Couch Commando

MAD MEN: Season 1 Episode 6 – “Babylon”

Posted in Mad Men by LaurenStheTA on March 10, 2010

Viewed at home on my increasingly uncomfortable couch, with a friend, late at night.

Holy creepy flashback, this episode starts with Don Draper attempting to make breakfast in bed for his wife on Mother’s Day, but instead Draper takes a literal trip on the stairs and amid the shattered dishes he flashes back to a fall down the stairs when he was a kid and his baby brother Adam (brother from another mother) was born. The important fact we take from this? Draper had a very unfortunate and creepy haircut as a child.

Back from creepy haircut land, Don and Betty are getting home from a nice Mother’s Day out with the kids and they begin to talk about Joan Crawford, the star of the movie they saw that afternoon.

A young Joan Crawford.

Betty Draper starts comparing Joan Crawford in her younger years to how she’s beginning to age. This conversation morphs into Betty voicing her own fears about her looks fading as she gets older. I think it is important to note that at this point, I’m about to get hooked on this show. This scene puts something on display almost every single woman has worried about – in fact, it’s so dead on I’d venture to say that this scene had to be written by a woman (Are You There, Tina Fey? It’s Me, Couch Commando).

Of course getting older is scary for everyone, but Betty’s concern can still be easily passed off as superficial. But Betty – perhaps without knowing it – is giving a voice to a concept that transcends international borders, class, and race. In almost all societies a woman’s social value is intertwined with her physical appearance. Betty may not have a Women’s Studies class to help her verbalize this unfortunate concept – but deep down she already knows that her social value to men, and therefore her economic security, is almost entirely dependent on how she looks.

(Side note: We cannot talk about Joan Crawford without watching Faye Dunaway have a psychotic break as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.)

Speaking of looks, this episode gives us a whole new look at Joan Holloway – the office femme fatale who is steadily leaving a stream of chewed up man-boys in her wake. Following a visit of partner Roger Sterling’s wife and daughter, Margaret (played by the amazing Elizabeth Rice) we find Sterling in a hotel room bemoaning his problematic daughter to Joan Holloway who is getting dressed.

Can you say hook, line, sinker? I am so on this Mad Men wagon it’s not even funny.

Back at the ad agency, the Old Boy’s Club plus Salvatore Romano, the art director, is wrestling with a lipstick account (I’m placing my gay bet now – I’ve known Romano was gay since the first episode. He’s so gay I want to bake him a coming out cake in the shape of a butterfly). Out of ideas, the guys agree to “throw it to the chickens.” All the secretaries, led by Holloway (back from her midday romp) are brought into a room with a two-way mirror used for consumer testing. The women settle in to try out the lipstick and this scene takes place:

Oh, and this after the men ask each other “Do you speak moron?” as a way of saying, “Can you speak so women understand you?” Charmers.

Right after the consumer testing, one of the ad guys, Fred, starts speaking with Peggy Olson, who verbalizes some nice phrases that would translate well to ad copy. Later, Fred goes to Draper to talk about the lipstick account and mentions Olson’s way with words. Fred is so shocked at the thought of a smart woman with ad talent he says, “It was like watching a dog play the piano!” Towards the end of the episode, Holloway tells Olson that the ad guys have requested that she help write some copy for the lipstick account. On top of her work as Draper’s secretary, of course.

This episode definitely stepped it up. I tend to like the episodes that focus on the women of Mad Men because I find their story lines more conflicted and dynamic. The male characters of this show have few redeeming qualities and the women are saddled with the same curse – yet I am most interested in the female story lines because these women are usually in such a precarious position. While the position of men in our society have changed considerably, the role of women in our society has changed drastically in comparison. Seeing women function in a time period that planted the seeds for the women’s rights movement makes me reflect on how much things have changed and how much things have stayed the same. I’m looking forward to watching the next episode now that things are getting thick and complicated. Consider me hooked.

Rated 5/5.

Bonus round: 10 points to the sad sap that identifies the offensively bad Judy Blume joke in this post.


