Mad about “Mad Men”: Critics gone wild

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The writer Rob Sheffield, writing in the April 11 issue of Rolling Stone (posted online today) reviews the new season of AMC’s hypnotic drama “Mad Men” in terms so wildly enthusiastic the piece becomes its own tribute to itself. “One thing is for sure: “Mad Men” is the greatest TV drama of all time, and it’s not even close.”

That’s biting off a lot, but wait because we’re still not quite done: “It has no competition.”

The earth shakes, the stars tremble, the dog goes yipping for the basement.

Or at least that’s the idea. There’s not a lot else in the review, mostly reflections on things that have already happened on earlier seasons (for this we can perhaps blame “MM” creator Matthew Weiner, who all but threatens critics with bodily catastrophe if they reveal crucial plot points, which to his way of thinking is basically ALL plot points). The point of the piece, then, is less about critical analysis than it is about image and power. And not “Mad Men”‘s, either.

Which in a weird way makes it all about “Mad Men,” or at least “Mad Men”‘s core themes: identity; self-invention; the distance between image and reality. By reducing aesthetics to a kind of single-elimination tournament with clearly defined contests that separate winners from losers the author grants himself not just expertise over the realm, but also mastery. And guess what — it works! AMC’s full page ad for “Mad Men” in today’s New York Times includes the show’s name, its network, the time and date of the season premiere and one critical notice: “THE GREATEST TV DRAMA OF ALL TIME” — Rolling Stone.

The review that promotes the show becomes an essential part of the show’s self-promotion, which in turn promotes the magazine, whose elevated image lends more power/authority to its writers and critics, whose careers ascend accordingly, and. . .everyone gets a trophy.

I’m not trying to twit Sheffield, or even Rolling Stone, both of whom/which are just as capable of producing terrific stories, reviews, photo captions and all the rest. But as the age of multi-platform media saturation lurches onward “Mad Men”‘s gimlet vision of America’s fungible sense of reality is reflected back on itself. Five decades later everything is still up for grabs, only, somehow, more so. The product defines itself to appeal to viewers who define themselves by becoming associated with the product.

The best part of Sheffield’s piece comes at the start, with his description of Don Draper watching a steamy Robert Mitchum film noir in which one character whispers to another: “Are you alone?” The question hangs over Draper’s head because it so clearly defines the ache that haunts and propels him through his tangled existence. Solitude will fuck you up. Make as many friends as you can and hang on tight.

We are Justin Bieber’s monkey: The terrifying psychodynamics of the monkey-bearing celebrity

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Sometimes a pet monkey isn’t just a pet monkey.

As Justin Bieber discovered last week when German officials confiscated his pet capuchin Mally for lack of appropriate documentation, the monkey-owning game is more complicated than it looks.

Whether the pop star ever wanted Mally seems arguable — the pet was a gift from record producer Mally Mall, for whom he is named. Given no choice, Bieber surrendered his monkey to the Germans and continued his tour of Europe. Given four weeks to retrieve little Mally from the lock-up Bieber has yet to make his monkey-owning intentions clear. He may simply leave Mally to the care of the Germans, at least some of whom have already declared their intention to give the capuchin a far more monkey-appropriate home, among other monkeys as opposed to fast-living, uneducated teenagers. And this may be the best possible news, not just for poor, paperless Mally, but also for Bieber, who seems to be the more imperiled of the two. By far.

Just past his 19th birthday Bieber has lately transformed himself from his earlier, tweenage dreamboat image to something older and stupider: A wealthy, tattooed prat whose main pursuit involves swan-diving fainto every celebrity sinkhole on the tabloid map. Missed shows; unforgivably late shows; public tantrums; embarrassing ejections from nightclubs; unexplained lapses of consciousness; endless Twitter screeds about the dreaded ‘hatas,’check, check, check, check, check and check.

Bieber’s a lot of things, but sophisticated isn’t one of them. For all that he can sing and dance, and possesses what seems to be a canny ear for hit songs and an eye for new talent he shows very little comprehension of who he is and what he’s trying to achieve. This is problem. For to be that successful at that age; to wield untold riches, glory and power at a point when his peers have yet to graduate high school; elevates Bieber to an Olympian height that amplifies every twitch and Tweet into a signifier for something bigger. “Worst birthday ever!” he informs the world, frowny icon attached, and tectonic plates shift.

Now, suddenly, comes a monkey. A baby capuchin (just 16 weeks old!) custom-ordered for the young demi-god with the world by the tail and no fucking idea what he wants out of it. The shiftless rich do this sort of thing all the time — see also the menageries belonging to the various Kardashians, Hiltons, etc. But in the hands of a true cultural phenomenon a monkey can be a very dangerous thins. Consider the most famous monkey owner in the history of popular culture.

When Michael Jackson introduced the world to his pet chimp Bubbles (not technically a monkey, but come on) he had the soft-eyed creature dressed as a smaller version of himself, bearing his furry double in his arms as if he were his own son.

