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Norman Lear, Common, Shonda Rhimes To Explore Inequality In Epix Documentary Series

By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Super-producers Norman Lear and Shonda Rhimes will team with celebrities including Amy Poehler and Common for a documentary series on Epix exploring inequality, the network announced Tuesday.

The series, America Divided, will feature celebrity correspondents including Lear, Common, Poehler, Zach Galifianakis and America Ferrera investigating aspects of social, economic and political division. The series will premiere on the premium cable network in fall 2016.

“We thought this was an amazing opportunity to help raise the level of the dialogue and focus the conversation on the inequities that exist in our country,” Epix Chief Executive Mark S. Greenberg told The Times.

“It’s all of deep concern and paramount interest,” added Lear, the producer behind such socially conscious, provocative sitcoms as All in the Family, Good Times and Maude. “The whole subject is a great part of my life.”

Lear and Common will executive produce with Rhimes. The series was created by Lucian Read, Solly Granatstein and Richard Rowley, who previously collaborated on Showtime’s climate change documentary series Years of Living Dangerously.

The series will air in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, but Lear, long associated with liberal politics, insists it is not advancing any particular agenda.

“I never think of myself as coming at it from any place but love of America,” he told The Times. “I’m not there to doubt anybody’s patriotism and I don’t think I have to wear a button to prove I’m an American and I care. This kind of involvement says much more than that button.”

The series will be made available at a later date on Hulu, Amazon and Sony Vue, widening its reach beyond the Epix subscriber base, Greenberg said.

©2016 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Norman Lear at Vicki Abelson’s Women Who Write. Louise Palanker via Flickr

Jon Stewart Lands At HBO With Four-Year Production Deal

By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Less than three months after signing off from The Daily Show, Jon Stewart has signed an exclusive four-year production deal with HBO, the network announced Tuesday.

The partnership will find Stewart developing “timely short-form digital content” for HBO Now, the network’s over-the-top subscription video service. The content will be refreshed multiple times throughout the day and will “view current events through his unique prism.”

It will be produced with the assistance of cloud graphics company OTOY.

The content will also be available on HBO GO, the network’s streaming portal, and other platforms. The deal also includes a first-look option for television series and other potential projects, according to HBO.

“Jon Stewart led a revolution that changed the face of TV comedy on the Daily Show,” said HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo in a news release. “He graced our network nearly 20 years ago, so we’re thrilled to welcome back his immense talents in this next chapter of his career.”

“Appearing on television 22 minutes a night clearly broke me. I’m pretty sure I can produce a few minutes of content every now and again,” Stewart joked.

With his move to HBO, Stewart is following the footsteps of former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver, who scored his own show, Last Week Tonight, at the network following a well-received run as Stewart’s fill-in.

The Stewart collaboration is the latest in a string of programming coups for the premium-cable giant, including partnerships with the producers of Sesame Street and former ESPN commentator Bill Simmons.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: (Kevin Fitzsimons/Courtesy Comedy Central/TNS)

Protests Mount Over Donald Trump Hosting ‘SNL’ Next Month

By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK — Just a few months ago, NBC fired Donald Trump. Now it’s giving him a coveted hosting slot on “Saturday Night Live” — to a growing chorus of criticism.

Latino advocacy groups, joined by Hollywood celebrities and others, are calling on NBC to disinvite the Trump from his Nov. 7 appearance, citing inflammatory remarks Trump made about Mexican immigrants in the speech announcing his White House run in June.

“We are appalled that you would enable Trump’s hateful speech for nothing (more) than a ratings ploy,” the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 40 civil rights and policy organizations, said in a letter to “SNL” Executive Producer Lorne Michaels and NBCUniversal Chief Executive Stephen Burke.

A social media campaign called #RacismIsntFunny has drawn support from celebrities including John Leguizamo, Margaret Cho and Al Madrigal, and petitions on MoveOn.org and Change.org have gathered 370,000 signatures protesting the Trump appearance.

“There’s no question that this issue has struck a nerve in the Latino community and beyond, and there is growing energy and intensity,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization.

NBC declined to comment on the matter Monday.