MAD MEN: Season 1, Episode 5 – “5G”

Posted in Mad Men by LaurenStheTA on March 9, 2010

Viewed on my awful Ikea couch, with a friend, in the early evening.

The Drapers: Drunk and disorderly.

This episode opens up with Don and Betty Draper getting back from an award ceremony – from which Don is carting home the big trophy. Arriving late and hung over to the office the next morning, everyone is full of congratulations for he and Ken, who in an exercise of publish or perish, got a short story printed in the Atlantic Monthly. Of course it turns out that Pete Campbell is a writer too, and he is absolutely perishing in the background – because Campbell can’t stand to see the spotlight on someone else. He  sends his wife Trudy out to her old boyfriend (a big guy in publishing) to get one of his stories published and the old flame agrees, but only after making Trudy an inappropriate offer for some extramarital fun. She demurs and later Campbell throws a temper tantrum because the publication he’s getting published in isn’t good enough for him. Who didn’t see that one coming?

Back in the office, Draper’s murky past is coming back to haunt him again. He’s in a meeting when Peggy Olson lets him know someone is in the lobby to see him. Cue the mystery music – the guy in the lobby is his little brother who spotted the elder Draper’s picture in the paper (from his award), and he calls Don “Dick.” Fast forward a little, and Draper is offering baby brother $5,000 bones to get lost.

Since that takes care of this episode’s summary,  we can move on to what I really wanted to talk about – the theme music and the opening title sequence of the show. A couple weeks ago I accidentally saw the last 15 minutes of a conference on opening title sequences. It got me thinking about how opening title sequences and music set the entire tone for a show. Every time an audience sits down to watch an episode, the opening title sequence is the first introduction they’ve got and it will likely be what they remember from the show long after they stop watching it. I mean, who can’t sing the “Fresh Prince” theme after all these years?

For reference, here’s the Mad Men opening sequence:

I’ve seen the opening sequence of Mad Men at least five times now, and I’m able to take a closer look at it each time. The theme music is an instrumental piece by RJD2 and fits the opening sequence nicely. It’s not too slow and it’s not too fast, but it’s mysterious, serious, intelligent, and sexy. The black and white silhouette of a businessman falling from the top of a building during the sequence is interesting as well – the fall is slow and languid, suggesting a dream-like state; some sort of suspension of reality. The style of the whole show is heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and during the opening they pay homage to a graphic designer and Hitchcock’s main man for title sequences: Saul Bass. Bass created the sky-scraper filled opening to North by Northwest in 1959 and was also responsible for the movie poster of Vertigo, which also featured the motif of a falling man.

What’s most impressive about the opening sequence and the musical accompaniment is that both are modern and contemporary in essence, but still visually recall the time period of the show. It’s done in simple, basic colors: black, white, and red. In the background old ads are superimposed onto the buildings – these echo the color palette used in the show. The opening is slick but not greasy, and it’s definitely smart. This is not a show that will talk down to you or explain it all to you. In a way, the opening keeps the show from feeling stale since it’s set in the past, but it’s modern enough to keep the attention of a present-day audience.

Rated 2/5.

MAD MEN: Season 1 Episode 4 – “New Amsterdam”

Posted in Mad Men by LaurenStheTA on March 1, 2010

Viewed late at night, at home on my couch.

This episode of Mad Men continues the Pete Campbell story line. His new wife Trudy surprises him at the office and she wants to take him to an apartment she’s found on 89th street. Campbell makes it clear his salary won’t cover an apartment like that, and Trudy makes it clear she is used to getting her way. This predicament finds Campbell at his parents house, asking for a loan. The Campbell’s are cold and rich.  In fact, the furniture of their parlor is covered in white sheets – the house is being prepared while they go to their summer home. As untouchable as they come off, it’s a wonder the parents aren’t covered in sheets as well. The tension between Campbell and his father, who doesn’t understand his job in advertising, is tempering the entire scene. We learn a few important things about Campbell in this scene: his family is incredibly wealthy because his mother’s family use to own everything north of 125th street, and they are not giving him a loan.

