TIME Television

Review: Halt and Catch Fire Works the Bugs Out in Version 2.0

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe and Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Frank Ockenfels/AMC Davis and Bishe, from Halt and Catch Fire.

If you weren't an early adopter of this computer-biz drama, don't worry. Season 2 is easy to jump into, and it's excellent.

At the beginning of Halt and Catch Fire season 2, Cardiff Electric–the fictional 1980s Texas computer firm whose travails we followed for most of the first season–is up for sale. The larger company that plans to take it over doesn’t want it intact; it wants to strip Cardiff down for its most valuable parts.

This very much feels like what the promising opening to season 2 (returning May 31 on AMC) is doing: deconstructing last year’s model, which was a kludgy assembly comprising some terrific pieces that needed to be broken down, separated from the duds and reassembled. And what it’s putting together looks like a more powerful machine.

The first season, set in 1983, centered on the attempt by mystery man Joe Macmillan (Lee Pace) to remake stodgy Cardiff by plunging its resources into the Giant, a clone of the IBM PC. It was a sketchy premise to begin with: even assuming an audience interested in the beige-box computing era, the quest to create a slightly better, cheaper knockoff did not exactly make a thrilling underdog story. The bigger problem was that Halt, the Joe storyline in particular, itself felt like a clone–a Don Draper-esque antihero-with-a-secret soldered and duct-taped onto the assembly because that’s what the cable-drama consumer base expects.

But if you stuck with Halt, as I did, it revealed some terrific character work. And the underwhelming Giant storyline turned out to be, like a cleverly crafted software virus, a Trojan Horse.*

*I’m just going to run with the computer metaphors here. I apologize for being a hack.**
**OK, “Hack” is, itself, a computer metaphor. I apologize for nothing!

At heart, Halt was about creative passion, what it takes, and what it costs. It introduced Gordon (Scoot McNairy), a brilliant and bitter Cardiff engineer who once, with his wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), built the Symphonic, an early computer so far ahead of its time that it utterly bombed in the marketplace. As the Giant project unfolded, their marriage–two nerd-spouse-lover-parents balancing the need to pay the bills with the urge to make something better–became one of the most fascinating and equal partnerships on TV.

Meanwhile, Joe took on a foil in young programmer Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), a spiky-haired electrical charge of geek intensity who looked like the future and, as it turned out, was. Hired to write the Giant’s operating system, her real insight came in her first scene, as she anticipated that the big change in a decade would be computers networked over phone lines. (This played off what remains the series’ most famous line, Joe’s declaration that “computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”)

The Giant wasn’t that worthy a project. Joe, despite Pace’s magnetism, wasn’t that compelling a focus. (As Donna says of Joe early in the news season, “My interest in tall dark mannequins with delusions of grandeur has faded out.”) But everything around them was fascinating. Cameron, the seeming punk nihilist, was really an idealist who saw computing as art–the machines could have personality, could inspire emotion, could be a place to play. Donna, far from the practical-minded wet blanket she appeared in the first early episodes, was a trained musician who could hear the song in code. By the end of a season of office intrigue, the Giant was nothing more than a quick cash-in, but Cameron and Donna had launched a company, Mutiny, based on a crazy idea: that people would want to play games, online, by making their computers talk to other people’s computers!

The thing had gotten us to the thing. And whether by accident or design, Halt and Catch Fire has remade and refocused itself in its second season–essentially pulled the plug and restarted. It has, for all practical purposes, two new stars. Although Joe and Gordon are still prominent, Cameron and Donna’s dynamic drives the show: Cameron teems with ideas but can’t manage a staff, Donna resists again being made the Mom who has to tell everyone to clean up their mess. And both of them are in the more-interesting situation of seeking investors willing to put money into a company run by women. (“Are you committed long term?” one asks them. “Even over, you know, biological imperatives?”)

Above all, Halt’s software has been upgraded: it now has a compelling subject, the emergence, through modem clicks and whistles, of the wired Internet era we live in. Like many a good period piece, it’s really our own origin story. (It also, not for nothing, rivals The Americans for the curation of its 1980s soundtrack, featuring deep cuts this season from Hüsker Dü and Icicle Works.)

