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‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Features Fresh Zombies, Family Tension, And A Familiar Story

By Sara Smith, The Kansas City Star (TNS)

The zombie apocalypse goes viral in “Fear the Walking Dead,” a serviceable but less-than-stellar spinoff of AMC’s hit series “The Walking Dead.”

“When civilization ends, it ends quickly,” one wise kid observes when things start to fall apart. For the ramshackle family of three adults and three teenagers at the heart of this new show starting Sunday, things weren’t holding together so well in the first place.

To understand where “Fear” fits in the world of “The Walking Dead,” you have to rewind all the way to that show’s very first episode, which aired on Halloween 2010. “The Walking Dead” began its story through the eyes of sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who had nearly died from gunshot wounds after a high-speed chase.

When Rick emerged from a coma in an abandoned hospital, he found a world already torn apart by the undead. Rick figured out that he’d been in the hospital for about 90 days while chaos raged. “Fear the Walking Dead” takes place during those three months.

Just like its predecessor, “Fear the Walking Dead” begins with a central character opening his eyes to a nightmarish reality. Nick, a junkie college dropout, wakes up from his latest needle nap to see his pretty blond girlfriend snacking on a dead guy’s face.

Because he has been addicted to heroin for years, no one’s taking Nick’s word for what he saw, especially after he runs into traffic and ends up strapped to a hospital bed. Nick (Frank Dillane) wants to believe he might have been hallucinating those ravaged bodies and pools of blood, too.

When Nick’s mom, Maddie (Kim Dickens), and her boyfriend investigate the abandoned church serving as a drug flophouse, they find the pools of blood but no bodies. “They didn’t just get up and walk away,” says Travis (Cliff Curtis). Oh, the naive disbelievers of the early days.

Sirens blare and traffic clogs as rescue vehicles speed through neighborhoods, but no one has begun to connect the nasty virus keeping people home and the increase in police shootings. Its prequel status makes “Fear” a bit predictable, so its observations on societal breakdown are more compelling than its main characters during the initial exposition-heavy episodes.

The Internet gives Angelenos their first clue that something is very wrong. Leaked news footage of paramedics being attacked by recently dead victims of a car crash leads to rumors of a potent new drug or virulent illness. The video ends with police filling a staggering citizen with a staggering number of bullets, until a shot to the head finally takes him down.

Kids with iPhones watch the scene on their 5-inch screens, not knowing they’ll soon get better phone service from tin cans and a string. One of those kids is Maddie’s daughter and Nick’s little sister, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a junior in high school who clings to her snotty attitude, her artist boyfriend, and her acceptance letter to Berkeley.

Alicia’s school shuts down right around the time that her mom and Travis are getting their first glimpse of the threat up close, leading to a frantic search for Travis’ ex-wife, Liza, and teenage son, Chris. Roads are being closed, the power grid flickers, and suburban doomsday preppers are starting to look pretty smart.

While Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) assumes that Travis’ frantic calls are a custody power play for an extra weekend, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) gets caught up in one of the spontaneous protests caused by police interacting with the undead. It’s not hard to imagine a scared public blaming cops for executing the “homeless” without the knowledge that they’re really zombies. With their bad posture and tenacity, these L.A. undead very well could be listless drunks, zonged out on bath salts, or just lost on their way to Starbucks.

The zombies in “The Walking Dead,” or “walkers,” as they’re called, are slow-moving, half-rotted, dull-witted. They don’t stop in their relentless pursuit of fresh flesh, but they don’t exactly sprint, either.

But these new walkers are freshly dead, and they’ve quickly lost their coordination, but they’re not apathetically shambling through the backwoods of Georgia. In “Fear the Walking Dead,” the zombies are faster, and the living are slower.

A day before the inevitable riots, Travis was teaching Jack London survival metaphors to sleepy-eyed teenagers who scoffed at the idea that they’d ever have to build a fire. Suddenly he’s holed up with strangers in a barbershop, waiting for the worst to pass so he can gather his makeshift family and head for the desert.

“The Walking Dead,” like “Revolution” and other post-apocalyptic fare, dropped its viewers into a world where technology had become irrelevant and survivors had embraced their inner Boy Scouts. “Fear the Walking Dead” is a mid-apocalyptic tale where no one is equipped for the coming reality. Naturally, they turn again and again to their failing gadgets. “Dead again!” they complain, thinking they’re just talking about their phones.

“Fear the Walking Dead” isn’t essential TV for anyone but “Walking Dead” fanatics, but with just six episodes in its first season, it’s a fast-paced, character-driven look at the power of information. Travis and Maddie know more than most people, and that’s the only reason their family might last until the fires die down.

