It has only been a few days since the stunning announcement that the Beverly Hills Police Department had in essence solved the murder of Ronni Chasen, a case that has riveted Southern California and particularly the entertainment industry.
Since she was gunned down in the early morning hours of Nov. 16, the case has had many false leads and taken a series of twists and turns promulgated by people who probably shouldn't have been speaking about it--but who wanted the airtime.
Just hours after the announcement I had the opportunity to have a candid one-on-one with a Beverly Hills police officer, hoping to get some inside scoop or a least some insight into what happened. Just a week earlier, the department had distanced the case from the gunshot suicide of a transient with a long rap sheet in a seedy Hollywood residential motel--calling Harold Martin Smith a person of interest and not even a suspect, as LAPD did.
Doubts surfaced--huge ones, at that--about whether Smith was involved at all, or was just a crazy laying claim to the killing, as often happens in high-profile cases. Until Wednesday afternoon, when BHPD, breaking its weeks-long silence on one of the few murders in its gilded jurisdiction, announced it was bullets from the same gun that killed Chasen, that Smith was on a bicycle, and that it was a robbery attempt gone awry. What?
First, the veteran officer, who’s going to be left unnamed for several obvious reasons, bragged about how great the department was, and that they solved the crime within a few short weeks--obviously overlooking the fact that it was a tipster to the Fox show “America’s Most Wanted” who provided the crucial piece of the puzzle, not any great police detective work. More on that in a minute.
I questioned how weird it was that someone would be biking down Sunset Boulevard late at night--in all my thousands of trips down Sunset, I have never once seen a bicyclist, probably because the road is so intrinsically dangerous through the Beverly Hills--Bel-Air--Westwood--Brentwood stretch. Much less that someone on a bike would be looking to rob someone late at night, miles away from any commercial establishment.
Put yourself in a criminal mind. Wouldn’t you want to be outside a restaurant or bar waiting for potential victims rather than cruising a desolate stretch of road just hoping that someone might become your prey? I’ve seen sketchy guys on bikes near nightspots in Venice, and it’s obvious they’re cruising to rip off women’s purses as they get into their vehicles. So beware.
But back to Beverly Hills. “No one’s been killed on Sunset Boulevard in the 30 years I’ve been with the department,” the cop told me. “And no one else will be killed for another 30 years.”
When I told him how many people, especially women, have been frightened by the horror of Ronni being murdered while driving home late at night he said: “Don’t be scared. He’s dead.”
A shocking summation. But perhaps, the Beverly Hills way of assuring its citizenry that nothing else of the sort will ever happen within its borders.
There are still many big questions left to be answered, and BHPD admitted the investigation is not complete. Because so many other things don’t make sense, the least of which might be why a low-life guy riding a bike wasn’t stopped in Beverly Hills for DWB. Forget the political correctness--it happens.
BHPD debunked two other myths that grew to great prominence: that Ronni’s killing was a hit and that the perpetrator was an expert marksman. I never bought into either one.
Now, the focus--and some rage--is turning toward the tipster. There are calls for the person to donate the $125,000 reward from “America’s Most Wanted” to charity. Why? No one outside of John Walsh and people at the show--which ran a segment on the Chasen murder Nov. 20-- knows who this person is and what their circumstances are, and I hope their anonymity is retained. That person did the right thing, and was apparently concerned about their own personal safety in revealing the information.
Personal safety--a concept that was brutally violated when Smith murdered Ronni Chasen, driving innocently down one of the nation’s most beautiful boulevards through one of its wealthiest neighborhoods. Don’t be scared, but always be vigilant.
In HBO’s just-concluded first season of “Boardwalk Empire,” the characters and the milieu are haunting, an intermingled stew of real and fictional political and criminal personages--and innocents caught in their web--from a bygone era that still resonate today.
If you didn’t know any different, you could be excused for thinking that last week’s episode was the season finale, culminating as it did with Enoch “Nucky” Thompson heading to a fortune teller on the Atlantic City boardwalk, thus indicating the deep uncertainty of his future after all that had transpired.
Previously on “BE,” (spoiler alert) a shocking series of revelations and plot twists. The Commodore is Jimmy Darmody's real father, who knocked up his mother Gillian when she was all of 13, brought to him from an orphanage by … drumroll … Nucky. Jimmy's wife, Angela, is in love with Mary Dittrich, demonstrated by some hot girl-on-girl action, and ready to leave him to go to Paris with her, taking their young son along. Mrs. Schroeder finally leaves Nucky, after Agent Nelson Van Alden clues her in on his ordering her husband's death--and as she realizes he was using her to influence women who had just gotten the vote to put his mayoral candidate in office--and keep his power intact.