His wife’s parents, by comparison, are warm and friendly. Trudy barely has to ask before she receives. Her father tells Campbell to consider the money an investment in himself. He is uncomfortable taking the money, but he does for his wife’s benefit. Back at the office, we see again see the nasty side of the junior executive. Working on an account with Don Draper for the Bethlehem Steel Company, Campbell wines and dines the client behind Draper’s back and pitches his own idea to the client successfully. Draper decides to have him fired but then discovers in the senior partner’s office that Campbell can’t be fired because his family’s social status is too valuable to the ad agency.

Weird kid. Loving that couch.

The other interesting event in this episode involved the neighborhood divorcee, Helen Bishop. In the early evening Betty Draper is walking the new family dog and while walking by Bishop’s, sees her ex-husband beating on the door and yelling for Bishop to open it. He spots Betty and asks to use her phone. She declines and turns to hurry home. Later that evening Bishop comes over to apologize and thank her for turning away the ex-husband. A few nights after that, Bishop asks Betty if she could come over to baby sit because she has to go volunteer at Kennedy headquarters. Betty agrees and spends the evening with Bishop’s son, Glen. That evening is the first time we glean that the kid may not be alright. He walks in on Betty in the bathroom and stares and later after apologizing, asks for a lock of her hair. She spies a pair of scissors and gives him the hair before sending him to bed. Honestly, this scene was a little weird and unsettling. But instead of analyzing the little serial killer in training, I’d rather just see what happened next.

I’m realizing that I’m not as in love with this show (yet) as I would like to be. So many of my friends have expressed such fervent obsession for it that I was expecting to be hooked right off the bat. Perhaps it’s a slow build, but I’m not yet feeling excited about watching more episodes. I like the show, but you know, just as friends. For now.

Rated 2/5.

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MAD MEN: Season 1 Episode 3 – “Marriage of Figaro”

Posted in Mad Men by LaurenStheTA on February 27, 2010

Viewed late at night, with a friend, at home on my couch.

Pete Campbell: Junior executive in more ways than one.

This episode opens with Pete Campbell, one of the junior execs at the agency returning from his honeymoon. It’s important to note that Campbell is a complete ass. It is also important to note what his relationship to our sweet and innocent Peggy Olson is. Back in the first episode Campbell makes more than a few inappropriate comments about women (If anyone is making disparaging comments towards and about women, you can be sure that Campbell is probably the one leading the pack). He is entitled, egotistical, and doltish. But before this turns into a diatribe on my dislike of Campbell, let’s get back to his relations with Olson. At the end of the first episode, a drunk Campbell, who’s been out enjoying his bachelor party, shows up at her apartment. The first episode ends with Olson, fresh off her introduction to her inner vamp led by Joan Holloway, taking Campbell into her apartment for less than appropriate adult activities.

Back to the present, or the not so present…well, back to this current episode, Campbell returns to work freshly married, honeymooned, and as jerky as ever. He makes it clear to Olson that he’s married, and that their night together was one time only. While Olson probably wasn’t in the mood to celebrate his return, the rest of the office has paid a Chinese family to sit in his office as a welcome home gag. He opens the door to find them eating, while a real live chicken wanders around his office. He closes the door and turns to the gathered office and says “Who put the Chinamen in there?” Everyone laughs because racism is OK in 1960. Meanwhile, the ladies of the office are passing around a well worn copy of banned literature: Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Don Draper: Thinking hard, drinking hard.

In this episode we also see the brooding Don Draper get recognized on the train by an old army buddy. We already know Draper has done military service since we’ve seen him peeking at a purple heart medal in the privacy of his office. However, the friend calls him “Dick Whitman” and Draper, though he seems uncomfortable, speaks with remarkable familiarity with the guy. Both Draper and the audience is left unsettled by the exchange between the two men. Later in the episode a few of the junior executives confirm what the show has been hinting about since episode one: Draper is a mysterious man who releases very little personal information about him. Even his wife seems to barely know him.

