Even before I started watching The Sopranos on a week-to-week basis (which was quite a reeducation to undertake for someone who gobbled up its first two seasons over the course of consecutive weekends), Sunday was still the destination of my TV week. I didn’t really start watching The Simpsons seriously until it moved from Thursday to Sunday. DIGRESSION: Yes, children, once upon a time, in the late 1980s, Thursday prime time was a hotly contested battleground where Bill Cosby and Bart Simpson vied, mana a mano, laugh track vs. South Korean animation, for the soul of America. It all seems kind of quaint now. The two declared an uneasy sort of détente soon enough, the cartoon blood began to dry, the mugging and Technicolor sweaters emanating from Cosby-land became a little more muted maybe, TV Guide and Time (probably) declared opposite winners, and, validated by its Rocky (or, depending on who you believe, its Rocky II) moment, The Simpsons moved to Sunday nights, where it would anchor the FOX lineup for more than two decades. I was fortunate enough to catch The Simpsons, like The Sopranos, during its critical but not necessarily commercial ascendancy, and became a fan for life, but even in the mid-2000s, when my two favorite television shows of all time were sharing the same night, I rarely made a point of watching both. In retrospect, even though The Simpsons had long since precipitously dipped in quality while The Sopranos was triumphant, and energizing, in a way television drama had never quite been before, I wish I had made the effort.
Right now, two of my five favorite television shows * (one of which is already the same kind of all-timer as those mentioned above, while the other seems destined to be) can be watched back to back on Sunday nights from 9-11. I get emotional just thinking about it, a little misty…and while that’s not actually the case at all, I still recognize how lucky I have it. Overall, Sunday nights, spurred ever forward by the influence of pay cable, have become the focus of the television week in a way that they couldn’t even quite claim back in Tony Soprano’s salad days. Last night, I had a frankly marvelous time watching, in order, Bob’s Burgers **, The Amazing Race, Game of Thrones, and, to top it off, Mad Men. I sat down with my DVR just after 9:00, watched all four shows straight through, and was in blissful bed by quarter past midnight. Focus remains, as it should and as it will be for this column, on Game of Thrones and Mad Men, the former which just killed off its most infamous villain as its entry into a thrilling, unsettled middle age, and the latter of which just kicked off its seventh and final season with two episodes dripping with ennui. It’s not quite the same thing as watching the first run of season four Simpsons followed by season two Sopranos, but it’s still damned exciting. This serendipity will last a mere five weeks more, and I intend to soak it all in. Plus, I said “Tony Soprano” and “salad” in the same sentence, so we’re clearly living in a fairly magical creative time.
* That list of my current favorite shows, by the way, is, in order: 1) “Hannibal”, 2) “Game of Thrones”, 3) ”The Americans”, 4) “Bob’s Burgers”, and 5) “Mad Men”.
** Please do not sleep on “Bob’s Burgers”. It is truly one of the best shows on TV, even if FOX still doesn’t appear to quite realize what it has. The Belchers are the best-sketched (pardon the pun) and most fully realized family on television, a delightfully odd and endearing group (this week’s tug-of-war between unscrupulous sparkplug Louise and underplayed straight arrow Tina brought out the greatness in both characters) involved in hilarious misadventures – bizarre, mundane, or often a weird hybrid of the two – that are impossible to either predict or shrug off. To me, it is the clear heir to the “Simpsons” throne, which is high praise indeed. Watch for yourself and get hooked. That’s a mathematical equation, by the way, not a suggestion.