Speaking of Agent Nelson, we learn he’s a total freak in the barroom and the bedroom--succumbing to the drunken charms of Lucy Danziger and even more shockingly--an unrepentant murderer of his underling, Agent Sebso, who was revealed to be on Nucky’s fat payroll.
In that astonishing murder scene, with dozens of witnesses on a riverbank in broad daylight, Nelson is now exposed as the most terrifying character on the show--a man who professes to be a God-fearing Christian righting the wrongs of society but has himself surrendered to man's basest instincts.
The season finale, entitled "A Return to Normalcy," opens with Nelson telling an outright lie--that Sebso died of a heart attack--and then smacking an agent who dares to talk back to him.
And this is how things start to appear to go back to normal in the well-imagined Atlantic City, N.J., of Prohibition days, a resort town that was Sin City decades before Las Vegas existed, a place that was known in the 1920s as the world's playground and featured nightclubs and entertainment that rivaled Broadway’s.
Even Al Capone is mending his immature, disrespectful ways, and Arnold Rothstein seems contrite about being indicted in the scandal over fixing the World Series--until he comes up with $1 million in cash to make it go away.
At the center of it all still swirls the dapper and dangerous Nucky, who barely misses a step after Margaret Schroeder moves out of his suite at the Ritz Carlton and therefore down many notches in the social structure--a fact that is brought to her seemingly newly aware consciousness by an old Irish superstition that says your destiny is determined by what you find in your piece of cake.
Mrs. Schroeder has become friendly, in the superficial sort of way of women with young children, with Warren Harding's mistress, who is under the delusion that Harding will bring her and their newborn baby to the White House after he wins the presidency. Looking at her with barely disguised contempt at this notion, Margaret is making vague plans to move to Margate and become a shopgirl--again. Until she bites into that fateful piece of cake, and finds the rag.
We don't realize that she has bought into the notion that it represents a lifetime of poverty until she shows up at a post-election soiree in a stunning golden gown she could've only gotten from the French shopkeeper on the boardwalk--and sets her sights straight on Nucky. He falls under her glistening spell, and they end up under the moonlight. Will it last this time? It looks like Margaret will be biting the bullet, after uncovering a secret of Nucky’s past that makes him seem more human than machine in her eyes.
And just like in any great gangster pic, bullets are flying and throats are slit all the while, revenge killings for the attempted hit on Nucky by Rothstein's allies, the D’Alessio brothers. Meanwhile, after the climactic gruesomeness (and homage to “The Godfather”) of Darmody’s barbershop slay, a roadside gangster summit amongst Rothstein, Chicago’s Johnny Torrio and Nucky cements an uneasy truce to end the carnage.
But the greatest intrigue is yet to come, from another front. Nucky’s brother Eli, seriously gunshot-wounded while trying to collect a take at a casino and forced to give up the sheriffship and then re-crowned with it after the election, is starting to pull a Cain and Abel on Nuck.
We've seen his limitations, especially those on the intellectual side, but he's brought in some big guns in the form of the Commodore, who's recovering quite nicely from arsenic poisoning by his maid, and trying to seduce Jimmy into the plot.
But we as the audience know that Jimmy considers Nucky much more of a father than the Commodore ever was, or could be. Or do we?
Now that's a cliffhanger, and what better way to end the brilliant first season of "Boardwalk Empire." Oh, and did we mention: Lucy’s pregnant with the devil’s child.
It's still difficult to shake off the shock of seeing the headline "Ronni Chasen Gunned Down in Beverly Hills." Images of mobster Bugsy Siegel as portrayed by Warren Beatty in the film "Bugsy” come to mind when you think of someone being gunned down in Beverly Hills. And it is unthinkable. Unthinkable that there are no leads that are being revealed in the case, a murder that from all indications looks like a hit, but that the heart--and logic--says could have been a senseless case of random violence.
Ronni Chasen was a high-powered publicist, with heavyweight clients including not only A-list talent in film, music and television, but also behind-the-scenes players like Richard Zanuck, Arnold Kopelson and Irwin Winkler who remained loyal to her for decades, practically considering her a member of their family. She specialized in awards campaigns, particularly soundtracks and scores, and was representing acclaimed songwriter Diane Warren for “Burlesque” in her bid this season.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ronni at several industry events and working with her colleagues at Chasen & Company in the past. A publicist of her caliber--and there are not many them left--to be sure rubbed a few feathers the wrong way and made a few enemies over the years, but you can't imagine any so-called enemies actually wanting to murder her in cold blood, her body left slumped over the steering wheel of her new black Mercedes on a quiet residential street.
