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Cocktail Culture: Meditation By Other Means

Stressed Americans seeking calm through decluttering and meditation might add a third activity: the cocktail hour. Whether at home or out, the cocktail hour usefully separated the workday from a presumably free evening.

The TV series Mad Men revived interest in this grown-up ritual. While showing the social benefits, it didn’t ignore the downside of providing cover for alcoholism. In any case, no one was off in a corner snorting some white powder.

Cocktail culture required a certain dressing up out of respect for other participants. At its best, it bathed in beauty, taste and predictability. And those choosing not to ingest alcohol could share in the camaraderie.

The word “cocktail” appears in an 1803 issue of The Farmer’s Cabinet as a drink “excellent for the head,” but the mixing of distilled spirits and juices reached its apex in the 20th century. Prohibition (1920 to 1933) got it really going. Adding other ingredients cut down on the vile taste of bathtub gin.

Another kind of mixing in that era was of genders. Prohibition was the first time that respectable ladies and gentlemen could drink together.

In his 1948 classic, The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto, Bernard DeVoto wrote, “The speakeasy was quietly decorated and happily illuminated, and both the pretense of secrecy and the presence of women enforced quiet behavior and good manners.”

DeVoto was a great historian of the West. Here he let loose as a cosmopolitan snob.

Trigger warning! DeVoto’s view of gender equality is delightfully retro to his fans but no doubt offensive to some feminists. His advice to a woman wanting to attract a man:

“He will equate sound liquor with sound gal and the second round will do things to your figure that Elizabeth Arden could not do for you in three months.”

Country music singer Mickey Gilley expressed similar thoughts with greater wit in Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.

A wonderful overview of the aesthetics can be found in the book Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980. Today’s interest in cocktail culture, it explains, “attests to a nostalgia for the glamour and role playing of earlier eras.”

The first cocktail fashions reflected the gaiety and novelty of coed drinking. Hollywood of the 1920s and ’30s covered the women in satin dresses and non-subtle jewelry.

In the 1935 movie Roberta, Fred Astaire introduces a Paris collection of cocktail outfits as follows: “‘Tis the hour for dry martinis. The Ritz bar is serving caviar and weenies. Madame is there. And from Roberta, she has something ‘too divine’ on.”

The “cocktail hat” became a big hit during the Great Depression because women could more easily afford a hat than a dress. The cocktail hat was characterized by a small silhouette, feathers, a veil and sparkles.

In the 1950s, cocktail culture moved to suburbia, becoming less formal and more American. Women wore flowered cotton dresses, men Hawaiian shirts. Florida and California offered their own mid-century vision, centered on patios and swimming pools.

But even though cocktail napkins were decorated with silly pictures and recipes, the napkins were still made of cloth. And men didn’t dream of going tieless to a sophisticated cocktail lounge.

Like many other civilizing influences, drinks at 6 went downhill in the 1960s. Proprietors of today’s surviving elegant drinking establishments have to tell patrons “no jeans.”

So put away the mobile devices and flush the illicit drugs down the drain. Cocktail culture is analog, and analog, we read, is again cool.

Said DeVoto at his wisest, “This is an hour of diminishing, of slowing down, of quieting.” Sounds like meditation, doesn’t it?

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Adrian Scottow/Flickr

Emmy Awards Adapt To A Stream Of TV Industry Changes

By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Sunday will be TV’s biggest night, with formally attired celebrities ambling through the familiar red-carpet gantlet at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards.

But this won’t be the same old Emmys. After years of complaints of staid and predictable voting, the Emmys have finally caught up with the changes shaking up the TV business.

Transparent is Exhibit A.

An offbeat comedy about a middle-aged dad (Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out as transgender to his adult kids, Transparent has a premise that could risk alienating the traditional-minded, even in a year when Caitlyn Jenner captured headlines.

In fact it’s not a traditional TV series in any sense, as it bypasses the typical broadcast or cable platforms and is made and distributed on-demand by Amazon, the same online mega-retailer that ships books, diapers and countless other products.

And yet Transparent is also one of this year’s most-nominated shows, with 11 total nods and, in a formidable new vs. old match-up, is squaring off against perennial winner Modern Family for best comedy.