The Amazing Race – “Donkeylicious” Season 24, Ep. 8 (CBS) Mild spoilers
I wrote a piece several weeks back handicapping the contestants on the new Amazing Race “All-Stars” season, and was needlessly snarky and reductive to several competitors. The producers and casting agents, of course, did themselves no favors by populating the race with multiple teams who were the de facto villains and/or fonts of annoyance for their respective seasons, but it’s interesting how this season, with its myriad structural problems, has provided a platform for unexpected growth from teams we thought we knew. Perhaps we’re all so used to reality television convention by now that the prospect that someone might ever act like a real person and not a “character” just doesn’t register. It should. With the benefit of hindsight, I found myself liking the YouTubers much better upon their elimination, as well as John and Jessica, who exited last week in an odd and ridiculously tight finish. The Globetrotters hit the bricks this week, and while their laid back playing style and desire to connect and entertain had made them easy to root for, it also proved a liability in their actual running of the race. I don’t doubt their effort or their desire to win, but reading a clue thoroughly is never a bad idea. I’m just saying. The less said about Brendan and Rachel, the better, so here goes. They are the bane of my viewing existence. They continue to succeed and grate on nerves (mine at least) in equal measure, which, of course, is in itself always another twist of the knife to people like me. As other teams form alliances to avoid last place, they squirt through unaffected, playing smart, talking and quirking it up incessantly, though thankfully without the histrionics of past seasons (from the looks of next week’s preview, the other teams remember Rachel’s history of waterworking as much as I do).
Though I’m now officially rooting for “Afghanimals” Leo and Jamal, who I damned with extremely faint praise in the preview (they, along with the hard-charging country singers, seem to have grown the most beyond the realm of caricature so far, and both are doing quite well), I have next to no doubt that “Team Brenchel” will end up winning the whole shebang, and will use the million dollar prize to finance Rachel’s diabolical, green-sequined dreams of “babies”. That’s “babies” plural, with no further elaboration. Just think what you’re enabling here, CBS, and all in the name of entertainment, a proposition this year’s Race has thus far delivered on spottily at best. “Team Brenchel” has had some nice humanizing moments this year, and might well have penetrated my armor of disdain fully had they only been eliminated several episodes ago, when they should have been. Instead Team Cockroach not only survived but thrived. I cannot root for them, and with the group remaining to challenge them, the good news is I shouldn’t be tempted at all. They almost drove a pair of hardcore Mormons to curse with their tactics this week (and did cause a 60-year-old Mormon to send the word “hate” in their direction), for heaven’s sake.
Game of Thrones – “Breaker of Chains” Season 4, Ep. 3 (HBO) Spoilers abound
In the aftermath of last week’s extravagant but deadly “Purple Wedding” (nobody dies quite like the idle rich), nearly everyone in Westeros and across the Narrow Sea is left scrambling to solidify newly tenuous personal and family position. Freshly minted king-in-waiting Tommen Baratheon stands over the corpse of his brother, receiving an object lesson in royal composition from his imperious uncle, who, with Joffrey officially, satisfyingly dead (the episode’s first shot is its predecessor’s last – Joffrey, pallid, wide-eyed and bloody, seemingly frozen in a state of shock), seems to be in even better position to rule with an iron hand than he was before. Only his mother, once again a queen regent, mourns the fallen king. Joffrey’s uncle/father Jamie has the room cleared so the star-crossed parents can mourn in private, only to wind up forcing himself on her savagely when she rebuffs him again, neatly undoing in one fell swoop the long reclamation project of season three and reminding viewers that Jamie Lannister is at heart maybe not a full-blooded villain, but that he is certainly no hero either. The almost queen Margery Tyrell and her ever-delightful grandmother speak plainly, balancing the loss of her crown against the loss of the vile husband who would’ve provided it, and declaring the standoff more or less a wash. The Lannisters will still need allies, the Queen of Thorns proclaims, and the Tyrells are the most powerful and willing they’ll be able to find. Stannis Baratheon, already brooding in mid-season form, laments that he lacks the resources to turn Joffrey’s death to his military advantage. His beleaguered Hand, Ser Davos, hits upon an idea to secure said money from the fabled, highly dangerous “Iron Bank” of Braavos (if you don’t pay your debts, they fund your enemy). This will not end well for anyone but fans.