Speaking of his wife, Betty Draper is becoming more helpless and child-like as the season goes on. It is their daughter Sally’s birthday and Draper must help Betty with the party and build the playhouse that is Sally’s big gift. Among the adults at the party is Helen Bishop, the divorced woman who just moved in down the street. In the kitchen, the neighborhood women subtly pick at Bishop’s divorced status. When Betty asks Don to get the cake, he leaves and doesn’t return. He spends the time lost in thought and parked near the train tracks. When he returns late in the evening with a dog for Sally, his wife is clearly angry and distraught. The episode ends with Draper leaning against the couch and losing himself in his thoughts again. It is becoming clear that Draper is far more complicated than he lets on.

This was my least favorite episode so far. It was depressing and many of the characters are becoming difficult to like. In fact I don’t feel a strong connection to the majority of the main characters, so it’s hard to care when bad things befall them. Hopefully the next episode will have me caring more.

Rated 2/5.

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MAD MEN: Season 1 Episode 2 – “Ladies Room”

Posted in Mad Men by LaurenStheTA on February 27, 2010

Viewed late at night on my couch, with a friend, and with too much snow outside.

In this episode we encountered ladies who lunch, societal taboos like divorce and psychiatry, and the difficulties and rewards of advertising to women. The funny thing about the taboos is how they change – things considered taboo then are no longer, while things we consider taboo now were common place back then. Back to the episode, this one is aptly titled “Ladies Room.” The whole 30 minutes mostly focuses on the women that revolve around the Mad Men.

Ladies who lunch.

At the beginning of “Ladies Room” Joan Holloway gives Peggy Olson a little lesson on wrangling free lunches from the men at the office. As usual, Holloway comes off as the office femme fatale and Olson blushes and brushes off the advances of her coworkers when they make inappropriate comments. We also meet the wife of Don Draper: Betty, who is oddly enough, engaging in things we would now consider taboo but didn’t warrant a second glance back in the early 60’s. Betty is having coffee and cigarettes with a neighbor while the children play. As Betty and her pregnant friend are smoking, Betty’s daughter walks in with a giant  plastic dry cleaning bag draped over her head. You know, the kind of bag that now has “Keep away from children” printed all over it. After admonishing her daughter for taking her dry cleaning out of the bag the women continue to gossip about the latest neighbor on the block: a divorced woman.

The powder room.

Of course, ladies that lunch will always end up in the bathroom together. In the short scenes that take place in the women’s bathroom of the ad agency, we almost always see a woman crying or dabbing moisture from her eyes. In a different and much fancier bathroom, we are introduced to Betty’s nervous symptoms – her hands sometimes go numb and she becomes unable to use them. Going doctor to doctor, it’s finally suggested that Betty see a psychiatrist, a taboo the disapproving patriarch doesn’t want to pay for. When they discuss a psychiatrist, Betty goes off on a tangent about her daughter having a bruise on her face and her fear that it could have been a permanent scar on her face. She specifies that for a girl, living with a permanent scar on her face would be worse than death.

In this episode we see more of Midge, one of Don Draper’s regular “extracurricular activities.” Although she is complicit in letting Draper cheat on his wife, she’s quickly becoming one of my favorite characters. She is fiercely independent, ambitious, and completely uninterested in the conventional ideas of marriage and domesticity. In the first episode she says,

“You know the rules: I don’t make plans and I don’t make breakfast.”

as she and Draper are waking up in the morning. She also lives in Greenwich Village – a fact that may account for her beatnik-esque ways.

Advertising to women.

At the ad agency, Draper is coming with ideas to sell a new deodorant that comes in an aerosol can. He mentions that women are the target demographic for their ads because women are the ones who do the household shopping (a fact that still holds true today). It was nice to see this bit of truth come out of the ad agency side of the show – it also helped that he didn’t go straight for the “shrink it and pink it” concept (Thanks, Femme Den).

Lastly, I noticed the humor in this episode. The humor is smart and sly – no one’s cracking a joke, but when you see Betty Draper admonishing her plastic draped child for putting her dry cleaning on the floor, it’s hard not to feel like you found some of the brownie in your Ben & Jerry’s Half-Baked.

Which was, by the way, the food of choice for this viewing session.

Rated 4/5.