I don’t know if Halt will be more commercially successful this time out; it’s still a tall order to bring in a big audience for a drama about the excitement of work, with no violence or magic to up the action. (It shouldn’t be that way–the thrill of executing a project should be at least as relatable as, say, the thrill of cooking meth–but it is.)

But true to Moore’s Law, it has become magnitudes better. It has both energy and subtlety, and–a bit like a dramatic version of HBO’s Silicon Valley–it manages to convey the sense of digital creation as a kind of drug rush. There’s a great scene, for instance, in which Mutiny gets hacked, and yet the programmers can’t help but be impressed by the chops of whoever targeted them.

One thing the new season does have in its favor: it is so thoroughly a new thing that if you–or a friend, or preferably several–didn’t see the first season, you could quite easily jump in and start here. If you will permit me one last, hacky tech analogy, what’s true of smartwatches and iPhones is true of Halt and Catch Fire. Sometimes it’s better to let the early adopters work through the bugs, and wait for the improved second version.

TIME Television

Review: The Dawning of an Age-Old Aquarius

Aquarius - Season 1
Vivian Zink/NBC Anthony and Duchovny in Aquarius.

The ability to binge-watch the whole thing is the only thing that feels fresh about NBC's Charles Manson drama.

Mad Men fans are still debating whether its ending was cynical, heartfelt or both. But having seven seasons to quibble over the fine points of a subtle, unpredictable story about a decade of life was a luxury that became more obvious every time a broadcast network set a period drama in the 1960s (see Pan Am and The Playboy Club in 2011). As if on cue, here comes NBC’s 1967-vintage serial Aquarius (premieres May 28) to remind us how grateful we should have been.

To be fair, Aquarius, a crime thriller about the beginnings of a case that will eventually lead to the Manson Family murders, is hardly trying to be Mad Men. But it does, like AMC’s drama, try to make the 1960s a character in the story. This time, they went straight to central casting.

It’s not two minutes into the pilot that hippies are tripping at a party to the sounds of “White Rabbit.” The old folks are struggling to understand the young folks. People are arguing about Vietnam. The Establishment is under siege; kids are talking back; and the fuzz have to read this new-fangled Miranda-rights thingie when they arrest people. Aquarius is not so much trying to present an idea of the 1960s as to lay out a set of signifiers we’ve wearily agreed to accept as representing “the 1960s” on screen.

All that thrift-shop decor, though, mainly dresses up an extended, network-noir cop procedural. David Duchovny, wearing a version of Jack Webb’s Dragnet ‘67 flattop, stars as Sam Hodiak, a by-the-numbers, Greatest Generation detective. He’s assigned to the disappearance of Emma (Emma Dumont), the daughter of a politically connected attorney, who has fallen into the orbit of a charismatic, dangerous would-be rock star by the name of Charlie Manson (Gethin Anthony, Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon). The better to infiltrate their counterculture targets, Hodiak is paired with a longhaired partner, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon).

Hodiak is not entirely the square he seems at first (he’s the son of a jazz musician, we learn, and thus has some experience in the ways of wacky weed) and Duchovny’s laconic humor is the show’s main attraction. (The sleazy Californication could not render Duchovny unenjoyable, and maybe this proves nothing can.) But most everything else is quite exactly as you’d expect: the odd-couple sparks between Hodiak and Shafe, the snaky preening of Anthony’s budding cult leader, the vibrations of Los Angeles in the Summer of Love. (In the third episode, a hippie chick weaving flower crowns gushes about recently having lived up in San Francisco, in “the heart of Ashbury,” down the street from “Janis.” “Joplin?” Emma asks her, to spare you a visit to Wikipedia.)

