TIME Television

David Letterman Leaves Us, Laughing

The late-night legend's last episode was emotional (but not maudlin) and, as it should be, very funny.

Would he leave us laughing or crying?

The David Letterman who crashed late night on NBC in 1982 was hilarious, but not exactly the sentimental type. (A 1986 Viewer Mail segment ended with him being dragged off by the cops for indecency after trying to refute a viewer who said “you don’t have a romantic bone in your body.”) In his later CBS years, he learned to open up—about his heart surgery, 9/11, becoming a father. But there was always that reserve, that distance, that resistance to being self-serious.

So Wednesday night, his last as a TV host after three and a half decades, the man who introduced TV to a new kind of comedy show left us with … a comedy show. Letterman’s last Late Show was nostalgic but not maudlin, gracious but not mournful, valedictory but not a eulogy. Letterman’s last minutes behind the desk were as heavy on the laughs as on the thank-yous, an hour-plus of an entertainer being an entertainer and enjoying it. It was true to Dave, it was fun and it was terrific.

And why not? Letterman was leaving on his own timetable, not being defenestrated by the network. He remade his art and his business. He got to spend more than three decades of his career doing more or less what the hell he wanted on national TV and left widely acknowledged as the best at what he did (whatever his ratings). Sure, goodbye is sad, but then again—as he said in sheepishly acknowledging the effusive, lugubrious praise of the past weeks—”Save a little for my funeral.”

So the night kicked off with typical self-effacement, as well as by-special-celebrity-guests-effacement. After a clip of President Gerald Ford saying (after Nixon’s resignation) “Our long national nightmare is over,” Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama repeated the line at Letterman.

He took the stage with a brisk monologue including one last joke at the disappointment he could never stop picking at: “It’s beginning to look like I’m not going to get the Tonight Show!” Stephen Hawking, he said, called to say he’d crunched the numbers on Letterman’s more than 6,000 shows and said, “it works out to about eight minutes of laughter.” And the night’s classic-quality Top Ten list (Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave), delivered by frequent guests, was like a mini-celebrity roast, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in the presence of Jerry Seinfeld, saying, “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale!”

Trust Letterman to deflate showbiz hyperbole and cheerfully let some of the air out of the own celebratory float we’ve been parading around for him. The bulk of the middle of the show was a look back at his career, but it felt less like an In Memoriam than a highlight reel assembled by a man who was simply damn proud of the work he and his crew had done.

The sweetest of the prepared reels was devoted to a day behind the scenes at Late Show: polishing and pitching jokes, riffing one-liners over White House Correspondents Dinner footage, dealing with the million small details of the daily production. What came across wasn’t grieving but pride in the machine that Worldwide Pants had built over the years, and the comedy force that began with Letterman and Merrill Markoe’s bizarrely brilliant daytime show in 1980 (generously highlighted in the clip reels).

At one point in the backstage film, the camera stopped on Paul Shaffer, with a droll observation about what it’s like to be the boss: “There’s a parade of people coming and they all say the same thing: ‘Dave, I know you hate this.’ And then they go on to do what he hates.”

It was in the last segment, as the episode ran into overtime, that Letterman unleashed his emotion, settling in for one of the “desk talks” that have been the highlights of his second great period at CBS. But characteristically, his sentiment was fond, not wistful.

He remembered touring the Ed Sullivan Theater before moving to CBS: “It was a dump… crawling with rats—big rats.” He thanked CBS President Les Moonves and Biff Henderson, the gang in the control room—”Let’s keep it to three drinks tonight!”—and his writers. He thanked, of course, Paul and the band. And he thanked—with the kind of personal touch he’s been showing in his later days—his son Harry and his wife Regina, while giving a shout-out to Harry’s friend Tommy. (The closing image of the show was a home video of Harry skiing.)

Were his eyes a touch pink? Maybe, but his voice was steady. He seemed to feel good—in the zone—knowing, maybe, that he’d just put on a good hour of TV. His last minutes on the air were like his favorite song, “Everlong,” which the Foo Fighters played over hundreds of stills from Letterman history: emotional but driving, ever letting up, hurtling forward to the end. Until simply, steadily, honestly: “All right, that’s pretty much all I got. The only thing I have left to do, for the last time on a television program: Thank you and good night.”

David Letterman, our host, our comedy uncle, our after-hours pal, delivered the laughs one more time. I would have to supply the tears myself. Sorry, Dave. I know you hate this.

TIME Television

Why David Letterman and Bill Murray Are Meant for Each Other

Both actor and host evolved from rebel smartasses to philosophical comedy statesmen

The first night Late Night with David Letterman aired, Bill Murray bounded on stage and vowed to shadow Letterman for the rest of his career. “I know you’re on here late night where nobody can stop you,” he ranted. “‘If it’s the last thing I’m gonna do, I’m gonna make every second of your life from this moment on a living hell.”

Tuesday night, Murray will appear on the penultimate Late Show as Letterman’s last scheduled guest, and there’s an obvious symmetry to it, as well as history; Murray’s walked or flown onto Dave’s stage numerous times over the years. But there’s more to it than that.