Debbie Almontaser VS. The New York Post

Posted in Shouting Fire: Stories...Free Speech by LaurenStheTA on February 26, 2010

I believe that newspapers are, and can be partisan. Newspapers have been partisan and biased since American society started producing them. In Almontaser’s case, the New York Post is not guilty of partisanship so much as they are guilty of bad, lazy journalism. This newspaper is infamous for swaying the public opinion of public figures. Within the media, the Post is noted for tight, neat copy and sloppy ethics. The central redeeming quality is its ability to sell papers and ads based on snappy, funny headlines. Of course, a newspaper that is known for these qualities should not have an incredible amount of influence on persons or organizations. But does it? Yes. And that, excuse my colloquialism, sucks.

I would like to say that it is possible to give a nuanced explanation of 9/11. As someone who is looking to be a part of the media in the future, I would love to say that it is possible. However, I think that as long as Almontaser or Ward Churchill are saying, doing, or being accused of anything that could be construed as negative about 9/11, they will end up paying dearly for it. In fact, the mainstream media practically chums the water for this sort of thing. In the time period Almontaser and Churchill had these experiences, it wasn’t possible to speak about 9/11 without first wrapping yourself in the American flag and crying tears of love for your country – no matter how much America did, or did not screw the pooch on that one.

Although Almontaser was only a few degrees away from Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media who produced a shirt that was probably largely misunderstood by the American public, I don’t think that should reflect as bad as it did on her. She made it clear that her connection was minimal, though I suppose the damage had been done by that time. For bad example, let’s talk degrees. I could be six (Kevin Bacon style) degrees away from Paris Hilton, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I am also a blood sucking blight on humanity who deserves to be blamed for everything that is wrong in the world, now does it? That organization had little to do with how effective Almontaser was at her job – so why punish her and the kids that will miss out on an experienced principle they can not only look up to – but also relate to?

New York Post: Making headline magic and ruining lives since the Rupert Murdoch buy out of 1976.

In the case of Almontaser versus the New York Post, I’m siding with Almontaser. Her track record makes it pretty clear that the New York Post article was a sloppy monument to bad journalism in the style of someone like Jayson Blair. The part that really bothers me is why the Department of Education made her do the interview. Any public relations agent worth his or her salt would know that the New York Post was going to throw her to the sharks. That’s what the Post does. I’m a journalism student and I could have spotted that situation all the way from my Reporting 101 class. So I’m siding with Almontaser – and I am blaming the spin doctor that didn’t have the good sense to take this story to a newspaper that would have given her a fighting chance.

MAD MEN: Season 1 Episode 1 – “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”

Posted in Mad Men by LaurenStheTA on February 25, 2010

Viewed at home on my couch, evening time during a slushy snow storm, with a friend.

I viciously went after Mad Men, Season 1 because I figured it was about time I gimped my way onto the Mad Men wagon – two years after the show officially premiered. So one email on February 11th at 12:01 PM on-the-dot-later, I’ve got Season 1 in my hands and I’m mindfully expecting visions of guilt free cigarette smoking, leisurely two martini lunches, and killer vintage fashion. Most of my expectations were gathered from this trailer I watched a few days ago:

After the show.

So I was wrong about the guilt free smoking. This episode had one of the central characters, the dashing Don Draper (creative director of the agency), pondering a new way to sell cigarettes now that the public knows the truth about the link between cigarettes and cancer. Upside? This doesn’t keep anyone from getting their nicotine fix.

As far as the entire show goes, I liked it – but it didn’t hook me. If I saw this premiere on TV, I wouldn’t mind catching the next episode, but I wouldn’t go through a whole lot of trouble to make sure I saw it. Much like Don Draper’s attitude towards his extracurricular women, I’d probably keep it casual.

In this episode we meet most of the main characters – like Margaret “Peggy” Olson. She new, she’s green, and it looks like she’s going to be testing the waters of being a woman in a male dominated work environment. No doubt these waters are murky, but she has Joan Holloway to guide the way. Holloway is more experienced in just about every sense of the word and kills a 1960’s wiggle dress so hard it should be illegal. She tells Olson everything a woman needs to know to be successful at the agency – this advice includes wearing shorter, tighter skirts, investing in some aspirin and needle and thread for her boss, and the right sexist gynecologist to go to for birth control pills. Olson will be an interesting character to watch evolve and Christina Hendricks (Joan Holloway) is proving to be a scene stealer.