One senses tides turning everywhere. Castle Black is severely undermanned and chaotic as a Wildling horde masses above the Wall and the Wildling bands roaming the Northlands overrun and massacre a village as a macabre warning to The Night’s Watch. Danaerys appeals to the slave population of Meereen by catapulting over its high walls casks filled with the collars of countless slaves she freed during her victory tour. Arya and The Hound are taken in by a humble farmer, whom The Hound promptly robs. Tyrion, fingered for the murder of Joffrey by his grieving mother, rots in a cell taking stock of his increasingly desperate situation, while his bride Sansa is spirited from the capitol and the assassination’s aftermath by a returning Littlefinger, who I think we can all agree arranged the whole thing. Even if he somehow didn’t, he felt which way the wind was blowing and sought to take the maximum advantage available. This leaves everybody with an army (or pretensions of one) either mobilizing, on the march, or fortifying positions and digging in hard, with the excrement sure to hit the fan any moment now. Remember there are still Ironborn in pockets of the North, and even more sailing from Pyke in a perhaps ill-advised attempt to free the former Prince Theon from Ramsay Snow, not to mention a perpetually dagger and grudge-polishing Dornishman in the capitol. Part of the genius of the Game of Thrones universe as devised in George R.R. Martin’s books is that in establishing how fleeting life is in this world, how quickly it can be taken from anyone, it raises the stakes of every encounter, even if it is just a conversation. The show continues to fire on all cylinders. It is appointment viewing of the highest order.
Mad Men – “A Day’s Work” Season 7, Ep. 2 (AMC) Mild spoilers
In comparison to a show like Game of Thrones, so little happens on a normal episode of Mad Men that the juxtaposition is somewhat comical. I’ve long maintained that anybody with a closet full of business suits and some dressable office space could recreate one of those “On the next episode of AMC’s Mad Men…” teasers out of nothing more than quick cuts of multiple characters hurling telling looks and bemused or accusatory non-sequiturs at someone just off camera. Mad Men is on deliberately shaky but fascinating ground as season seven begins, with SC&P now a bicoastal operation and Don Draper suspended from work but keeping up appearances – to his now-Californian wife, his unsuspecting daughter, and to the advertising business at large. Don spends most of the episode in either a lunch meeting or in a car driving Sally back to private school after yet another of her misadventures in the big city. This gives us time to focus on the women of SC&P instead, particularly Peggy, Joan and Dawn. Peggy has been a problematic character this season so far, the consummate overachiever returned thuddingly to Earth by forces both professional and personal. The undertow of her breakup with Ted Chaugh (who fled to help found the L.A. office) keeps sucking her under, and though Elisabeth Moss does heroic work keeping Peggy relatable through multiple flare-ups and rash, uninformed decisions over the course of her long, trying workday, it all seems a bit incongruous with the character we’ve come to know. Or maybe this is Peggy finally stripped clean of all veneer, struggling with her sense of self-worth in the face of romantic debacle and to remain relevant in an increasingly fractious office, one whose glass ceiling has concussed her before. I thought Peggy was a mess this week. Moss as always picks up whatever slack the writers leave her, and gives it added dimension to spare.
“A Day’s Work” on the whole was stuffed full of office politics, a path Mad Men takes with surprising infrequency, but which here worked quite well. Joan Harris, SC&P partner and underutilized Head of Personnel, achieves a personal breakthrough with the enabling of partner Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin at his inscrutable best), which in turn opens up a happy ending to the otherwise trying day of Don’s secretary Dawn, who, as an African-American career woman in the late 1960s, had more than one ceiling to beware. The episode’s centerpiece is a meandering, often one-way conversation kicked off after Don discovers Sally in his apartment and decides to drive her back to school, stopping along the way for dinner at a burger joint. I’m trying in vain to think of a child character written as thoughtfully as Sally Draper, as consciously conceived to be an amalgamation of her equally difficult and enigmatic parents. Kiernan Shipka has been playing Sally since the age of six, and over the past four seasons has emerged as a magnificent young actress to watch. Witness father and daughter here sitting in weighty silence, nursing old resentments and looking for strategic conversational angles, then slowing thawing and connecting in spite of it all. So much water has run under their bridge by now, and Sally has had to grow up in many painful ways, accelerated on occasion by her father’s flaws, but the relationship between Don and Sally, like the one between Don and Peggy, untapped so far this season as SC&P seems content to keep Don on the sidelines, is one of the bedrocks of the entire series. The moment where he finally drops her off and she gets out, we expect nothing from her. Instead she ducks her head in the passenger door before closing it and says, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad. I love you.” She runs up the stairs without giving him a chance to respond. From the look on his face, played beautifully by Jon Hamm, I’m not sure a response was even possible.