“Fear the Walking Dead” premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on AMC.

Photo: Elizabeth Rodriguez and Lorenzo James Henrie in “Fear the Walking Dead.” (Frank Ockenfeis 3/AMC)

My Life Among The Mad Men

We open on an expensive company Christmas party at a swank Manhattan restaurant. From wall to wall: booze, food, and boisterous people. The president of the company strolls up, surveys the crowd, and says with a smile: “You can smell the sex!”

This wasn’t said by Roger Sterling of Sterling Cooper in 1962. It was said by my boss, the president of a well-known media company, in 2000. I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond — what did sex smell like to him, anyway? — and I don’t recall what comeback I settled on. His remark was typical of an era and a mindset that has lasted in the ad and media businesses longer than you might think — extending even to today.

It’s the Mad Men era, the Mad Men mindset, that is captured with obsessive accuracy in the TV series concluding on Sunday night.

I never worked at an ad agency, and I’ll be 59 years old next month, so during the time in which the show is set I was only smoking chocolate cigarettes and my drink of choice was soda. But I have sold advertising for media companies — including a major ad industry trade magazine, one of the biggest popular magazine publishers, and currently at The National Memo — since 1983. Especially during my early years I knew the Dons and Rogers and Petes and Peggys, and their next-generation heirs. They drank, they smoked, they screwed. It was Scott Fitzgerald’s (and Mad Men showrunner Matt Weiner’s) “great gaudy spree.”

Next scene: an advertising trade magazine company meeting at Lake George, circa 1993. The company’s only top female executive has announced she is leaving after a surprisingly short stint. One of the magazine’s founders, an éminence grise of great WASP vintage, says in his plummy basso: “You know, back at Time and Life in the 50s, we didn’t have so many gals around [emphasis his].” Those of us under 40 cringe.

A few years later, when I was leading a sales team, the same magazine founder said of one of my Jewish employees, “You know, Rob is very Bronx!” I knew what that meant, of course. I’m Jewish and from the Bronx, but I had gone to Harvard, so I was sort of all right. In fact, the éminence grise even gave me a neck massage once.

In the 80s and 90s, the three-martini lunch was still the norm, and the martini count could escalate so much that the lunch lasted through dinner. One of my employers put on an all-day 100th-anniversary bacchanal that took over the Park Avenue Armory and included a vice president riding in on an elephant. A real elephant. I began drinking at 9:30 that morning and stopped… who knows when?

Another time, I was in our L.A. office. A top editor from New York saw me, yelled “What the f*ck are you doin’ here?” and then for the next eight hours he and a Hollywood trade paper reporter gave me the drinking sybarite’s tour of Hollywood. (Movie fans: That editor was the guy who served as the basis for the credit card expense account story in American Beauty. Screenwriter Alan Ball worked for us.)

As late as the early 80s women at work were still called “toots,” “dear,” and “sweetie.” (I soon stopped doing that, except among close female friends who are in on the irony.) Extramarital affairs were common and generally, if quietly, known about. Yes, men were a**holes then. They still can be. Back then I knew a few McCann-Erickson men who were. I’m sure everyone there is lovely now.

I liked the drinking and camaraderie, and was complicit in the attitude that ad and media guys (I still slip and say “guys”) were the most fun people in the world, and that nothing could ever stop the spree. Well, a couple of recessions did, and so did the digital revolution.

Like Don Draper, some of us got divorced, were humbled in employment, and even stopped drinking (for a time). And as the business got younger thanks to digital, we got older, and places in it were harder to find. Eventually, even most of the mad men became sane.

But I know that out there in American media and advertising, women still have it tough, booze still flows in mighty rivers, cigarettes are once again fashionable, and for the young the new spree, their spree, seems as if it will never end. The madness, like the landmark series that captured it, will always be out there.

The final episode of Mad Men airs May 17 at 10 p.m. Eastern Time on AMC. Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Harold Itzkowitz is VP of advertising for The National Memo.

AMC Plotting A ‘Mad Men’ Send-Off To Remember

By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

It should come as no surprise that Mad Men, a drama about a 1960s advertising firm, has designed what it hopes to be an unforgettable send-off campaign.

The pioneering AMC series will launch its seventh and final season on April 5 — culminating in a swan song that probably will generate the kind of frenzied chatter last seen by its sister drama Breaking Bad in 2013.

To rally viewers as the end draws near, the network is promoting the final stretch of the drama with a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign. There’s even a black-tie ball at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for its premiere.

“This show changed our network, period,” AMC President and General Manager Charlie Collier told The Times. “This show means something as our first, and we wanted the send-off to reflect that.”