One of the major redeeming factors of this show is how true they’re staying to the time period. Oddly enough, this might also be what makes me a little subconsciously uncomfortable with Mad Men: there doesn’t seem to much glossing over the negative stuff. The writers seem to revel in being able to show the dirty side of a decade that is fraught with issues that were born and raised in the Valium addled suburban neurosis of the 1950’s. And for that, I’m definitely willing to give it some street cred.

Rated 3/5.

No Country for Old Churchill

Posted in Shouting Fire: Stories...Free Speech by LaurenStheTA on February 15, 2010

Ward Churchill: Awesome hair, questionable research practices.

Ward LeRoy Churchill is a writer, political activist and was a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder until 2007. Much of his work focuses on the treatment of Native Americans by the United States government. In September 2001, Churchill wrote an essay titled On the Justice of Roosting Chickens and argued that the 9/11 attacks were provoked by United States foreign policy and called financial workers in the towers members of the “ongoing genocidal American imperialism.” After speaking at Hamilton College on this essay in 2005, administrators at the University of Colorado at Boulder ordered an investigation into his supposed research misconduct.

I think that the University of Colorado was simply pacifying the public by launching an investigation on Churchill. If there had been a problem with what he was writing and publishing, the university should have launched an investigation long before 2005. While the university may have had legitimate reasons to raise questions about his research, they did so in a way that made them look like they were persecuting their own staff member to appease the public. In short, I do not think that the University of Colorado would have been out of line by launching an investigation – but they were not timely, and that makes all the difference in terms of intention.

I also believe that Churchill was completely within his rights to speak on a subject like 9/11. Professor, public intellectual, community leader or not, free speech is for everyone – not just those who we consider to be elite academics. Dissent, while at first glance is often considered negative, is an integral part of free speech and should be protected. People have the freedom, and sometimes the platform, to speak their minds. Those who choose to, or who are brave enough to exercise that right should not be retaliated against.

Newton, Cleaver, and...Churchill.

I would not have personally fired Ward Churchill. In the long run, much like Michael Moore, I believe that Churchill is doing more good than harm (as well as a little bit of preaching to the choir). He definitely has beliefs and a willing audience for those beliefs. Though we may take his literature with a grain of salt, he is doing something to change the status quo, and as a professor, that is not something to be overlooked.

Also, he looks like this guy. No country for old Churchill.

While David Horowitz is a critic of Churchill’s teaching methods, I don’t think Churchill is in the wrong. A good professor teaches what he thinks is most “true” or “most accurate”. A great professor teaches what he thinks is most “true,” “most accurate,” and then some – including the opposing view points. That being said, I’ve had plenty of good professors, and a few great professors. Much like being smart consumers of the media, students should also be smart consumers of their own education. As we discussed in class, everyone has an agenda – and professors are certainly not excluded from this group. I believe it is the responsibility of the student to assume that they are being taught the professor’s interpretation of the subject matter. If the subject is important enough or interesting enough, the student will eventually continue their research and form their own educated opinions.

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Awkward Beginnings

Posted in Uncategorized by LaurenStheTA on February 11, 2010

Welcome to the Couch Commando.

Unlike the name would suggest, this blog shall have very little to do with a lack of underwear or Arnold Schwarzenegger movies from 1985. It will have some to do with couches (my own, specifically) and a whole lot to do with a Mass Media class I’m taking at Brooklyn College.

The name is actually in honor of the 1995 movie Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone. Silverstone’s character Cher calls her ex-stepbrother a “couch commando” for changing the channel while she’s trying to watch Beavis and Butthead.

Man, it was good to be a ten year-old in 1995. Stay tuned for some responses, reviews, and plenty of dorky references to teen movies from the 90’s.

Alright, maybe not the last part, but, whatever.