Even if you did not know her personally, as so many in the industry did, the horror of how she died strikes a dissonant chord because the circumstances were incredibly typical for so many people in this town--going to an event on a weeknight, driving home alone late at night in a late-model luxury vehicle. Aside from an occasional traffic stop, or, God forbid, a DUI, nothing eventful ever happens.
Sunset Boulevard at Whittier is not exactly a high-crime area, populated as it is with manicured, multimillion-dollar homes on the far western edge of Beverly Hills. Thugs don't hang out on the street corners there. People are not out walking the streets after midnight, when this horrific incident occurred.
One neighbor said Beverly Hills police told her the assailant could have been on foot, which makes absolutely no sense. Unless there was an orchestrated plot, in which Chasen was followed from the time she left the W Hotel in Hollywood, where she was attending the "Burlesque" afterparty, working the crowd and in a great mood, according to people who interacted with her at the bash.
It seems highly unlikely that she would not have noticed something amiss, driving all those miles down Sunset Boulevard before she made her turn onto Whittier to head to her home on the Wilshire corridor in Westwood. It's been reported that she called her office and left a voicemail six minutes before she was shot, surely a sign of someone who did not think she was in any danger. She did not call 911.
Yet strange things happen on the streets of Los Angeles. Could she have cut someone off, or have been driving too slowly on a curvy stretch of Sunset known for dragging, and thus setting off a sick, murderous rampage? Police say in the majority of road rage shootings, most of the bullets miss their mark because the vehicles are moving. In this case, there were apparently five shots to her chest, leading to the belief that she was shot at very close range through the passenger window, which was shattered.
One night last summer, I experienced an incident of road rage, driving south on Westwood Boulevard toward Olympic. A vehicle was about to pull out in front of me from a parking space, so I tapped on my horn. A little while later, heading westbound in the left lane on Olympic, I noticed, with blood pressure rising, that someone was tailgating me. So I pulled a swift maneuver across four lanes of traffic to the right-hand curb and sure enough, the car followed right behind me. I turned around and looked, with disbelief, to see who it was--their headlights had been blinding me and I couldn’t see the driver or the type of vehicle until that point. It was a middle-aged woman, a grandmother-type, in a sedan. I took off again, calling 911 with her hot on my tail, and was told to drive to the Santa Monica police station. I was able to lose the woman right before I hit the cop shop, but found it unbelievable that she would follow me for miles in a threatening manner--just because I had honked at her. Crazy. And duly noted that she probably wouldn’t have done it to a guy in a pickup truck, or an Escalade.
Which is why I think it must've been some bizarre situation on the road that led to Ronni's murder. Something that happened on Sunset Boulevard heading westbound in Beverly Hills. I just can't buy into the theory that someone who knew her would have her killed. But any scenario is terrifying, and the end result is tragic. The industry lost one of its best and brightest, but one whose legacy will live on in the level of professionalism she brought to her career and the lives she touched.
With Conan Debuting on TBS, Here's the Real Reason He's No Longer on NBC Right After Stations' Late News. And What Conan Should Really Be Doing
Conan O’Brien’s debut onTBS on Monday, Nov. 8, 2010, coincides with my just having finished New York Times national media correspondent Bill Carter’s book “The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy,” which hit bookstores on Nov. 8th as well.
It's always tough to write a compelling book about a series of events that are so recent and that so many of us in the TV business followed so closely.
But as our friend Bill has proved before, he’s quite adept at getting those most intimate with the events to talk openly and frankly, and he’s got a good sense of storytelling.
A few of my takeaways from the book.
First, it seems to me that the biggest reason Conan is not still hosting “The Tonight Show” at 11:35 p.m. on NBC has to do with two contractual issues.
The first has to do with what was clearly a mistake by Team Coco, and one that O’Brien, if he wasn’t explicitly told about it at the time, should be suing someone for malpractice.
Here’s how Carter explains it. The mistake is brought to the reader’s attention during a dinner between Robert Morton (known as Morty), a former producer of David Letterman’s shows at NBC and CBS, Jeff Ross (no relation to me), who is O’Brien’s producer, and Rick Rosen, Conan’s principal agent.
During the dinner--which took place before Jay Leno’s weeknight 10 p.m. show was canceled, and before Conan was asked to move “The Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m.—Morton spoke about how Letterman at CBS, and Leno when he was doing the “Tonight Show” at NBC, had provisions in their contracts stating that their respective shows would go on-air directly following the late local news on both affiliated and network-owned TV stations.