Clearly, Michael knew what he was doing when he introduced a child figure into his iconography. No pop star could ever be more savvy to the symbolic power of his image than MJ, and for a long time he controlled public perceptions of himself with the confidence and focus of a magician. But the superstar was also the most valuable member of a showbiz family whose patriarch, Joseph, was as seethingly ambitious, relentlessly demanding and entirely fucked-up as a father could be. joe jLook at those lovely old films of the sweet, smiling Jackson 5 belting out “ABC” and “I Want You Back” and think about the glowering presence standing just offstage, toting up missed steps and ill-sung ‘ooohs’ for that night’s thrashings. Michael-Jackson-with-Bubb-001 To see the grown-up, world’s-most-popular-human Jackson grinning for the cameras with an often-identically dressed child who was actually a pet chimp portrayed the Jackson family drama (and particularly Michael’s devastation at the hands of his father) in the terms of a Freudian burlesque.

If Bubbles was meant to symbolize the lost innocence of the helpless Jackson 5-era Michael, then the grown-up, Bubbles-protecting Michael represented the caring, non-abusive father his own father never was. But then something disturbing happened: MJ became friendly with a child actor named Emmanuel Lewis, who had become famous portraying the title character of a sitcom called “Webster,” about a young orphan adopted by wealthier, whiter parents. The singer and the actor hit it off, and just that quickly Bubbles was gone, morphed into Lewis, who also seemed to enjoy riding MJ’s hip while being perfectly silent. jackson-lewis

But Emmanuel’s presence also invested Jackson’s psychodrama with disturbing new layers. For while he continued to alter his own facial structure, thereby removing all physical evidence of his connection to Joseph Jackson, Michael was now presenting himself as a new version of his father: the sire of a well-known child star, and one whose preternatural talent (the 13-year-old Lewis had a growth disorder that made him appear to be a kindergartner who just happened to speak like a middle-aged joke writer) that attracted money. As Bubbles had become Emmanuel, had Michael become a kind of Joseph? Oh, but Michael was all about innocence, right, so then came Neverland, and the private amusement park, and the sleepovers with other famous and non-famous kids and then the allegations….so many allegations. Bubbles never said a word about any of it.

Back in Germany Bieber’s Mally is holding up well. German PETA has been monitoring the capuchin’s care, and reports that it’s going remarkably well: Mally socializes easily with other capuchins and his human caregivers, too. Even if Bieber never calls or writes or returns to claim him, Mally is a high-profile capuchin who will do well in life. Meanwhile, though, Bieber has started posting snapshots of himself cradling Mally, and other shots of the 16-week-old capuchin sleeping with his tiny arms around a stuffed animal. “He’s just like a human!” Bieber commented. No, he’s just like a capuchin. You’re the human, Justin, and now it’s time for you to get your furry ass socialized.

Kendrick Lamar on cereal, the 60/40 sogginess-to-crispiness rule and why he wants to be Bugs Bunny

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Because Bugs Bunny can bust up through the earth on you, anywhere, anytime. And he’s witty. And he can outwit anyone. Obviously.

And if you were born in the ’80s and say you didn’t love the Power Rangers, you’re a liar.

Behind the Seams with Marc Maron

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Not long into Marc Maron’s set at Portland’s Aladdin theater last night (Feb 28), the comedian spied a teenager named Avery in the front row and struck up a conversation. How old was he? What was he into? Did he do sports? From then on the show became a conversation between Maron and the shaggy-haired 16-year-old.

A mostly one-sided conversation, but Avery’s presence, along with Maron’s addressing so much of what he had to say directly to him — often while hunkered down right in front of the boy — invested the comedian’s lost-in-the-un-funhouse-of-consciousness musings an unexpected, and powerful dimension. Maron was talking to himself, really, and his news was tough, but ultimately good: Don’t be afraid of the bullshit in life. Bring it on, climb inside and master it from the inside out.

So this is what Maron does, both on the stage and in his increasingly well-known podcast ‘WTF.’ The podcast is an interview show, once devoted almost entirely to comedians and comic actors (he’s branching out these days, which is good). But when Maron has the right guest he’ll draw them deep into the muck, often prompting revelations. Chatting with Tom Green (famed for his MTV pranks show during the ’90s) a few weeks ago, Maron started the show by admitting that he had never cared much for Green’s work or what he’d seen of his character. No matter, he treated Green with typical warmth, drawing out his guest’s tales of glory and then his ugly, semi-redeeming run-in with testicular cancer.

Maron also gave Green the leeway to reveal how shallow and at times unpleasant he can be. Asked about his marriage to, and speedy divorce from Drew Barrymore the former TV star explained their split (which came after Barrymore’s supportive role in Green’s cancer battle) by wondering aloud how his host would feel being tracked by his wife’s paparazzi all day every day, and having the resulting stories being almost entirely about her. Weirder still, the cancer survivor spoke enthusiastically about taking up cigarettes, and the electric non-smoky cigarette he now uses. And proceeded to suck on during the interview, leading to weird gaps in his responses and an odd, choked tone in his voice.

