’s gender roles, Trudy is already in charge of her destiny. She did not save herself for marriage.  She pushes Pete to buy their chic Upper East Side apartment. She’s the one with the power to hit up an old beau and persuade him to publish Pete’s short story. She’s quick to adopt the latest styles and trends and has innate understanding of what it takes to be a corporate wife.  She has a thing for hats. (It’s a mystery why AMC doesn’t give us more pix from Trudy’s amazing gallery of hats. They are simply wonderful.)

It’s easy to see Trudy in 1967 in a cute little mini-skirt with white go-go boots and a Marlo Thomas “That Girl” flip hairstyle, making Pete take her to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium or farther a long in the 1970 campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment. Trudy’s wealth and privilege gives her the freedom to have fun and take charge and if Pete doesn’t like it, well he’ll just have to get over it — and that’s just another thing that makes us love Trudy even more.

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More than Mole

Top Chbaylessbookef Masters took a lot of heat, so to speak for being too nice. Too much camaraderie, not enough backstabbing. But if TCM was nothing more than a charity love-fest, then why can’t I stop thinking about the winning mole recipe from winning chef Rick Bayless? The 27-ingredient Mexican dish was so amazing that the three judges just gave up on the superlatives and resorted to a chorus of “mmmmmmms” to describe it.

What struck me about this dish, is the story Bayless told along with it. He first had the dish as a teenager on vacation in Mexico. Oaxaca Mole is the most difficult type of Mexican sauces to master and is typically served on special occasions He said this was the one dish that inspired him to master the art of cooking and Mexican cooking specifically. The complicated mix of carefully blended flavors has been a 20 year labor of love for the chef. It an era of 30 minute meals and ten dollar ingredience, it is fascinating and refreshing to meet someone who is willing to invest not just an hour, not just a day, but an entire lifetime to cook the ultimate dish. Imagine being to passionate about something that you keep going back again and again, working, tinkering, refining, blending, mixing, tasting, serving and starting all over again in a never-ending search for perfection. Speaking solely as someone who demands a standing ovation for boiling spaghetti and sauteing a few mushrooms and onions with some turkey sausage, Bayless’ quest fills me with awe and admiration. And it’s not about the food, because I’m not the biggest fan of Mexican food (I am one of those people to whom cilantro tastes like soap), it’s about the process and the dedication Bayless has to his craft.

Adding to the mystery and the mastery is the fact while Bayless has published the recipe, for what it’s worth, which quite frankly isn’t much for the casual cook looking for a meal, not a calling. Bayless surely knows there is more to this dish than a list and some directives. I read it over and was struck by the depth and breadth of ingredients. It’s easy to see how an endeavor like this cannot be mastered in an afternoon. Passionate home chefs describe it as something like a trek up a culinary Everest. I suspect a neophyte like myself with no experience working with fresh chilles of any kind would be sidelined for years at Step One.

But Bayless has no plans in the wake of his Masters victory to elaborate or republish his recipe. It’s not that he’s worried about imitators (See you all in 20 years, suckers!), he just doesn’t think it would be right. And it wouldn’t. It would be misleading. “[It’s] super hard, he told the Los Angeles Times. I won’t do it because it’s so hard to describe. It’s one of the few recipes that you actually have to have someone teach you. It doesn’t work in print. You have to toast everything to this level of darkness where it looks like it’s burnt but it’s not. And that’s the trick to it. It literally took me 20 years to perfect the recipe for myself. To say, I can do it as well as the cooks in Oaxaca.”

Bayless earned extra wizard points for cooking this perfectly on TCM without a recipe to refer to. Imagine. It just makes all the other process shows like regular old “Top Chef” and “Project Runway” — which don’t get me wrong I absolutely love, but for completely different reasons — just seem so very small.

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Cake & Character

So it’s anbake cakeother day at Charm City Cakes and I’m watching the cake gods of Food Network’s  “Ace of Cakes” create an edible replica of the Stanley Cup.  And as I do every week, I smack myself on the side of the head and say to myself  “Damn, why didn’t I think of going to pastry school when I had the chance?”   In addition to spending my days doing fun things like making a cakescape of a birthday boys family motorbike trip or a firebreathing dragon eating the bride and groom toppers on a wedding cake, I’d get to hang around with the super cool staff including my imaginary BFF office manager/traffic cop Mary Alice who gives us the play by play or what’s going on at Charm City each week. On their web site they say “You dream it. We bake it. You eat it.” I mean how cool is that?  And of course there is Duff Goldman, the adorable, cuddly yet badass  founder/owner whose enthusiasm for his job and his life just pours through the screen.

The Food Network doesn’t really traffic in reality shows (with the sad little exception of “The Next Food Network Star”) and choose instead to focus on process shows. Low on drama, high on cooking. No matter what you think of Rachel Ray and her endless collection of hamburger recipes, she does show viewers how to make something for dinner. “Ace of Cakes” isn’t about how you yourself can bake a cake, it’s more of a behind the scenes bakery tour, which is just fine.  I also love the hipster vibe the show has , which appeals to the theater arts geek in me. This show is kind of like “Glee” but with buttercream.

I never really thought much about  “Ace of Cakes” until TLC decided to rip off the Food Network with “Cake Boss.” There are so many things wrong with “Cake Boss” it almost makes me want to cry. It’s deeply unfair to Buddy Valastro the Cake Boss of the title.  I know this because I first saw Buddy on another Food Network show, “Food Network Challenge.” On challenge the best bakers in the country compete to make elaborate theme cakes in only eight hours and are judged by a generally humorless panel of master chefs who will smack a baker down over things like crooked piping on one tier of a 12 tier cake. On “Challenge,” Buddy is quirky, but professional — very talented and very funny. Like Duff, he has a particular style and approach to his craft. So yeah, it seems logical for somebody to want to give him his own show so we can watch another cake boss whip up amazing masterpieces.

Alas, it’s not to be.  TLC, a network best known for intrusive and invasive portrayals of  family life, applies the same “John & Kate Plus 8” approach, which is to say, the focus is big on drama and small on cake. Because of this,I have to admit I’ve never really seen an entire episode of  “Cake Boss.” I’m sorry, I just can’t. The first episode I caught featured a shouting match between Buddy and his staff in the kitchen (boring. If I want to see I kitchen fight, I’ll just go home and fight with my mother.) The second time I tuned in, two bakery staffers left the bakery to go down by the river to  try and catch pigeons. No, I don’t know why.  It was accompanied by that “hey aren’t these guys dumb” music to clue us in to how stupid they are.  I didn’t hang around long enough to see any actual cake baking. “Ace of Cakes” on the other hand spends more time showing us how to build a fire-breathing dragon or a minature replica of Hogwarts out of cake, which is plenty wacky in and of itself.  “Cake Boss” on the other hand is happy to focus on the what I call the Jersey Jamoke made famous by the Real Housewives and “The Sopranos and to this I say, been there done that, what’s next? The producers don’t seem to care much about the art of the cake, which is a shame, because there’s no doubt Buddy’s got game.  It would be great if the TLC people could think out side the box and give the show the touch of creativity and genuine character it surely has.

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