Writes Carter: “You guys got that for Conan, too, I’m sure,” Morty said.
He waited while watching Rick and Rosen exchange a little look.
“You didn’t?” Morty asked, holding back his next thought, which was: You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Of course that led to NBC being able to come up with the idea of putting Jay back into late-night ahead of Conan.
The second contractual issue was a brilliant catch that attorney Ken Ziffren negotiated into Leno’s contract when Leno agreed to do the 10 p.m. show.
How brilliant? Well, heretofore, the most brilliant catch in the world—outside of Willie Mays running an insane distance and then catching a fly ball behind his back in the 1954 World Series—was Catch-22. That’s a doozy.
But it pales in comparison to the brilliant catch Ziffren put in Leno’s contract—and one which he got signed-off by those wild and crazy suits at NBC.
Again, as Bill Carter describes it:
“Ziffren responded with a request like none other [NBC’s Marc] Graboff has ever heard in more than twenty years in the business. He asked for a four-year pay-AND-play contract .Pay AND play meant that for the agreed upon time the network guaranteed both to pay the negotiated salary AND to keep the star’s show on the air. And if the contract were to be breached in that time, the performer had the right to sue, claiming damage to his career. In addition, a breach would mean instantaneous freedom for the star: no being sent to the beach.”
In other words, once NBC canceled Leno’s 10 p.m. show, they were in breach of his contract. If they did nothing he could sue them for a gazillion dollars AND walk across the street to Fox or ABC and start to compete against Conan and “The Tonight Show” the next night.
Seems to me if you combine the effect of Leno’s pay-AND-play contract and O’Brien’s lack of protection regarding having “The Tonight Show” start at 11:35 p.m., those two things alone set the stage for what happened. The rest is mostly ego and Hollywood posturing.
Including, I must say, Conan’s heartfelt but nonetheless incorrect reading in his “People of Earth” manifesto that his going on at 12:05 a.m. with a program called “The Tonight Show” would lead to the "destruction" of this venerable institution.
In Carter’s book, it’s Jerry Seinfeld who makes this point with fierce passion: “Nobody ever uses these show names,” Jerry says, his voice hitting the high register familiar from his routines when he addressed the most mind-boggling absurdities of life. “These names are bullshit words! How do you not get that this whole thing is phony? It’s all fake! There is no institution to offend. All of this 'I won’t sit by and watch the institution damaged.’ What institution? Ripping off the public? That’s the only institution! We tell jokes and they give us millions! Who’s going to take over “Late Night” or “Late Show” or whatever the hell it’s called? Nobody’s going to take it over! It’s Dave! When Dave’s done, that the end of that! And then another guy comes along and has to do his thing. That, to me, is an obvious essential of show business that you eventually grasp. Somehow that seems to have been missed by some of the people here.”
Seinfeld says during all of his years as a stand-up, at some point at every comedy club he was ever in one comic or another would eventually bring up Johnny Carson and “The Tonight Show,” and who would take over when Carson left. Seinfeld told Carter: “For like twenty years I had that conversation. And the one thing none of us realized was that, when you left, you were taking it with you.”
Conan is reportedly a student of TV history. But the point Seinfeld makes seems to be lost on him. O’Brien could disagree with it, but then he’d be a poor student.
Look at the history of “The Tonight Show.” First off, as NBC noted during the brouhaha, its hours have changed over the years. It’s started as early as 11:15 p.m., and has run as late as 1 a.m.
And the hosts of the show have all made it their own, as Seinfeld notes. Steve Allen, who hosted “The Tonight Show” for its first three years, could not have been any more different from his successor, Jack Paar.
Allen was comic and musical. Paar was a storyteller. Humorous and witty, yes, but the two men just plain ran at different temperatures, with different cadences.
And then came Carson. As Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh say in their bible-like guide to TV, “As emotional and likely to blow up as Paar was, that is how calm and unflappable Carson was.”
And clearly Leno is a lot different than Carson. Besides having different comic sensibilities, Leno is not a particularly polished interviewer, while Carson's interviews often sang.
Where does Conan fit in the pantheon of “Tonight Show” hosts? The closest I think he comes is actually to the first permanent “guest host” the show had. In Steve Allen’s last year of hosting the show, he also had a prime-time show, so he didn’t work Monday and Tuesday nights.
In his place was one of the true geniuses of the TV medium: Ernie Kovacs.
More on my Conan/Kovacs comparison in a moment.
First, I want to comment on a remark that was one of the nastiest I read in Carter’s book. And I was surprised by who said it: NBC’s Jeff Gaspin. Like most in the media, I’ve given Gaspin high marks for how candid he was during the Leno-O’Brien episode..