The ABC sitcom has triumphed at the awards show for the last five years, and another victory would set a new record in the category. But within the industry, there is a sense that the creative momentum has shifted to more off-beat, unusual shows — including the kind of shows proliferating on streaming outlets such as Amazon and Netflix.

“Audiences are still much larger for network-originated shows, but the shows on streaming services have the attention of the entertainment establishment,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. “Non-network shows can be edgier, bawdier and take more risks than the major networks can, and the Emmy people want to reward that.

“This is in some ways a socio-cultural statement, but it is also a statement about where the creative world wants to take the video industry,” he added.

Many experts see a growing two-tier system, much like the one that operates in the movie business, where Oscars are more likely to go to art house favorites than summer blockbusters. Michael Keaton’s Birdman, this year’s best picture winner at the Oscars, grossed about $42 million at the U.S. box office. Meanwhile, American Sniper took in $350 million, followed by Hunger Games: Mockingjay at $337 million.

“When you look at the Emmys, they’re no longer about what the popular masses like,” said Billie Gold, vice president and director of TV programming research at ad firm Carat. “It’s more about if you have top actors doing these really interesting roles, with multi-dimensional characters. … (With) mainstream television, you’re trying to appeal to the masses.”

When commercial TV consisted of just three broadcast networks, the Emmys often honored what was considered not just good but popular. All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, and Frasier were honored with top Emmys. And they were huge hits in the ratings as well.

Occasionally, Emmy voters would nurture an arty, anti-populist bent. Back in the 1970s, for example, the best drama prize went three times to Upstairs, Downstairs, a BBC period piece about aristocrats and their servants that ran in the U.S. on PBS. As the Downton Abbey of its time, Upstairs, Downstairs was not nearly as well-liked as the cop shows it aired against, such as Baretta and Starsky & Hutch.

In 1981, a surprise win for the NBC cop drama Hill Street Blues — which had been languishing in the ratings but was considered one of the best-written shows on TV — rescued the show and helped turn it into a hit.

But over the last decade, as broadcast fortunes have ebbed and other providers have leaped in, the Emmys have reflected the trend.

In 2001, HBO’s urban romp Sex and the City became the first cable series to win the top comedy Emmy; three years later, HBO’s New Jersey mob epic The Sopranos set a milestone with the first best drama Emmy for a cable network. HBO is a premium network that the majority of Americans do not even subscribe to, although Sopranos delivered ratings that would today be the envy of ABC, CBS or NBC.

The victory for Sopranos cleared the path for AMC’s ad-agency period drama Mad Men, which took the top Emmy for four years in a row despite small audiences watching in real-time.

Mad Men’s ratings, I hate to say, were not very good,” Carat’s Gold said. “There were lucky if they got 2 million viewers an episode. … But people, especially those in the media, love that show.”

Once the industry accepted the idea of giving top honors to what were essentially niche programs, the streaming players were ripe for consideration, despite the fact that no one outside the companies has any reliable data on viewership.

Netflix, Amazon and Hulu viewing figures are not widely published, but Nielsen this year has ramped up a pilot program that is designed to capture tallies of people watching streamed shows. However, Netflix has argued that the figures are flawed because they do not count people who watch on phones and tablets.

Orange Is the New Black is a case in point. A dark comedy set in a women’s prison, the Netflix show has generated enormous media coverage and a dedicated fan base, not to mention a nomination last year in the best comedy category — and another this year for best drama. (The series switched categories after a recent Emmy rule change addressed the blurring lines between complex dramas and comedies.)

But exactly how large that fan base is, at the moment, impossible to gauge.

“We don’t really know what the numbers are,” Gold said. “Netflix can tell us some numbers, but we don’t know if it’s substantiated. The thing is, if they get 2 to 3 million viewers, that’s huge for them, but it wouldn’t be a hit on network television.”

But experts expect that niche shows will continue to dominate come Emmy time as the industry slides away from a scheduled broadcast model in favor of streamed programs that can be viewed whenever users want.

One such show that won over Emmy voters is Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which snagged seven nominations including one for best comedy series. The Tina Fey-produced comedy about a young woman who moves to New York after escaping from a cult was originally developed for NBC but wound up on the streaming service, where it premiered to acclaim.

“We are moving toward a video-on-demand environment,” said Brad Adgate, analyst for New York ad firm Horizon Media. “It’s begun already with younger adults and will grow toward viewers in their late 30s and 40s this season.”