In the current print edition of TIME (subscribe to read!) I have an essay about Letterman’s 30-plus years in late night. One point that I ended up cutting for space is that Murray is not just a fitting last guest because he was Letterman’s first. He’s inextricably bound to Letterman because in many ways they’ve had the same career.

When they first emerged nationally, Murray on Saturday Night Live and Letterman in late night, they developed reputations as master smartasses. They were entertainers part of whose acts riffed on the shtick of entertaining: think Murray’s lounge-lizard rendition of the Star Wars theme on SNL. The 1970s SNL and the 1980s Letterman, both grimy New York institutions, had a kind of punk-rock sensibility, puncturing the artifice that had bloated showbiz and stripping TV down to essentials and anarchy. (You could say the same of some other classic early-Dave guests, like Andy Kaufman and Sandra Bernhard.)

Fans responded to that same sensibility in Murray and Letterman, but their detractors saw a similarity too. People who didn’t like Murray thought he used irony as a crutch, using his laid-back delivery to smugly distance himself from, and make himself superior to, his characters and material. Letterman came in for some of the same knocks, as I write in my TIME essay:

To some detractors, Letterman was the culture’s Typhoid Mary of nihilism. In David Foster Wallace’s short story “My Appearance,” an actress is coached on how to succeed on Late Night: “Laugh in a way that’s somehow deadpan. Act as if you knew from birth that everything is clichéd and hyped and empty and absurd, and that’s just where the fun is.”

But to see Murray and Letterman as mere smirkers sold them both short. Murray’s comedy had a well of emotion; Letterman’s “irony” was in fact a passionate response against phoniness. And as their careers went on, they each became that rare kind of performer: the comic who matures and learns to express a kind of wisdom without overturning the schmaltz barrel. Murray kept making funny movies, but as he aged and greyed, he tapped into the melancholy that is often the silent partner of comedy, working with directors, like Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson, who knew how to bring that out in them.

Letterman, meanwhile, struggled in the ’90s after moving to CBS; he topped Leno in the ratings for a while, but didn’t quite seem to know how to function as top dog rather than underdog. Then in his next decade–maybe not precisely with his heart surgery in 2000, but right around there–he entered his second great period, this time not as a comic bomb-thrower but as a raconteur, a spoken-word essayist. As Letterman aged and mellowed, he may have lost some edge, but he became the one guy in late-night talk who really knew how to talk–be it about 9/11, his 2009 sex scandal, or the mortality of his friend and guest Warren Zevon.

Latter-era Letterman and Murray weren’t two wise guys getting sappy in their old age. They were two artists mastering their instruments. I can think of no better way to say goodbye than to hear them duet one more time.

TIME Television

Recap: Mad Men Watch: Om Sweet Om

Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 14 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC
Michael Yarish/AMC

Have a Coke and a smile: a rambling finale leads to either TV's saddest happy ending or its happiest sad ending.

Spoilers for the season finale of Mad Men below:

“There’s more to life than work.” –Stan Rizzo

Is there? The entire finale of Mad Men seemed to be making that point, or at least, it found the series’ central characters wrestling with the issue. Peggy Olson found love at work–no mortal can resist Stan’s suede and turquoise for long–while also finding a calling there. Joan found that her work cost her a relationship, as Richard’s supportive talk turned out to be all talk–yet when we last saw her, she seemed to have managed to integrate her work with her life. Even Roger Sterling ends his story out of the office, ordering champagne happily with Marie.

And then of course there was Don, whose hobo journey led him at the end away from the office, by way of the Bonneville Salt Flats, to a meditation center in California, where, stripped of everything–job, home, car, power suits, connection with family and friends and even hippie pseudo-niece Stephanie–he gives in to the vibe, breaks down in encounter group and shows up to meditate and greet Mother Sun. He closes his eyes. He gives himself over. He chants, “Om.” He smiles. His skin relaxes, his nostrils flare. He seems at peace. And we hear a bell, a chime of clarity.

Or is it just an idea lightbulb? A moment later, we hear the lines of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” the famous Coca-Cola world-peace-through-carbonation anthem from 1971. (Kudos, by the way to Vox and Uproxx for nailing the final-song prediction.)

[Incidentally, it’s true that the finale did not make explicit, in so many words, that Don wrote the Coke ad; it’s possible, I suppose, that it could have been Peggy, though then I’m not sure its connection to Don’s ending meditation. In that way, the ending was more Sopranos-like–open to endless interpretation–than I would have expected. But that’s my operating theory for now. I am glad to hear arguments to the contrary!]

So last things first: that ending. As a tag on Don’s story it was both incredibly clever and emotionally underwhelming–the opposite, really, of what I might have expected from Mad Men‘s finale. It does a brilliant, instantaneous double-twist, suggesting in one moment that Don has finally, through being stripped down, reached a moment of spiritual growth–and then that, really, he’s simply seen it as all b.s. and come up with one more way to sell product. He has looked into the eye of eternity and seen a Clio.