Here’s what he said that got my ire up: Gaspin is talking to Carter about how Conan might have decided to accept the offer to stay at NBC and do “The Tonight Show” later: “If he knew there was no Fox ,” Gapin mused. “If he knew he was going to end up on cable, do you think he would have done the same thing? The best you’re going to do is TBS?...”
Excuse me? And this is from the guy who runs NBC ‘s cable networks. How pejorative! And, in fact just plain not true.
Ask Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. I believe they are doing quite well, thank you. Wasn’t Stewart just named the most influential person in America? Or ask Tony “Monk” Shalhoub, who did very nicely on NBC’s own USA Network.
And up until a few years ago I assume Gaspin was deriding AMC as just some lousy movie channel. But now, with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” AMC has two of the most acclaimed shows on TV, let alone cable.
Conan will thrive on TBS. TBS and TNT have some excellent original programming already to go along with their syndicated and sports programming, and Conan will help the network that much more.
One last thing. If I were Conan, I’d actually think about doing a weekly program instead of a nightly one. That’s where my comparison with Kovacs comes in. Kovacs did lots of daily shows, but his clever, innovative genius really shone when he had the time to prepare a weekly show.
And I think Conan is a Kovacs-quality talent.#
[I'm assuming that most of you are far too young to remember Kovaks or his work. He died tragically in a car accident in January 1962, just days before his 43rd birthday. (To give you a time perspective, it was 10 months before Carson, 36, would take over "The Tonight Show.") Through the magic of YouTube, here's a snippet of Kovacs' inventive, inspired work. These are the closing credits Kovaks did for a special he did on ABC--and probably the most imaginative closing credits seen on TV. Tell me you couldn't imagine Conan doing something similar...]
The Puzzling Failure of Obama and the Democrats: How We Suffered For Our Sanity. How We Tried To Set Them Free. They Would Not Listen. They Did Not Know How. Perhaps They’ll Listen Now. (But Don’t Count on It)
Now that the entire frickin’ nation has yelled and screamed through their ballot boxes—except for us loons here in California--perhaps Obama will get it, but I’m not optimistic.
[Aside: How do I know we’re looney tunes out here? Well, how can one be as true blue as we are, and on that starry starry night last night, as we’re about to blast off with Gov. Moonbeam again, not also legalize pot?]
As regular readers of this blog can attest, I’m no genius. But I do profess to know what I know, and I can be pretty stubborn about it.
And I think a lot of what I profess to know you know too. What always amazes me is when we’re pretty sure about stuff , but the people in charge of dishing the stuff out seem to be clueless.
A few examples.
Back when I was a kid I knew the Edsel was ugly. Yes, as an adult I’d love to have one today because it was such a failure it would be cool to own one now.
But wasn’t most of America sure at the time that this was the ugliest car they had ever seen and no one would buy it? So how did it ever come to market?
I remember watching “My Mother the Car” when it debuted on NBC in September of 1965 and thinking my god, how stupid. I am absolutely positive most other people were thinking the same thing. I’m still shocked that it lasted an entire season.
I think one of TV’s most brilliant programmers was the late Brandon Tartikoff. Another one of his ilk is Steven Bochco. But how did “Manimal” and “Cop Rock” ever make it on-air? Yes, be a risk-taker. But I’m sorry, most of us could have told them long before these shows got their final OKs that they would not be embraced.
New Coke? Please.
Did you know that McDonald’s once tried McLobster? We could’ve told them not to bother.
This one might be urban legend, or maybe not. I’ve always heard that KFC once tried liver on its menu. Huh?
Jay Leno every weeknight at 10 pm? Before it ever came on many of us shrieked and screeched “no way.” But it got on-air anyway.
Like all of the executives that made the decisions to give us this stuff—and many more examples you and I can come up with—I think our Chief Executive, President Obama, is a pretty smart guy.
But why he chose not to realize that there were only three issues Americans have cared about since he took office—the economy, the economy and the economy—we’ll never know.
Well, maybe we can know. We know Obama likes to appear on TV—as long as it’s not on a real news show.
So let’s get him on HBO’s “In Treatment.”
At first Obama will tell therapist Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) that oh sure, he addressed the economy.
Then Weston will point out to Obama that the president is really in a business where perception is reality, and the perception is that he really didn’t address the economy in a meaningful way. Wall St. and bank bailouts never resonated.
Then we might get to the nitty gritty.
Or, more likely, Obama will deflect, telling Weston, hey, buddy, I’ve watched this show, and with all your problems you’re trying tell ME what to do? I don’t think so.