As more Americans subscribe to streaming services, the companies continue to ramp up production with the river of revenue. About 43 percent of U.S. households get Netflix, while 42 percent have HBO.

“That means people are interested in that (Netflix) content and are actually paying $8.99 a month to get it,” said Gold.
Netflix and Amazon both recently announced plans to step up original programming, effectively making them direct competitors with major Hollywood studios such as Warner Bros. and Fox.

All that could mean a Transparent future.

Released by Amazon last year, Transparent won praise from critics if not necessarily much attention from ordinary viewers. But the show’s profile rose earlier this year as the Jenner gender transition grabbed headlines and sparked national curiosity.

From that standpoint, streaming providers may have only scratched the surface in terms of what can be dramatized for a TV series. And this year’s Emmys prove that top industry acclaim can follow, no matter how limited the audience.

“They’re looking for really hard-hitting social issues … pushing the envelope,” Gold said. “And that attracts a certain kind of viewer.”

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

‘Mad Men’ Finale Recap: There’s No Place Like Om

By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Could it be that Mad Men is actually the origin story of a really famous commercial?

In a twist, the Series That Changed Television ends with Don Draper sitting in lotus pose on a cliff overlooking the Pacific at an Esalen-like spiritual retreat when — ding! — he suddenly envisions a chorus of fresh-faced, multiethnic young people singing in harmony about the transcendent power of Coca-Cola.

It’s an ending that’s as ambiguous, in its way, as the infamous finale of The Sopranos. Are we really meant to believe that Don dreamed up one of the most well-known television commercials of all time, an effective but deeply cynical ad that marked the end of the dream of the ’60s as vividly as the Manson murders or Altamont? (Or, if you’re more contrarian, an ad that made it clear that the counterculture was always just another form of consumerism, as some like Thomas Frank have argued persuasively.) An ad whose backstory is already well-documented and does not happen to include anything about a twice-divorced, former McCann executive on a quest to find himself in Big Sur?

Superimposing a fictional character onto a real-life historical event like this feels more Forrest Gump than Mad Men, which is why I’m inclined to think (or hope) we’re not meant to take Don’s cliff-side “a-ha!” moment literally. Instead, we can take it to mean that Don will always be an ad man, that even after what appears to be a cathartic emotional breakthrough, he is ready to pitch a fantasy, to sell a lie.

Literal or not, the ending certainly isn’t a hopeful one for Don, particularly coming at the tail end of a journey that has propelled him cross-country — at top speed! — to find himself, to outrun his past, or a little bit of both. The finale’s title, “Person to Person,” refers to the numerous operator-assisted phone calls that happen over the course of the hour but also, more symbolically, to Don’s attempt to find personal connection.

At seemingly every turn, he’s reminded of his isolation. In a heartbreaking, beautifully acted call to Betty, he offers to take care of the children after she dies. He clearly thinks he’s being gallant, but Betty shoots him down: They’re going to live with her brother and sister-in-law.

“I want to keep things as normal as possible,” she says, “and you not being here is part of that.”

Don realizes he can’t really argue with Betty, nor should he, and, as he has so many times before in times of crisis, he ventures to California. But once again the promise of the Golden State proves to be a mirage, as Stephanie, the one person in his life who still calls him Dick, also rejects him. “You’re not my family,” she tells him just hours before she takes off in the middle of the night with his car, leaving him stranded at the very end of the road.

It turns out she’s the one person who hasn’t entirely given up on him. In a phone call that plays like a micro-version of “The Suitcase,” Don confesses all his sins to Peggy: “I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Note the religious language here; Don has fully reverted to Dick.

Transportation challenges notwithstanding, I confess to being enormously frustrated by Don’s lingering at the retreat: Your kids need you, Don! Maybe skip the tai chi, get Peggy to send a driver, and get yourself to the airport pronto. Really, can it be that hard?

So when Don hangs up the phone and decides to go to yet another group seminar, I may have groaned out loud. And when, with eight minutes left in the entire series, we’re introduced to yet another new character — an ordinary schmo named Leonard who, in a lengthy monologue, complains of feeling invisible to his wife, family and co-workers _ I became, well, distinctly irritated. Still, I appreciated on an intellectual level, that by hugging it out with someone who was so clearly intended to be his antithesis, Don was having a major breakthrough.