Sheerly as a crime story, Aquarius goes down easy enough, but it lacks particularly fresh ideas either on its setting or its genre and–since you have some idea where this is headed if the name “Charles Manson” means anything to you–it lacks much suspense, at least at first. Though it has aspirations to be a dark cable-style serial, it’s a cop procedural at heart, and it soon begins mixing in kind of case-of-the-week stories, as if to hedge its bet that Manson alone can hold viewers’ interest. The most interesting aspect of the Manson story, early on, is Aquarius’ focus on his musical aspirations to become “bigger than the Beatles.” (Several of the season’s episodes take their titles from his original songs.) And the hippie-underworld scenes are distractingly corny–all smoke and no buzz.

One caveat: NBC sent critics the entire 13-episode season. I can only tell you about Aquarius up to the point I gave up on it, four episodes in. (That may not be fair–with 352 scripted shows airing a year, you gotta do triage–but it’s also three and a half episodes more than I would have watched if I weren’t reviewing it.)

Maybe it gets much better after that, and you can find out quickly: in a very 2015 twist, NBC is making the whole series available in streaming and on-demand the day after the pilot airs. (It will still, however, air weekly, for those of you who prefer to consume your TV 1967-style.)

Which brings us back to Mad Men, whose creator Matt Weiner recently said that, if he ever made a show for Netflix, he’d like it to air weekly, to give viewers time to digest. That’s not a problem for Aquarius. The few seconds it takes for the next episode to load should be more than enough time to process the last one.

TIME Television

500 Channels and Everything’s On: The Too-Much-TV Problem

LACEY_TERRELL/HBO Taylor Kitsch costars in True Detective season 2. But have you finished True Detective season 1 yet?

Who has time for summer TV when you’re still catching up on winter TV?

Correction appended: May 26, 2015

There is more TV than there is life.

This has been true since television sets wore rabbit ears, of course, but once, at least, you knew that the bulk of that was filler: reruns, court shows, home shopping, &c. It was reasonably easy to edit that down to a subset of “your shows” and even wish there were more choices out there.

Recently, though, I saw a statistic that struck a chill into my professional-TV-watching heart. Last year, there were 352 original scripted shows on broadcast, cable and streaming TV. Let’s estimate 10 hours a year, sans ads, per series (long for a comedy, short for a drama). That’s 3,520 hours, or just shy of 60 days–assuming you clip your eyelids open Clockwork Orange-style and you exclude news, reality shows, movies, sports, game shows, talk shows, viral videos, documentaries, music, House Hunters, commercials, food, work, exercise, sleep, bathroom breaks, the laughter of children and the touch of a devoted lover. (Well, unless you multitask.)

For a TV critic, it means that the job more than ever is about figuring out what not to watch–doing the triage and selective sampling to keep up on many things when you know you can’t nearly see everything. But at least I can do it on company time. For those of you with real jobs–say, if you’re the Pope–the cutting must be even more severe. (This is why I always laugh when people say TV critics are harsher on shows than regular folks: there is no speedier, more pitiless judge the person with an hour or two of tube time before bed and no professional obligation to watch more than two minutes.)

Which is why it’s a cruel blessing that–as we hear every year lately–”Summer rerun season is over.” Indeed, there’s an avalanche of new TV this summer: several Netflix series, an AMC drama about robots, a new Walking Dead sequel, another True Detective and David Duchovny chasing Charlie Manson, just for starters.

Yet when I talk to my non-professional TV-watching friends, I get the sense that what they could use is not so much a summer-rerun season as a summer-TV sabbatical: two or three months where no one programs anything, and you finally get a chance to catch up. There are those second-tier Sunday-night shows you piled up on your DVR because you had to watch Game of Thrones or Mad Men live. You never got around to watching The Americans but kept hearing you needed to. (Bad news: you do. It’s on Amazon.) You want to rewatch The X-Files and Twin Peaks before they come back on Fox and Showtime, but the time to watch them exists only in an alternative universe.

Obviously this is a high-class problem for all of us, not least anyone professionally invested in TV. It’s thrilling to write about TV now when, whatever issues the business has, it’s more central to the culture than ever. Writers and producers have more places to pitch off-the-wall projects–Epix is making shows now, Epix!–and what ends up on the air is, if not always better, at least more ambitious and varied in subject matter. And it’s a business opportunity for upstart cable channels and streaming services, all of which have incentive to throw money at creative folks to dream up programming that will make their services seem essential.