Ingenious? Yes. But it’s also, at first blush, much more bleak and cynical about Don’s ability to change and grow–much more Sopranos-like, in other words–than you would expect from a series that gave us the moving end moments of “In Care of” at the end of season 6. If that’s what happened in that instant, Mad Men has given TV its most cheerful, upbeat, miserable ending in the history of finales.

Because think about what it’s saying. Don has lost pretty much every human connection. He’s essentially accepted that the best thing for his children is to surrender their care to another man after the death of their mother. He’s unable to accept the love or encouragement of his protegé Peggy over the phone. He’s become the lonely, cold bottle on the refrigerator shelf in poor Leonard’s dream. And that has, apparently, made him a better ad man than ever: made him able, in fact, to come up with one of the most iconic ad campaigns of the 1970s (which, symmetrical with the pilot, is I believe the show’s first use of a real advertising campaign/slogan since Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted”).

Intellectually, I can accept that as both an example of how advertising co-opts ideals and as a statement of Don accepting that he is who he is–Don Draper, ad man, not Dick Whitman, spirit-questing, California-dreaming wanderer. It’s a satisfying idea to wrestle with. But this isn’t all about ideas. It’s about, as Don said to Peggy in season 2: “You, feeling something.” And where I’m sitting, early morning after the end of Mad Men, I wanted its last minutes to make me feel more.

Part of the issue here, I think, was the structure of the episode–finales always being a tough thing, especially in a show like Mad Men that’s not driven by a singular plot goal. Don spent the entire episode separated from the rest of the central characters, except by phone. And the problem is, we care about him mainly in relation to them. When Don realizes that this is it for Betty, his face crumples, and he says, “Birdie”: devastating. Don in the company of a bunch of hippies somewhere in the vicinity of Big Sur? Not so much. (Some of Mad Men‘s weaker segments historically have been around the counterculture–that’s where its seams start to show–and this was no exception.)

“Person to Person,” meanwhile, was very busy back at home on the East Coast, too busy, as it tried to give many characters final moments with each other. (And yes: if it hadn’t, fans would have complained about that. Again, finales are hard!) At times, it seemed to sacrifice consistency for fan service. It felt great to see Joan offer Peggy a partnership in her production company–offering her the chance to “burn the place down” together–but it felt sudden considering how strained their relationship often was. Peggy and Stan’s hookup was a wish fulfilled–and the show had been pointing at it forever–but the sudden, blurting I-love-you over the phone felt very convenient and not very Mad Men.

On the other hand, if you’ve seen Sally Draper as the secret protagonist of Mad Men, “Person to Person” delivered. Kiernan Shipka was absolutely riveting as Sally essentially took the parental role in her family, giving her father the mature argument that he needed to step back and let his sons have continuity with Henry, then coming home to have the honest talk with Bobby that Betty couldn’t. This was a dramatic personal change, but in a way that felt earned and convincing. Don told Sally earlier this season that she was indeed like her mother and father; but who would have guessed, after that childhood, that she might mature into a better version of both?

Sally’s storyline was probably the most conventionally satisfying of the finale’s shambling first hour (and let’s not forget January Jones, who got to go a long way to redeem a sometimes-misused character in these final episodes). As a conventional finale, Mad Men’s was not one of TV’s best, and there have been far better hours of the series over its run.

And yet right now, around 1 in the morning, it’s the weird, not-conventionally-satisfying last ten minutes of the episode that I’m still wrestling with. And that’s testament to Mad Men‘s determination to be weird, to challenge, to irritate and prod and engage.

I mean, look again at the last ten minutes or so. Don, the protagonist of the series, says almost nothing in his final act. He exchanges a few depressed words–“I can’t move”–with a group leader whose name we don’t know and we don’t care to. He goes to a seminar with her, has an opening to speak, and… doesn’t. The man of words, the guy whom we could always count on to deliver a tour de force, epiphanic pitch speech, instead sits back and lets the show’s final story–Don’s story, for all intents and purposes–be told through some guy named Leonard.

And it’s devastating. Because it’s not a pitch. It’s the realization of an actual feeling human who feels that his life has come to nothing, that he doesn’t have love, or worse, that he has it and is simply incapable of accepting or recognizing it.

And Don? Don has no clever speech. After having turned the full force of this character on us for seven season through the power of language. Jon Hamm is left to give us his final moments through action only. His eyes watering as he absorbs his own situation through Leonard’s. Through a desperate hug, sobbing. And finally, by turning to us, full faced–not giving us the back of his head as in the show’s credits–and letting his face, finally, relax.

No words. No story. Only: “Om.” Don’s story ends with a Coke and a smile.

Is this TV’s saddest happy ending ever or it’s happiest sad ending ever? Has Don changed, or has he come 3000 miles to find what he’s always found in a conference room? Has the man who said love was invented by guys like him to sell nylons found a way to accept love and managed to channel it into his work? Or has he, devoid of love and connection and family, become a kind of advertising bodhisattva, slipping the bonds of earthly relationships the better to tap America’s Coke-buying chakras?