Of course the message the country sent Obama yesterday was that actually it’s all of us who are watching him, and he’s not getting it.
He’s either going to get it and put on a blockbuster schedule or he’s gonna do something really stupid, like saying we’ll do some more Obamacare –just a little bit, maybe a half-hour’s worth at 11:35--and then tackle the economy after that at five after midnight.
Hmm. Last we heard, the chief executive who made a decision like that will be looking for a new job soon…
[apologies to Don McLean for the headline]
Reality Check: Life Is Not Fair. Nowhere Is That More True Than in Hollywood, Where Values Depend Upon Your Value to Hollywood
So let me get this straight.
Charlie Sheen, model citizen that he is, threatens his wife with a knife one Christmas Day. On probation for that nicety, most recently he allegedly picks up a porn star after boozing and doing coke. He brings her to his room at the Plaza Hotel in New York, while his ex-wife and two daughters are in another room across the hall. A naked Sheen then allegedly goes ballistic and starts tearing the room apart over either a watch he can’t find or his missing wallet. The porn star locks herself in the bathroom, cowering, and on her cell phone she tries to reach a girlfriend of hers who is also “working” in the hotel.
CBS and Warner Bros., for whom Sheen works, don’t really say anything about all this. In his hit sitcom, “Two and a Half Men,” Sheen “plays a jerk,” as L.A. Times staffer Scott Collins writes, also noting that the series made $155 million in ad revenues last season and so far no advertiser is pulling out of Sheen’s show.
And oh yes, “Two and a Half Men” has made a fortune in syndication.
Wait, I misspoke about Sheen’s employers. They have indeed made a statement. They gave Sheen a hefty raise.
Meanwhile, Juan Williams, one of the most thoughtful of news analysts, gets fired by NPR the other day for saying that since 9/11 he gets nervous when he’s at an airport and sees people in traditional Muslin attire waiting to get on the plane. In context, Williams, who is African American, also spoke about bigotry and that one should not regard all Muslims with suspicion.
I’m guessing that if Williams had said the remarks while naked, out of his head on booze and coke, with a naked porn star in the vicinity, and if, at the same time, Williams had an insanely popular TV show that he starred in—oh, let’s call it “All in the Family” where he played a loon racist—not only would Williams not have been fired, but he would have received a huge raise.
Ah, Hollywood …
Leo Burnett, One of the Great Ad Men, Said, 'Make It Simple. Make It Memorable. Make It Inviting to Look At. Make It Fun to Read.' Burnett Would Have Been In Love With This Season's Startling, Surprising 'Mad Men.' An Appreciation
The shock waves are still reverberating from the turn of events in the life of Don Draper that left viewers of “Mad Men" literally gasping during the stunning finale episode of Season 4.
Fans of the highly-awarded show will have months to debate whether Draper’s surprise proposal to his secretary Megan was as crazy as it seemed—or if it will make perfect sense in the world of the mid 1960s that’s spinning out of control of the established order.
(We should have warned you about the spoiler, but if you haven’t heard by now about the startling development, the movements within and outside Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are clearly not your scotch on the rocks.)
Seeing the show with creator Matthew Weiner and cast members Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss and Cara Cuomo at New York's famed 21 Club added a resonance you just don't get in the living room—not to mention the excitement, laughter and other audible reaction the plot twists drew from the crowd.
In the old-school environment of the 80-year-old 21 Club, with its white-jacketed waiters and red rose centerpieces, you half expected to see a toasted Roger Sterling make a scene before stumbling out into the night.
Buoyed by the free-flowing champagne, the mood was one of celebration for a show that pumped new life into drama on cable, immediately captured the attention of critics and a devoted audience and re-branded its network as a place for stellar original programming. Although there was no talk of Season 5 and there is no official pickup yet, it’s going to be a long haul without “Men.”
We’re left to ponder Don’s seemingly spontaneous proposal, coming as it did right after Sally’s spilled milkshake incident that would have sent former wife Betty over the edge, or made current girlfriend Faye even more uncomfortable with the children.
Perhaps Don is becoming more like his real self, Dick Whitman, a character we don’t yet know, but one who’s come briefly to life every time he escapes to California. Don/Dick even used the engagement ring conveniently willed to him by Anna, a woman he could truly be “himself” with, whose death shook him earlier in the season.
The confluence of events—California trip, no nanny, Megan ready, willing and available to help—it all came together as fast as you could say “Tomorrowland,” seemingly just moments after he’d told Faye he’d miss her while he was away.