But I have to wonder if we’re reaching the point of where there’s so much essential TV that much of it, even the really good stuff, seems less essential. Much of this programming explosion, on cable and broadcast, is driven by people’s fickle viewing habits and anxiety over what happens if too many people cut the cord and the old cable-bundle model collapses.

From what I hear anecdotally, at least, the surplus of shows may actually encourage people to cord-cut and look for alternatives to traditional cable. Today, you have more TV to watch, and more ways to watch it if you miss it live. Once you start to assume you’re going to watch a lot of things late anyway, why not just give in, get streaming and iTunes, and watch everything a day, a month, a year later? (Most of us have already gotten used to watching movies that way, after all.)

Such is the summer of our excess content. We’re lucky to live in an era of so much must-see TV. But that means that most of it becomes must-see… eventually.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the network rebooting Twin Peaks. It is Showtime.

TIME Television

TLC Should Cancel 19 Kids and Counting

The reality show has been selling a sanctimonious sham

It’s time for TLC to get out of the Duggar business.

On Thursday Josh Duggar, eldest son of the giant clan in TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, admitted “act[ing] inexcusably” following the revelation of charges that he molested underage girls, including some of his sisters, when he was a teenager. His confession came after an expose reported by InTouch, which unearthed police records that not only documented the molestation but showed that patriarch Jim Bob Duggar waited more than a year before contacting police. Josh Duggar also resigned as executive director of the Family Research Council, a socially conservative advocacy group.

And TLC? It hasn’t announced any decision on the show’s future. (As I write, it’s replaced a daytime rerun of the show with The Little Couple.) Josh may be paying some price. But TLC also needs to stop collecting a price from a lucrative franchise that has turned out to be a sanctimonious sham.

This is not about TV networks having an obligation to exact punishments that the justice system didn’t. TLC, Discovery and every other media corporation are not legal authorities, and I don’t especially want media executives responsible for meting out justice.

They are, however, responsible for the programming they put on. And what TLC has been putting on the air since 2008 with the Duggar family is, simply, a moral fraud.

That may not be TLC’s fault—the incidents predate the show’s premiere—but it is TLC’s problem. 19 Kids is not just about the wacky logistics of running a really, really big family. It’s social advocacy, about the Duggars setting themselves up as a moral and religious example, espousing conservative Christian values and withdrawal from the wickedness of larger society—homeschooling, limiting media intake—as a means of raising Godly children. They set themselves up as a model, and implicitly or explicitly criticized other ways of life—even before you get to the family’s extracurricular political endorsements, judgment of gay couples, and involvement with organizations whose missions are to tell the rest of us how to live.

Nobody’s perfect. But child molesting is a much bigger imperfection than most, one that the show’s audience deserved to know about. That the family kept the whole truth from us and set themselves up as paragons of childrearing and decency is morally dishonest. It’s not just an insult to people who don’t share their religious and cultural beliefs. It’s an offense to all the people who fervently do.

Maybe those believers are willing to put this behind them. Maybe they feel, genuinely, that the family has suffered and want to support it. And it will be tempting for TLC to leave it at that and leave a valuable franchise on the air. (That wasn’t enough to save Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the onetime phenomenon TLC canceled after reports that matriarch Mama June was dating a convicted child molester.)

It has no excuse to. Maybe Josh Duggar is truly remorseful, maybe not. That’s for people to decide themselves. And it may be that the show’s fans—or even non-fans—may decide to forgive his actions and his family’s inactions. That’s a personal decision. As a moral principle, judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged is admirable. But as a business principle, it means being able to do anything, to do business with anyone, and profit from it anyway.

Maybe TLC couldn’t help that the Duggars’ hypocrisy got on the air. But it can make sure that it doesn’t go on making money from it.

Read next: Arkansas Police Destroy Record of Josh Duggar Investigation

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.”

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