This is where I’m supposed to bluff my way through Don Draper-style and tell you I know. I don’t. And maybe after seven seasons we should be left with a better sense of whether Don’s final change is genuine or not. But the way Mad Men left me wrestling with those last moments–and may leave me wrestling with them for days or weeks–is testament to what a challenging, inventive show this series has been.

In the first episode of Mad Men, Don posed a question: “Do you know what happiness is?” Then he listed a bunch of comforts–the smell of a new car and so on–that had little to do with happiness but rather with the appearance of happiness as sold through advertising. This was happiness to him: an agreed-on construct that he was paid to invent.

Don Draper went through Mad Men‘s run as a man of mystery. He left us with one more, sponsored by Coke: Has he, after years of selling fake happiness, found The Real Thing?

Now for a last hail of bullets:

* So much turquoise in this episode. So. Much. Turquoise.

* The series ended, evidently, in November 1970, which didn’t give us the chance for many 1970s cultural moments. But there was at least a guest appearance from our old pal cocaine!

* You might have recognized the naked encounter-group guy as Brett Gelman, who played a therapy-group member in Matthew Perry’s short-lived Go On. Who’d have thought that, after all these years, Mad Men would end with a tribute to Go On?

* One of the best exit lines of the episode went to, of all people, Meredith: “I hope he’s in a better place.” “He’s not dead.” “There are a lot of better places than here.”

* Seriously, whoever had “Stephanie is a major character in the finale” on your office pool, you are doing all my Emmy ballots from now on.

* Whatever issues I had with the sudden romcom resolution to Stan and Peggy’s love story, Elisabeth Moss’ read of her reaction–“What?”–was priceless.

* In the interest of kicking off discussion and not pulling an all-nighter–unlike Joan, I have nothing to sniff off my fingernail–I decided to err on the side of finishing this review sooner. Which means I probably erred on some other sides too, and I certainly didn’t cover every last scene in the episode. I may write more later, and I apologize in advance for any omissions, errors or brain farts. (As Ginsberg once said, my couch is full of them.)

* On a personal note: this one goes out to Richard Corliss, the late TIME film critic and occasional Mad Men recapper, who I wish I could talk over tonight’s finale with.

* Above all, it’s been a pleasure getting to dig into this richly rewarding show for the past eight years, and to have a community of sharp-eyed readers to do it with. I reviewed (nearly) every episode of this series for the first four seasons, and wrote about the show recurringly over the final three. Few series reward the kind of analysis (or overanalysis) that this has–and few shows have attracted the kind of close-reading fanbase that I’ve found in the comments here and on social media. For me, a great part of the experience of watching and dissecting Mad Men has been what you’ve brought to it. Thanks for riding in the time machine with me.

TIME Television

Upfronts Roundup: Fall TV, Like Summer Movies, Plays the Imitation Game

KERMIT THE FROG, GONZO THE GREAT
Eric McCandless/ABC Kermit and Gonzo in ABC's new mockumentary The Muppets

The broadcast schedule is big on reboots, franchises and superheroes.

One of the most backhanded compliments people give to TV is “it’s like a movie!” It’s meant well–to say Breaking Bad was “cinematic” is to say it looked gorgeous in a way TV didn’t used to–but it also implies that film is inherently superior.

Still, the analogy is useful for describing how the business has evolved in the megamultichannel era. The Sopranos and its successors created a kind of auteur-driven model of TV a la the Hollywood of the 1970s. Game of Thrones is–both creatively and business-wise–the equivalent of a blockbuster epic. And with the growth of streaming and cable outlets, there’s even a kind of “indie TV,” series like Togetherness, Transparent and Rectify that share the sensibility of indie film.

This week, the broadcast networks presented their fall schedules for advertisers at the “upfronts” in New York City. And much of their new programming shows that broadcast TV is like the movie business too: specifically, the big-studio summer tentpole market, increasingly driven by reboots, franchises and superheroes.

NBC is bringing back Heroes as Heroes Reborn, proving as the comics have that no superhero dies permanently; it’s also reviving the ABC sitcom Coach. Fox will have an X-Files “event series,” a serial version of Minority Report and a cop twist on the Frankenstein story. ABC will roll out a new, mockumentary edition of The Muppets and (let me know if you find out who asked for this) Uncle Buck. CBS is making series adaptions of Limitless and Rush Hour, plus the high-profile comics franchise Supergirl in the fall. The CW will have the FlashArrow spinoff Legends of Tomorrow (though to be fair, DC Comics series have been part of the network’s DNA since Smallville on its predecessor The WB).

As Joe Adalian wrote in Vulture, the motivations seem to be much the same in TV as in movies: in an increasingly saturated entertainment market, it’s an easier pitch to try to reach viewers with already familiar brands. It’s not only the big broadcast networks doing this, of course: Netflix is giving us the Fuller House reboot and a series version of Wet Hot American Summer. But the broadcasters, who need the biggest audiences to sell ads, have the most incentive to stick to the familiar. (Sometimes there are corporate incentives too: see Disney’s aggressive pursit of synergy between ABC’s Marvel TV series and the movies.)