The drama, created by Matt Weiner and produced by Lionsgate, made its debut in 2007. Despite undersized ratings, it was praised by critics and would go on to ingratiate itself into the zeitgeist — spawning countless analyses and even a reference by President Obama during last year’s State of the Union address. It became part of the disruptive basic-cable troop that demonstrated good shows with a lasting effect were not limited to broadcast and premium cable.

And as the first breakthrough drama for AMC, once a repository for classic movie reruns, it helped the network establish itself as a destination for high-quality content, paving the way for such shows as The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

In place of a thank-you note for the drama that’s been crucial to its rise, AMC is getting creative.

A major component of the goodbye was a 60-second retrospective commercial that aired during the Academy Awards. It was a minute of airtime that didn’t come cheap, probably costing the network as much as $3.5 million for the time — slightly more than the average cost to produce one episode of Mad Men.

It’s just a fraction of the send-off that is sizing up to be more elaborate than that of Breaking Bad.

A smattering of Mad Men testimonials — from the likes of Bryan Cranston and, even, Keith Olbermann — have rolled out on the network during commercial breaks for The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul. A drip-drop of promotional images have hit the Internet and will adorn billboards, bus sides and telephone kiosks.

In a nod to its mark on popular culture, it will join the permanent collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History next month — with Don Draper’s gray suit, fedora, and bar cart slated to be on display. Numerous other events at major cultural institutions in New York and Los Angeles will also take place.

There will also be an art installation outside the Time-Life building in Manhattan — the building that served as the fictional home of Sterling Cooper & Partners.

Linda Schupack, executive vice president of marketing for AMC, said the campaign adheres to the idea of it being the end of an era in more ways than one: The characters of Mad Men are moving on from the 1960s, while viewers are saying goodbye to a drama that helped usher in the new golden age of TV.

“We have been thinking about this for a very, very long time,” she said. “The only way to go pay tribute to a show that is unlike any other is to go out big.”

Of course, the cable network — a unit of AMC Networks Inc. — is hoping the big-budget drama goes out big in other ways.

At its peak in Season 5, the drama averaged 4.16 million viewers — about one-fifth of what NCIS, the top broadcast drama in total viewers that year, garnered. Despite Mad Men‘s modest audience, the network has seen an uptick in advertising revenue thanks in part to the upscale audience the drama attracts with its patient, highbrow storytelling.

AMC’s ad revenue for 2014 — which included the first half of its final season — was $469 million, up 7 percent from the previous year, according to SNL Kagan, an industry consulting firm. To be clear, Mad Men isn’t responsible for it all, but the show does command higher ad rates than some broadcast network programs with larger audiences.

“It’s the kind of buzz-worthy programming advertisers are looking for,” said Darcy Bowe, a vice president at advertising giant Starcom USA. “Media buyers knew they were going to get a certain caliber of audience when buying time on Mad Men.”

As such, the last seven episodes of the period drama are expected to nab top-dollar advertising rates for cable television among marketers trying to align themselves with Don Draper and his Madison Avenue cohorts before it ends. Its final beat is likely to produce the highest revenue in the show’s run.

The cable network refused to sell time for the final episode of Mad Men to advertisers during last year’s upfront sales. Instead, it wanted to save the episode to boost the price closer to air time.

A 30-second spot in the final episode is currently commanding $400,000, and is expected to approach $500,000. For perspective, a “big hit” on a broadcast network might fetch around $200,000 to $300,000.

However, with its hallmark series on its way out, AMC is losing another breakout hit. This has stirred some concern on Wall Street, according to Bank of America/Merrill Lynch analyst Bryan Goldberg.

“The focus amongst analysts about AMC’s ability to continue to launch compelling programming in an economically appealing way was of concern, primarily last year because that was the year they were going to see the financial impact of not having a marquee show on the air,” he said, referring to Breaking Bad.

Since Mad Men‘s debut, AMC has launched 10 original scripted dramas — to mixed results. Last year’s new entrants, Turn and Halt and Catch Fire, have yet to establish themselves as cultural touchstones.

The Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, had a promising launch last month. The show’s opening episode was seen by 6.9 million viewers, and a cable-debut high of 4.4 million adults 18 to 49. The Monday night launch left analysts more comfortable with the idea that AMC can move past Mad Men on good economic footing. And, of course, the network is home to The Walking Dead, the No. 1 show on all of television among the advertiser-preferred demographic of adults 18 to 49.

“Certainly they are trying not only to replicate the success of previous years but to build from that success,” said Amy Yong, an analyst at Macquarie. “And they are trying to expand into a new night, which is a risky thing. Monday audiences are different from Sunday audiences. But the outlook, so far, is good.”