Or was he? Could it be that all that refrigerator talk just got Don thinking about Coke again? Maybe Don, more aware than ever of the acute lack of consistent, meaningful relationships in his own life, is inspired to sell the frankly ridiculous idea that Coke is the “real thing,” a balm capable of bringing disparate people together even at a time of war and social revolution.

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As frustrating as it is on one level, it’s an ending that also makes sense. When Mad Men began, Don was the handsome man in a gray flannel suit who superficially embodied the 1950s ideal. A decade later, he is in a place that epitomizes the indulgent touchy-feeliness and narcissism-masquerading-as-self-actualization of the “Me Decade” (and embracing the go-go capitalism of the Reagan era). If Don started as a character from a John Cheever story, he ends the series as someone out of a Paul Mazursky film.

In this so-called Golden Age of TV, the burden of expectation going into a series finale can be excruciating, and there is by definition no way to please everyone. As Matthew Weiner himself has said, there are any number of episodes that could have served as series finales, so perhaps we shouldn’t think of “Person to Person” as the show’s definitive send-off (unless, of course, we want to). For me, the most resonant image from this final season was Bert Cooper’s posthumous song-and-dance routine, reminding Don (and us) that “the best things in life are free.” Even a Coke will cost you a dollar, adjusted for inflation.

Nearly every pivotal conversation in this episode takes place over the phone, a device that seems to allow people the distance to say what they really feel and the space to be who they really are. (As Stan tells Peggy: “I call you on the phone and I get the person I want to talk to.”) It makes me realize that some of the most pivotal confrontations in the series, including the end of both of Don’s marriages, have happened on the phone. (Note to self: Must pitch think piece on Mad Men and phones.)
Perhaps as a way of making up for the defiant lack of resolution of Don’s journey, Weiner puts a bow on everyone else’s story, providing such definitive closure for Roger, Peggy, Pete and Joan that moments in “Person to Person” felt almost like fan service.

After a string of comically awful relationships, Peggy winds up with Stan, the Harry to her Sally, the guy she once detested but who gradually became her confidante and, ultimately, her soulmate. It’s a very rom-com twist, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when the performances are as wonderful as they are here. (Mark my words, people years from now will be reciting Peggy’s delightfully fumbling “I don’t even think about you. I mean, I do, because you’re there” speech the same way they recite lines from Nora Ephron movies.)

Meanwhile, Joan completes her unlikely journey from semi-tragic bombshell to feminist heroine. As the hour begins, she’s enjoying a post-McCann life of leisure with Richard, lounging in Key West and indulging in a little coke (the other kind) for his birthday. It looks fun and makes for great postcards home, but a call from Ken sparks the realization that she’s interested in being more than “an undeveloped piece of real estate with a nice view,” to borrow Richard’s words.

In the end, it turns out that Joan wants to work _ not to secure Kevin’s future or even her own, but simply because it’s what makes her happy. So she starts a production company called Holloway-Harris because “you only need two names to make it real”; why not use her own? After all, by now Joan knows she’s her own best partner. (Just how complete is Joan’s transformation? She’s gone from pencil skirts to jumpsuits.)

Men not named Don don’t get quite as much airtime as Peggy or Joan, but their stories at least end happily. As roguishly charming as ever, Roger winds up with Marie, a woman who seems just crazy enough to be able to keep him in line, and comes as close as Joan will ever let him to openly claiming paternity of Kevin. Meanwhile, Pete boards a Learjet bound for Wichita with Tammy and an especially fabulous looking Trudy by his side. To quote that old sage, Meredith, “There are a lot of better places out there,” and it turns out Kansas is one of them.

Now, in the spirit of the emotional voyage that drove Don across the country to the cliffs of Big Sur and into the arms of a stranger named Leonard, I’d just like to say very sincerely how much I have loved writing about this show, how much it has meant to me and how much I am going to miss it.

Namaste, everyone.

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

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men’s season 7. (Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC)

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The hit show Mad Men ended its legendary run Sunday night, but we still have the memories — and the parodies.

Click above to watch a truly brilliant take on the show from several years ago, brought to you by the wonderful folks at the Sesame Workshop — and maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about your feelings. Then share this video!

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