Mind you, this isn’t automatically good or bad. One of the greatest TV series of all time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was a TV reboot of a movie (albeit a rethinking and a vast improvement). And while I don’t want to fall into the trap of reviewing a show based on the trailer, one of the fall series I’m most looking forward to is The Muppets, which Big Bang Theory producer Bill Prady is reconceiving as a mockumentary (an approach that makes sense, since it fits the inside-showbiz parody that was an element of The Muppet Show).

But it does make it more welcome to see the occasional series idea that isn’t based on an established brand or setting (plenty of cop and hospital shows next season too). I’m curious to see ABC’s Oil, about a subject–the fast-money petroleum boom in North Dakota–that could be fascinating if done right, and Fox’s Scream Queens: admittedly, it sounds like something from the Ryan Murphy Random Series Generator (American Horror Story: Glee, basically), but at least the screen isn’t saturated with horror comedies right now.

As Fox learned last season with Empire, often the key to both creative and mass-market success in TV isn’t compete originality or imitation, but a concept that’s both familiar (It’s Dynasty…) and not (…in the hip-hop industry). But that’s easier said than done. Instead, many of next fall’s debuts will be using essentially the opposite of the pitch NBC once used to advertise comedy reruns: Maybe you haven’t seen it before–but it’s still old to you.

TIME Television

Stephen Colbert Introduces Himself As CBS’s New Late Show Host

Stephen Colbert, future host of the LATE SHOW, talks to David Letterman when Colbert visits the LATE SHOW with DAVID LETTERMAN, Tuesday, April 22 (11:35 PM-12:37 AM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. This photo is provided by CBS from the Late Show with David Letterman photo archive. Photo: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS  ©2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS Colbert visits with Letterman in April.

Promising advertisers laughs and viewers, Colbert says he's found his real self--sort of

He shaved the beard, he wore a suit, he didn’t once address the crowd as “Nation.” He was Stephen Colbert, and he introduced himself as the future host of Late Show at CBS’s upfront presentation for advertisers in Carnegie Hall Wednesday.

Much of the talk around Colbert’s transition from The Colbert Report to taking over from David Letterman has focused on what kind of host he would be like as himself, having shed his fake-news persona. So, of course, that was the focus of the taped sketch Colbert opened with.

The piece opened on Colbert planning to go on a journey to India to discover himself, with a giant bag or gorp and a copy of Eat Pray Love. Until, that is, he became absorbed in a marathon binge-watch of CBS and lost track of time until May. Desperate, he told CBS president Les Moonves that he still didn’t know who he was. “You’re a white male comedian,” Moonves said, “with a nice haircut and a suit.”

“Oh!” said Colbert. “I’m a talk-show host!”

Did Colbert’s appearance reveal what the true Colbert, CBS host, would be like? Maybe, maybe not. He followed the taped sketch by introducing himself onstage, a la the self-aggrandizing Report host: “Please welcome the new host of the Late Show and the man who is talking right now saying these words–Stephen Colbert!”

As for Colbert’s monologue, it was arch, snarky and–typically for upfronts–TV-centric. Colbert said he’d be a good fit for the CSI network because “most of my show will be me solving crimes by zooming in on pubic hairs.” As for his relationship with advertisers–whom CBS has already been having him schmooze–he promised to deliver. “Advertisers want young eyeballs,” he said, “and not just the ones Rupert Murdoch buys on the black market.”

Of course monologues themselves require a kind of persona; the reall differences between CBS Colbert and Comedy Central Colbert won’t be apparent until we see him doing interviews, sketches, banter and all the odds and ends that make up a late night. In the meantime, Colbert hardly seemed fazed by the big stage.

“I guess the old joke is true about how you get to Carnegie Hall,” Colbert said. “You take over a late show and it turns out to be mandatory.”

TIME Television

Review: Wayward Pines Lays a Twisty Trail

WAYWARD PINES:  Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon, R) meets Sheriff Arnold Pope (Terrence Howard, L).  @2014 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Ed Araquel/FOX
Ed Araquel/FOX

Fox's summer miniseries is a little familiar and a lot ridiculous, but at least it keeps busy.

There is a type of series that, for lack of a better name, I’ll call a “dome show”: a sci-fi-flavored mystery, a la CBS’s Under the Dome, in which characters find themselves trapped or stranded in a mysterious, menacing location. The show may recall various TV predecessors, depending on whether the setting is homey (Twin Peaks), mythology-laden (Lost) or totalitarian (The Prisoner). What is this place? Why are they there? And how angry will the explanations, or lack thereof, make us?

As domes go, Fox’s miniseries Wayward Pines (premieres May 14) is well-furnished and nicely populated, if familiar. It doesn’t waste time: Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon), on a search for two missing agents, gets in a car crash and comes to in a picturesque Idaho town, where people check in but don’t check out.