It was Peggy Olson, on screen, who dramatized the audience reaction to Don’s choosing the previously little-seen Megan as his wife, even as she was helping landing an account that would keep the agency afloat—and naturally, not getting enough credit for it. Just a few weeks back it seemed like her relationship with Don was charting into new, romantic territory, in an episode called “The Suitcase” that has Emmy written all over it.
Peggy, a woman who seems to understand and accept Don almost as much as Anna did, could barely control her shock at his actions. Marrying a secretary, typical, she and Joan agreed in a scene that’s already become a girls bonding at the office classic, but one he barely knew in just the few short weeks since Miss Blankenship keeled over at her desk? And when he was enmeshed in what appeared to be a challenging, fulfilling relationship with Faye?
“You only like the beginnings of things,” Faye told him in his break-up phone call. And the beginning of Megan-Don as an official couple was ominous, with her sleeping contentedly at his side and him, sleepless, staring at the wall, as the season finale faded to black.
He may have instinctively and impulsively thought Megan was the woman he should marry—perhaps because of her smoothly moderated mothering skills, her beauty and the fact that she’s been an overall sport, but Faye has a track record of being right. And so does (the now-pregnant-with-Roger’s-child?) Joan.
But the rest of us—we’ll just be kept in delicious suspense until the story unfolds. Waiting, and wondering, how it will all turn out, while this we know: Don Draper has cemented his place as one of the most enigmatic characters in television history.
After spending a day in front of the LiveCocoCam, the interns and other staff at Conan O’Brien’s latest world headquarters — conveniently located above Stage 15 on the Warner lot, where “Conan” begins taping Nov. 8 — must have realized how Jack Bauer felt.
From the opening time-killer (La Bamba spending an hour trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle) to the very last (two puppets answering questions submitted by Twitter), the LiveCocoCam was undeniably, logic-defyingly brilliant: a complete waste of time that I and many others had a hard time shutting off. (Well, I kept it on in the background.)
The webcast video was smooth and sharp, except for when it went down for a while at about 5 a.m. Pacific time. By the end, though, everyone looked a little ragged as they danced their asses off for the webcast’s final 28 minutes.
Below, you’ll see a few pictures, including the Masturbating Bear sans diaper (hey, this is basic cable!), the Jersey Shore guy (aka show P.A. Chris Ultimo, who I’m reliably told is not doing a “character”), and of course, the Dancing Taco (played by someone who chooses to remain anonymous until he’s outed on Twitter). [To see more picture please click here.]
Big Red walked through a couple of times yesterday, but it was left to Andy Richter, playing the part of the cranky old man, who shut things down. “Knock off this bullshit! Get back to work!” he said to the dancers, who obediently scattered. And then to the camera: “You too! Get back to work!”
The ending seemed improvised. A few moments earlier, you could hear Andy calling up the stairs for Aaron Bleyaert, the guy in the Detroit shirt, who does the show’s web videos and who was the emcee for various segments during the live cam and who closed the webcast with his thumbs-up salute.
The LCC attracted 660,000 unique visitors during its 24 hours on the air, and averaged
13,000 viewers at any one time.
If you missed the CocoCam, or just miss it, there are highlights posted to the TeamCoco YouTube page.
The annual summit put on by Char Beales and her team at CTAM, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, is, year-in and year-out, the smartest event we attend.
As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a big believer in the dictum of Ray Kroc, the late genius behind McDonald’s: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Here’s CTAM’s mission statement: "Optimize cable marketing impact." That’s simple and clear.
And each year CTAM gets down to the nitty gritty with a useful, no-nonsense program of sessions at its summit that speak directly to its mission statement.
This year’s summit, which concludes today, Oct. 20, 2010, in New Orleans, is a good example. The theme, or tagline, if you will, of the summit is “Connect. Innovate. Succeed,” which plays perfectly off CTAM’s mission statement.
And with CTAM, its mission statement and theme of its summits isn’t PR BS. It’s real and it’s smart.
Take Tuesday morning’s general session. It featured a popular Harvard Business School professor, Youngme Moon, who gave one of the most engaging presentations I’ve ever seen, based on a book she’s recently published called “Different,” with the subtitle “Escaping the competitive herd.”
Here’s the question she asked: How different are you really from your competitors, in a meaningful way? Are your customers passionate about your brand, or do they just shrug?
In a world where there are 50 brands of bottled water or 24 kinds of toothpaste in your local supermarket, as Moon noted, these are relevant questions.
When there were only two brands of bottled water, let’s say Perrier and Evian, it wasn’t that hard to differentiate between the two. But, for most of us, differentiation is far more difficult when there are 50 choices of bottled water.