The network initially distanced itself from Trump, who declared his candidacy in June in a speech in which he described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” who were bringing drugs and crime across the border. Within days, NBC fired Trump as host of “The Celebrity Apprentice” and ended its involvement with his Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, citing his “recent derogatory statements.”

But as Trump’s insurgent campaign gained momentum over the summer, the real estate tycoon has blossomed into a media sensation with a Midas touch for ratings. “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” got its best Friday night ratings in 18 months with Trump’s Sept. 11 visit. A few weeks later, Trump delivered CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” its biggest audience since its Sept. 8 premiere.

In addition to his “Tonight” visit, Trump has called into “Morning Joe” on cable sister network MSNBC and on Monday sat for a “town hall” moderated by Matt Lauer on “Today.”

As Trump’s profile has risen, NBC’s public rhetoric also appears to have softened. In August, Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt told reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour that Trump would “absolutely not” be back on “The Celebrity Apprentice” but was otherwise full of praise for the billionaire, calling him “a lovely guy” and “very much a collaborator.” Trump’s relationship with the network dates to 2004, when “The Apprentice” premiered.

While these other media appearances have drawn little controversy, Trump’s scheduled visit to “Saturday Night Live” is generating much more flak because it’s seen by his detractors as a cynical ratings ploy that could benefit his political campaign and potentially validate his views on immigration.

“‘SNL’ has become one of the most highly coveted platforms for candidates looking to connect with the American public,” Murguia said. “It’s appalling for a show to showcase a man whose campaign has been built on bigotry and demagoguery for the sake of buzz and ratings.”

Ratings are a reliable factor in booking guest hosts, so it’s likely that a potential “Trump bump” influenced NBC’s decision. As Trump joked the first time he hosted in 2004, “It’s great to be here at ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but I’ll be completely honest. It’s even better for ‘Saturday Night Live’ that I’m here. Nobody’s bigger than me, nobody’s better than me, I’m a ratings machine.”

Hosting “SNL” provides the latest example of Trump’s ability to command media attention, which has provided an enormous part of his success since he declared his candidacy in June. Many of his rivals will spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising in the next few months to become better known among voters and spread their campaign message. Trump has been able to accomplish those goals largely for free.

“I thought I’d have $25 million spent by now on ads,” Trump said in a recent interview with Fortune. “Do you know how much I’ve spent? Zero. Because I haven’t had to.”

Other candidates can only bite their lips in frustration. None has publicly condemned NBC’s willingness to have Trump host the popular comedy show, and complaining about it would be unlikely to help them. Republican rival Sen. Marco Rubio brushed off the “SNL” protests, saying, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch the show.”

Candidates usually welcome the chance to appear on shows like “SNL,” in part because doing so enables them to reach the wide audience of potential voters who don’t regularly watch the cable news channels and Sunday morning public affairs programs that carry most political news.

The ability to laugh at oneself also can help make a candidate more attractive to voters. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that when politicians ridicule themselves on “SNL,” it can take the bite out of the parody.

“When you’re starting to be effectively parodied, one way you defuse that is to parody yourself. You can come off as charming, as not taking yourself too seriously, which is clearly a problem with Trump,” she said. “The potential political advantage of it is enormous.”

Another factor in the growing outcry may be that it is exceptionally rare for an active presidential candidate to host the show. Cameos by presidential and vice presidential candidates have long been woven into the fabric of “SNL” — think Sarah Palin in 2008 or Hillary Rodham Clinton this month — and many politicians, including Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have hosted the show.

But the last time a candidate hosted while in the middle of an active campaign was in December 2003, when Democratic long-shot Al Sharpton played the role of emcee. Because of concerns about the Federal Communication Commission’s “equal time” rule, several affiliates declined to carry the original broadcast of the episode.

(Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this story.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Burlington Memorial Auditorium in Burlington, Iowa, October 21, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Morgan 

Is Trevor Noah Set For ‘The Daily Show’? Let The ‘Cultural Chameleon’ Fill You In

By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK — There wasn’t much in Trevor Noah’s childhood in Johannesburg to suggest that he would one day host America’s preeminent satirical program, starting with apartheid-era South Africa having virtually no tradition of professional comedy — nor, for that matter, free speech.