Burke recovers and finds he has no cell phone, no money, and no option of leaving. To his home office and his family, he’s disappeared with no trace. The locals are friendly but secretive. They’re to give him housing free of charge, but if he asks too many questions, things get uncomfortable with his keepers: menacingly smiling Sheriff Pope (Empire‘s Terrence Howard) and efficient but terrifying Nurse Pam (Melissa Leo). He finds an ally in fellow newcomer/prisoner Beverly (Juliette Lewis)–and disturbingly, one of the agents he was looking for (Carla Gugino), who has gone native.

The series doesn’t waste much time, plunging ahead with unremarkable dialogue but effective plotting, and establishing quickly that no one is safe and you should take little for granted. Seeming holes in the plot–like why Ethan gets away with giving his captors so much guff–end up becoming pieces of the puzzle.

And a puzzle the show is, first and foremost. Fox describes the show as a “psychological thriller,” but there’s not much psychology here so much as mind games, and only enough character development to establish mood. (The show scatters in Twin Peaksian “creepy Americana” quirks and folksy affects, like giving Howard’s creepy sheriff a sweet tooth for rum raisin ice cream. Character-wise, the owls are pretty much what they seem.) Ethan is haunted by the most generic action-hero demons, but Dillon gives him a committed performance.

Wayward Pines is based on a series of novels by Blake Crouch (haven’t read, can’t vouch for the faithfulness), and produced by M. Night Shymalan, whose let’s-twist-and-twist again breed of storytelling fits TV thrillers of the post-Lost era. And twist the show does, so often and dramatically that I can’t talk about much beyond the pilot. (I’ve seen five episodes of ten.)

But if you’re a viewer who watches dome shows with a “Give me the answers, dammit!” mindset, I can reassure you: Wayward Pines explains itself (obligatory “…or does it?”) thoroughly and relatively soon (compared with, say Under the Dome), in a mammoth info-dump of an episode.

I can’t promise you’ll find it convincing–personally, I laughed at the revelations a lot more than I bet the makers intended–but you can’t accuse the show of playing it vague. Wayward Pines is not groundbreaking TV, but it has small pleasures (like seeing Hope Davis play a scary schoolteacher). For a certain fan of a certain kind of summer diversion, it will feel like coming dome.

TIME Television

Upfronts Watch: NBC’s Schedule, Not Much to Laugh About

Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris - Season 1
Robert Trachtenberg/NBC Harris, host of NBC's new variety show Best Time Ever

Once home to Seinfeld, The Office and Cheers, the Peacock will air the fewest comedies in ages.

NBC, ancient, storied, its halls full of ghosts, is the network that benefits most from, and is burdened most by, its history. At events like this week’s upfronts–where networks announce their fall schedules for advertisers–it likes to remind us how many of our fondest TV memories started there. But it also means that when it slips up or runs into trouble, whatever it does is treated as a sign of The Troubles of TV Today because, well, it’s NBC.

So on the one hand, the fact that NBC announced a fall schedule with only two sitcoms–a live version of Undateable and the new People Are Talking–doesn’t sum up the state of comedy everywhere. ABC had a strong year with the debuts of blackish and Fresh Off the Boat, and there’s plenty of comedy on cable. On the other hand: only one measly hour of comedy, on the home of Seinfeld and Cheers, and that on the dead zone of Friday night.

A few years ago, NBC talked about how it was changing its tack with comedy, stepping back from clever-but-niche comedies (like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, now streaming on Netflix) to broader, more “mass” comedies (like Bad Judge, now airing nowhere). Now it’s mostly stepped back from doing comedy at all. (The network has several comedies for midseason, but who knows when they will air or how well the network will commit to them.)

The result is a fall schedule full of shows that work for NBC now (The Voice); shows that resemble shows that work for NBC now (Chicago Med, successor to Chicago PD and Chicago Fire, and precursor, I assume, to Chicago Gas & Electric and Chicago Dept. of Zoning); and shows that used to work for NBC in the past (Heroes Reborn). The other new series include Blindspot, a mystery-thriller with a bit of a Blacklist feel; Heartbreaker, another medical drama; and The Player, with Wesley Snipes in an action drama about a security expert in Las Vegas.

You can see trailers from the new series online. They may be very good or may be very bad, it’s hard, at first description, to get very excited about any of them.

And hey, can I blame them? NBC’s first job is to get ratings, not to excite me, and it has at least climbed out of the fourth-place subbasement it occupied when the network aired comedies that I watched. And while NBC’s sitcoms may be sparse in the fall, there is at least one new show that promises an intriguing experiment and ideally some laughs: Neil Patrick Harris’ variety show Best Time Ever.

Still, NBC’s bet on NPH and the variety format seems a little tentative. Rather than give it a primo spot on the schedule, say immediately after The Voice, it will air Tuesdays through November at 10 p.m.–an oddly late slot for variety shows, which have usually gone earlier to grab an all-ages audience. Maybe NPH’s comedy will be racier; maybe NBC feels Heartbreaker (which gets the Voice lead-in) is a better investment.

Either way, Best Time Ever may or may not laugh best, but NBC’s scheduling has ensured that it will at least laugh last.