True differentiation is actually rare, Moon posited.
Then she gave an anti-intuitive spin on some generally accepted notions of how to run a good business.
Many good businesses are obsessed with differentiation, Moon explained. But some of the accepted best practices surrounding this obsession backfire. For example, in companies’ efforts to be competitively vigilant, they will match competitive offers.
Furthermore, another accepted best practice is to always listen to your customer.
But, ultimately, both of these notions usually lead to herd behavior and discourage companies from really becoming different than their competitors in a meaningful way, Moon said.
Take listening to your customers. They will always tell you how to improve, Moon explained, but will never to able to tell you how to be different. And usually what they will tell you about how to improve will be in ways your competitors behave that your customers claim they like.
But what you really need to do to stand out from the crowd—as anti-intuitive as it sounds—is don’t give your customers exactly what they say they want.
More generally, Moon said, in most companies’ attempts to focus on excellence, they are afraid NOT to be excellent in some aspects of their business. But, in fact, to stand out from the crowd, it’s actually preferable to double down on your strengths and not try and be excellent in all areas of your business.
Then Moon gave a specific example: Ikea.
Moon ran off a list of how most furniture stores operate—how they try and eliminate all the negatives we have about furniture shopping. They give us lots of choices and furniture that will last a lifetime and free delivery and assembled furniture, etc. etc.
Ikea, of course, spits in the eye of most of that. And it’s the only furniture store that is truly differentiated in the marketplace, Moon said. And Ikea is rewarded for its true differentiation by incredibly loyal customers who repeatedly shop there.
Another example Moon gave was the U.S. introduction of the Mini Cooper car, with a campaign that flew in the face of what American habits were at the time, which was for bigger and bigger cars.
Lessons learned from the truly differentiated brands is that they often embrace their negatives. Thus, if you want to be different, Moon says, you often have to ignore your critics as well as some of the critical things your customers say.
Another successful company along these lines, she noted, is Apple. Has there ever been a company accused of being more arrogant? Has there ever been a company more successful in being differentiated?
Moon ended her presentation with one of her most provocative ideas: that if you want to be different you need an idea to be different. OK, that’s a no brainer. But, she added, ideas that lead to differentiation are hard to distinguish from ideas that might seem crazy or stupid or both.
Wow. What a rub. She didn’t say what happens then, or how to figure out which is which. All I could think about is if you guess wrong you get New Coke, and risk killing the company.
But what a challenging and stimulating way to kick-off yesterday’s CTAM summit, and how clearly it fit with CTAM’s idea for the conference, that you must innovate to really connect with your customers in order to succeed.#
A childhood friend's mom died last month and when he called to tell me, I felt a real sense of loss because she had made such an indelible impression on me as a child. She was intelligent, caring and sincere, ever wise to the ways of little boys (she had three), but utterly feminine and always well turned out and wonderfully fragrant .
The first time I slept over at my friend's house, at age 9, his mom came into his room at bedtime to tuck us in. As I lay in bed, she knelt beside me to kiss me goodnight, making sure I was OK to be away from home overnight and basically giving me the same degree of attention she had given her own son seconds earlier. By kneeling the way she did, I felt like she was my friend, someone who wanted -- or at least knew how -- to be on my level.
I experienced a similar sense of loss when I learned of Barbara Billingsley's death over the weekend. She was a friend's mom, too, in a way, one I'd come to know well over countless years of watching "Leave It to Beaver" reruns. I always liked her as a child, and in my fantasies knew that if I ever was invited over to the Cleavers' house, I would rather hang out in the kitchen and talk to June than play in the yard with Wally and the Beav.
A lot of ridicule has been made over the years about the unrealistic idealism reflected in Billingsley's June Cleaver character, particularly the fact that she wore pearls and high heels to do her housework. But there is something to be said for making the extra effort it takes to maintain a high standard, both in deed and in appearance. A little glamour can be a good thing when it comes to mothers. My friend's mom had it in spades; there was always an air about her that commanded respect and inspired admiration. Same for June.
Billingsley brought an intelligence to the role that gave June a more serious edge than she might have otherwise had. Some may think of June as a mere helpmate to husband Ward, but she nonetheless navigated the storms, ferreted out her boys' problems, gave considered advice at every opportunity and consistently orchestrated happy endings. You knew she had the goods to handle everything by herself if need be.
And while she may have been too sweet for some, at least June wasn't a ditz or a cardboard cutout like some of the other TV mothers of her time. The key difference that set her apart was that aside from being a mother, she was also a friend to her children. And that, I think, was why I liked her so much.
I bet she smelled great, too.