That is crucial when considering that cable networks rely heavily on programming fees paid by cable and satellite providers. Quality programming with ardent fan bases allows cable networks like AMC to bump up the fees they charge.

AMC, which reaches about 96 million homes, charged providers an average of 38 cents a month for each subscriber in 2014, up 9 percent from 2013. The increases in these so-called affiliate fees, as well as sales of its programming to video on demand services, led research firm MoffettNathanson to substantially increase its revenue estimates for AMC Networks this year.

AMC Networks should generate nearly $2.6 billion in revenue, a 17.4 percent increase over 2014 levels, according to the research firm’s estimate.

It’s the kind of outlook that Don Draper might celebrate over an old fashioned.

For Weiner, the notoriously secretive creator at the helm of Mad Men, the celebration is in looking back as the network moves forward.

“It was exciting to be at the start of something where there were no rules and where everyone had an optimistic attitude despite limited resources and a seemingly impenetrable marketplace,” he said by email. “We’re all still processing the fact that it worked out.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: YouTube

‘Mad Men’ Creator Matthew Weiner Discusses The Themes Of The Final Season

By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — For “Mad Men” creator and show runner Matthew Weiner, the reality is beginning to sink in. The series returns to AMC for the first half of its seventh and final season in April, and Weiner is currently toiling away on Episode 9 — leaving just five episodes until the story of elusive ad man Don Draper reaches its conclusion.

“There is a weird psychology to saying, ‘OK, there’s five episodes left, three stories an episode. That’s 15 stories left to tell in the entire show.’ That’s pretty overwhelming,” said Weiner in a telephone interview Tuesday.

In a calculated move by AMC, the final season of “Mad Men” will be split into halves: seven episodes to air this spring, followed by seven more in 2015. The first batch of episodes have already been filmed, and production is set to begin on the back half of the season later this month.

Although Weiner said it was not his idea to divide the season in two, he “really didn’t fight” the network on it because he had seen how well this approach worked for the final season of “Breaking Bad,” and simply accepted it as a writing challenge.

“The interesting thing is the show is always kind of structured in halves, whether the audience notices or not,” he said, noting the tendency for major plot points to emerge around the halfway point of a given season — think the lawn mower incident in Season 3, or last year’s merger between Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and rival agency Cutler, Gleason & Chaough.

The last season of “Mad Men” was set in 1968, with the tumultuous events of that infamous year driving the show’s narrative in a way they hadn’t since the assassination of JFK near the end of Season 3. In one episode, for instance, an advertising awards banquet was interrupted by news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

This upheaval was reflected in the life of the series’ protagonist, who by season’s end found himself at his lowest point ever: alienated from his wife, Megan, suspended indefinitely from his job and caught (literally) with his pants down by his teenage daughter, Sally.

“It was a catastrophic year for the United States and for Don Draper as well,” says Weiner, whose film “You Are Here,” starring Amy Poehler and Zach Galifianakis, is slated for release this summer. Though some fans, sick of Don’s selfishness and womanizing, turned on him last season, just as many were encouraged by the closing scene of the finale, in which the protagonist revealed his true identity to his three children.

But just because Don came clean to his family — and appears to have reconciled with his business partners, judging by the publicity images released by AMC — doesn’t mean that he has completely turned over a new leaf, said Weiner. “I definitely think that affected him, but there are a lot of other consequences that are hanging in the balance. You can say he’s a survivor, he’s going to start over, but what does that mean?”

Though Weiner did not disclose an exact start date for Season 7, he is willing to confirm that by the end of the final, 14-episode season, “Mad Men” will have reached the conclusion of the ‘60s, meaning the final season will take place in 1969 — another year marked by era-defining events including the Apollo 11 moon landing, Woodstock and the Tate-La Bianca murders. It’s a neat way to wrap up a series that, on one level, has always been about the country’s precipitous transformation from the conformity of the Eisenhower era to the chaos and discord of the Vietnam age.

“That was the intention for the show all along,” he said.

Weiner promises the plot of the new season will be “extremely dense,” at least by “Mad Men” standards, and will be focused on the series’ central characters. As usual, the infamously secretive show runner provides few specifics, speaking in broad terms about the season ahead.

“I wanted to investigate the consequences of actions and how they stick with you, which is kind of a great topic for the end of the show. I also wanted to talk about the material world and the immaterial world,” he said. “The show has always been either an exploration of what’s going on inside of Don or of how Don is interacting with the world. This season I’ve really tried to incorporate both of them.”

If that sounds like an awful lot of material to explore in just 14 episodes, Weiner promises the final season is indeed “ambitious.” “But I believe in risk and I’m not just going to limp out with Don in a Nehru jacket.”

Princeton Public Library via Flickr