TIME Television

Why Mad Men Needed Betty

AMC

Maligned and ill used, flawed and fascinating, she was essential to the show's themes and its feminism

Spoilers from Mad Men, “The Milk and Honey Route,” below:

Why wouldn’t Betty just go away? At least since the Draper marriage broke up at the end of Season 3, there has been a strong anti-Betty refrain among the Mad Men fandom — people found her cold, childish or, most damning of all, superfluous. It was a rare thing, after all, to end the protagonist’s marriage in the middle of a series. What do you do then? Maybe there should be a divorce settlement: Betty gets custody of the kids, Don gets custody of the audience.

In defense of these viewers, Mad Men has not always seemed to know what to do with Betty in the post-divorce years. Sometimes she was stranded in tertiary plots (say, her reconnaissance mission to a hippie tenement in search of Sally’s violinist friend). Sometimes the show seemed actively hostile to her (the whole “Fat Betty” arc from Season 5). Sometimes she seemed to exist for the sake of scenes that demonstrated, as Matthew Weiner has said of her, that she “should never have had kids.”

But writing Betty off would have been the TV thing to do — driven by story concision, neatness, budget — not the Mad Men thing to do. Mad Men has always been committed, first, to the messy, complicated reality of life. (Though I wonder in retrospect if Weiner didn’t consider this end sooner, when Betty had her cancer scare in Season 5.) It doesn’t get messier or more complicated than divorce, and the reality of that is, once you are tied to people through children and history, they remain part of your life one way or another.

Betty’s devastating story line in “The Milk and Honey Route” proved that those connections were still sunk in deep enough to tear at our hearts. Of course, a terminal diagnosis is an easy way to do that. (Sally getting the news in her dorm room, her Peanuts calendar hanging behind her: I died.) But this wasn’t just medical-drama manipulation: Betty Hofstadt/Draper/Francis moved us because she earned her place, because Mad Men needed her:

She connected Don’s work to life (and death). Among many parallels to The Sopranos, I suspect that Betty — like Carmela, Meadow and A.J. often did — got on fans’ bad side because she wasn’t involved in the business story lines they preferred. The office is where Mad Men’s action is, but it’s not all the show is about. And yet there was a heavy sense of vocational irony in her illness: after all those years of shilling tobacco, the bill came due, yet it was not Don or any of the ad men who had to pay it. (Not to make Betty’s diagnosis all about Don, but it’s noteworthy that three of the significant women in his life — Anna, Rachel and now it seems Betty — would die of cancer.)

She was essential to Mad Men’s feminism. It’s not controversial to say that, title aside, Mad Men is largely a women’s story. And it’s not surprising that, especially for a modern audience, it’s easier to identify with that story through Joan (who goes from accepting the boy’s club to actively fighting it) or Peggy (whose attitudes are closer to those of our own time). With few exceptions (hoisting her gun in the first season), Betty gives us few you-go-girl moments to cheer for. (And so what? We don’t need Mad Men’s male characters to be “likeable” or “relatable” to justify their existence.) But that’s exactly why we need her: the suburban Republican housewife may not have been a feminist but she was a case study for feminism all the same. Watch the scene where she gets her diagnosis: Weiner’s camera pushes in on Betty, in focus, but it’s men doing the talking, the doctor discussing treatment options with her husband. The world treats her as a secondary character even in her own death.

She showed that people don’t change … Of course, for much of Betty’s life, she’s accepted, even embraced, living life as an adornment to the men around her. See her heartbreaking letter to Sally, concerned first with how she’ll look at her funeral: “Remind them how I liked to wear my hair. Will you show them the picture?” She is a construct of a certain set of social expectations, and she’s asserted her worth and strength by trying to be the absolute damn best at living up to them. This may not make her a hero from today’s perspective. But no less than with Don, this is part of Mad Men’s belief that change is a lot harder than TV makes it look.

… Except when they do. And yet when we met Betty at the beginning of this final season, she was attempting change, in her small way, going back to school in psychology. Is it too late? Maybe. (Even before she gets her diagnosis, her fellow students are mocking her as “Mrs. Robinson.”) Is it misguided? Possibly! (Let’s say she’s more than halfway down the list of Mad Men characters you’d seek psychological counsel from.) But it’s an assertion of independence, more so when you remember that in the first season she was confiding in a therapist who was secretly reporting to Don. “Why would you do that?” Henry asks, as she continues to go to class for a degree she won’t ever be able to complete. Her answer: “Why was I ever doing it?” Betty did not wholly own her life. But she damn sure intends to own its ending.

Because the past is the mother to the future. It’s not a happy ending, and yet it’s a kind of hopeful one. Not to play psychologist myself, but it’s worth noting that Weiner’s own mother went back to school — in her case law school — late in life. And in that final letter to Sally, there’s a sense of a generational passing. Sally may have “marched to the beat of [her] own drum” (I like the cliché here; Mad Men isn’t going to pretend that cancer has made Betty a poet), but the result of all that pushing, fighting and struggle is that Sally’s life “will be an adventure.”