So yuck. But once again Maron had led his audience so deep into  Tom Green’s flinty humanity the experience seemed revelatory. Not just because Green sounded like a dick, but because he sounded so puzzled about the whole thing. He’d flown so quickly to the top of his game, only to have the rules changed. His dream-come-true went sour and even now he has no idea what to do about it. I know that feeling. I’d wager you do, too. The big question for us is the same one Green still can’t find a satisfying answer for: what do you do next?

At the Aladdin show Maron tossed fistfuls of emotional crud onto the stage. Vivid tales of pornography and masturbation; the wonderful/terrifying burdens of romance and marriage (as symbolized by a nauseous helicopter ride above the island of Kauai), and the many mythologies people use to make it all make sense. Much of it was really funny, of course. Maron is a master of being simultaneously wise and outrageous, and when he went deep into the downside of pornography (you know you’ve lost your grip when you see your naked girlfriend in bed and look around to see where the dude is) or the crazy aggressiveness of evangelical vegans and atheists, the place twisted and flew like a roller coaster.

But it doesn’t all work. Maron is only now healing a decades-long reputation for blatant and unapologetic nastiness. His ongoing feud with Jon Stewart — they were once seen as quite similar, and Stewart often won jobs Maron really, really wanted — reveals far more about Maron’s shortcomings than anything else. That he refuses to back down, even after 14 years of sobriety and publicly distributed amends, is a bit dismaying.

But no one gets it right all the time, and Maron is nothing if not transfixed by his own, often gory, imperfections. You have to root for him, not just because he’s so smart and funny, but also because he knows how grating he can be. Everyone looks like a monster when they shed their skin, and his own personal horror, and great gift, is that he knows this all too well.

Now Avery does too. It might not save him from all the angst and hassle of real life. But it can’t hurt, so what the fuck.

Is ‘House of Cards’ a house of howlers?

cardsNot always, but often. To often, really, and it grates. And yet I keep going back to it.

Back for Kevin Spacey’s rapier smirk. For the effortless way he reveals the selfishness in his character’s generosity and the viciousness in his humanity. US Rep Frank Underwood is a pretty great character, and the show’s command of Washington, DC stagecraft — the boxed position papers, the jockeying for photo-op position, the sworn promises that are anything but — seems spot-on.

Beyond that, however, things get really dicey really quickly. The cultural verisimilitude does not extend to the traditional newsroom or its new-media counterpart. Key characters contradict their own ambitions. Plots twist beyond the point of reason then zoom towards unintended comedy. Just when you wonder if the producers are flirting with absurdism you realize they’re stone-cold serious, and just extremely wrongheaded.

I’m seven episodes, and thus more than halfway, through the first season. Here are its worst sins, so far.

1. Moist young reporter Zoe Barnes presents in the newsroom of the Washington Post (known for dramatic purposes as the Herald) on fire for opportunity and grown-up gravitas. So why do the producers dress her in jeans, t-shirts and hoodies? Do they really think ambitious young political reporters working at the epicenter of American power are dumb enough to wander into a warren of power suited middle-aged players dressed as high schoolers? Nuh-uh.

2. The home district crisis — a controversy so heated it could derail Underwood’s entire career — has to do with a dead girl who made herself that way by texting while also driving fast down a country road. Underwood’s sole connection to the tragedy has nothing to do with the road, in-car texting or even the arguably butt-shaped water tower she was texting about. It’s because Underwood helped peach growers purchase the lights that shone on the arguably butt-shaped water tower. Thus, as more than one character shrieks, the congressman “has blood on his hands!” Because of the partial funding. For the lights. For the peach growers. For the texted-about tower. The viewer shrieks back: Are you fucking kidding me? And yet that was the best plot mechanism the show’s writers could concoct. The viewer shrieks again: Are you fucking kidding me?

3. When Underwood goes on a CNN talking head show to debate a union chief, our endlessly scheming, cynical and six-steps-ahead anti-hero gets his wires crossed in mid locution gambit, devolving briefly into a blushing, sputtering moron. The incident comes with no character-based origins — no neurological distress, no panic disorder, no looming personal crisis — it just happens in order to spin the plot in a new direction. That’s lazy writing, boys. The viewer notices and corkscrews further into the sofa cushions. Tick tock.

4. But the final howler belongs not to ‘House of Cards’ producers/writers, but to the supposedly serious likes of Candy Crowley, George Stephanopolous, Soledad O’Brien, John King, Donna Brazille, who turn up to play themselves playing serious reporters/commentators on this cable entertainment. No matter what politics is, political journalism used to be a serious business practiced by serious people with serious standards. Okay, maybe Joe Alsop et al had other ideas. But surely you can indulge your neediness in other, less humiliating ways, yes? Please do.