No, people don’t always change, and when they do, it’s not always dramatic. And yet — this is the contradiction that Mad Men shows us over and over — the world changes anyway. Occasionally people break their patterns. More often, they’re lucky enough if they live to see the pattern change in their children. Sometimes the adventure comes in the next life. In Betty’s case, that next life will have to be Sally’s.

Read next: See Don Draper’s Complicated Relationship History in 1 Chart

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TIME Television

Review: In Grace and Frankie, Life Starts (Over) at 70

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Melissa Moseley/Netflix

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are a pleasure, but Netflix's elder-singles sitcom wavers between the new and the dated.

Next week, the major networks will hold their upfronts, which are important to you because that’s when they announce next season’s shows, but are important to the networks because it’s when they start to sell ads. Because advertisers pay more to reach young viewers, the networks will tout their ratings among under-35s, under-50s, under-55s. The key word is “under,” which is why you see fewer characters in the “over” age demos. (And whyseemingly 75% of TV parents had their children before age 22.)

For that reason alone, Netflix’s new comedy Grace and Frankie (premieres May 8) would be unusual even before you consider its premise: two women form an unlikely bond after their husbands announce that they are (1) gay and (2) leaving them for each other. Its quartet of stars—Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston—are all actors in their 70s playing characters in their 70s. Even on non-ad-supported outlets like HBO and Showtime–where senior citizens’ subscription dollars are as good as the grandkids’–those are rare. (More so, in fact, than gay characters: the gay men in HBO’s late Looking and Logo’s Cucumber, say, range all the way up to the ancient 40s or 50s.)

The other way Grace and Frankie departs from what you might expect is in the title. This is not mainly the story of Robert (Sheen) and Sol (Waterston), law partners bringing their affair into the open after 20 years, but of Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin), the wives left behind.

No-nonsense Grace and earth-mother Frankie are far from friends, but when their settlements leave them with the California beach house the couples co-owned, they become roommates. For their exes, if anything, the halo of coming out at their age makes things easier: people are so eager to be supportive, the script deftly notes, that within a week they’re having dinner with their adult children. Had their dads dumped their mothers for women, says Robert and Grace’s daughter Brianna (June Diane Raphael), “There wouldn’t be cake. There would be blood.” (Speaking of which, the opening titles, with a wedding cake collapsing over a cover of “Stuck in the Middle With You,” are instantly among the best on TV.)

Grace and Frankie, meanwhile, are left assessing the lot of newly single septuagenarian women, a class so invisible in society they have to scream to get service from a young male store clerk. (On the plus side, Frankie notes, that makes it easy to shoplift.) Frankie’s hippie om-centricity drives Grace nuts, Grace’s devotion to rules and order harshes Frankie’s mellow. Yet they stay together. There’s an ostensible reason: crazy as they make each other, they’re all they have left. But it mainly feels forced by a meta-reason: the show exists to give the 9 to 5 co-stars a chance to play off each other again. (As I wrote last week, Netflix’s programming strategy seems to be patterning shows on things people already like to stream on Netflix.)

The setup–from Marta Kauffman (Friends) and Howard J. Morris (According to Jim)–could either be the stuff of on old-fashioned odd-couple sitcom or of a Showtime-style dramedy. The hitch with the first six episodes of Grace and Frankie screened for critics is that it tries, jarringly, to be both at once.

The two stars are a delight together, especially Tomlin, who bear-hugs her role and has not lost a comic step. (Or a physical one, as when Frankie pep-talks herself by doing a vigorous power squat, crowing, “My joints are supple!”) But they play like sitcom characters plopped down in a cable-dramedy world, delivering dialogue is full of one-liners that feel like they’re setting up studio audience laughter that never comes.

Sheen and Waterston–though their pairing makes the Aaron Sorkin-protagonist slashfic you’ve always dreamed of–have the less compelling material. Robert and Sol are are also opposites (reserved and emotive, respectively), but they’ve already settled into gently bickering old-couplehood. Their biggest challenge is whether to call each other “partner” or “soulmate.” (“No!” Robert says. “I don’t even like that one when straight people use it.”) They’re most interesting in relation to their exes, each finding in his own way that, happy as he is now, there’s a part of him that mourns his longtime marriage. All this plays off the idea that the transition is easier for the men, but there’s no real spark or character development.

The comparison with Amazon’s Transparent–last year’s best series, also about a senior citizen trying to live her true sexual identity–may be unfair, but it’s glaring. That series emerged fully formed, embracing the messiness and ambiguity in its characters, and its humor and heartbreak flowed from that. Grace and Frankie is cardboardy in comparison; it feels trapped between being the show it could be in 2015 and being the show it would have been if it were made in in 1995.

Still, there’s potential. If for no other reason than that most TV is terrified of elderly characters, the show has fresh material to play with. (For instance, the introduction of seniors to both social media and sex-performance drugs, and the resulting rise in STDs.) The stars are good company to be in, and by the last of six episodes I saw in advance, its tone felt a little more consistent. All of which leaves hope that Grace and Frankie, like its title characters, is still young enough to figure out what it wants to be.

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