Then there was Noah’s strictly limited pop-culture diet, which consisted of reruns of Murder, She Wrote and Knight Rider he watched with his mother. Years later, when a friend urged him to watch Eddie Murphy’s Raw, Noah was baffled: The guy from The Nutty Professor did stand-up?

By his own account, Noah was a “nerdy little child” who spent most of his time indoors reading voraciously — everything from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to electronics manuals.

“That was my world,” says the 31-year-old late one evening in his sparsely decorated office. “I just consumed — that’s all I’ve ever been, a consumer of information.”

It’s a quality that will serve him well at The Daily Show, where Noah will take over for Jon Stewart on Monday night.

The comedian’s rise from the township to the pinnacle of American comedy is one of the more unexpected developments in an era of tremendous upheaval for late-night television. Before he was named Stewart’s successor in March, Noah had made only a handful of appearances as a contributor on “The Daily Show” and was little known in the United States.

In contrast, the man he will be replacing is a widely revered comedian who over the course of 16 years on the job transformed The Daily Show into essential election-year viewing and the Emmy-winning jewel in Comedy Central’s crown

Noah may not yet have the recognition of a Chris Rock or an Amy Schumer — names who were floated as possible successors to Stewart — but there is little doubt that he will bring a unique perspective on race, politics and cultural identity to The Daily Show at a time when such issues dominate the news.

Born to a black mother and white father whose relationship was illegal under apartheid, Noah has mined his tumultuous upbringing for laughs in a stand-up act that blends comedy with tragedy. “I was born a crime,” he has said.

Since he first began performing in his early 20s, Noah has gained an international reputation for his irreverent take on charged topics such as Western perceptions of Africa, his country’s scandal-prone politicians and, especially, race. And though Noah is firmly in the millennial generation coveted by television executives, he has a hard-earned wisdom and maturity that transcends his young age.

“I was born in the middle. I’ve always lived in the middle. I’ve been an outsider and an insider,” he says. “I have the ability to see both sides, and then I try to find the truth.”

In February, Stewart announced he would be stepping down from The Daily Show, stunning the loyal fans who had hoped he’d continue to be their voice of reason through the 2016 election and rattling executives at Comedy Central.

“There was a moment of panic, of course,” concedes the network’s president, Michele Ganeless. “We knew the day would come. Obviously, we hoped it would come later rather than sooner, but it came sooner.”

Stewart’s bombshell also happened to land two months after the final broadcast of The Colbert Report and just a few weeks into the run of its replacement at 11:30, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. John Oliver, who had successfully anchored The Daily Show during Stewart’s Rosewater hiatus in 2013 and was widely viewed as his heir apparent, had been wooed away by HBO a year earlier.

“It wasn’t perfect timing for sure,” says Ganeless. “If you had told me five years ago that in the same 12-month period, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert would leave the air and we would still be standing, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Without any obvious subs on the bench, the network chose to look at Stewart’s departure “as an opportunity to bring in someone fresh and different,” says Kent Alterman, president of content development and original programming. “We would be setting ourselves up for failure if we thought, ‘Oh, let’s find a young version of Jon Stewart.’ It doesn’t exist.”

By this point, Noah’s profile in the U.S. was already on the rise. He’d toured in 40 states, filmed a stand-up special called “Trevor Noah: African American,” and made Jay Leno howl on The Tonight Show — the first South African comedian to do so.

In December, he joined The Daily Show as a contributor. His first bit, called “Spot the Africa,” brilliantly flipped Western stereotypes of a continent “full of AIDS huts and starving children” to comment on the contentious state of race relations in the U.S. “I never thought I’d be more afraid of police in America than in South Africa,” he joked. “It kind of makes me a little nostalgic for the old days back home.”

Though the network put out feelers to other potential hosts, Ganeless says that Noah was “at the top of the list from the beginning.”

His multicultural background — a rarity in what remains the overwhelmingly white, male world of late night — was a bonus, not a prerequisite, says Ganeless. “We talked to white men and we talked to black men, and we talked to white women and black women. We found the right person.”

Noah knew he was up for the job but also heard the other “amazing names” being considered and knew not to get his heart set on anything. “The longer I stayed in the running, the happier I got,” says the comedian, who learned he’d be the new host of The Daily Show while on tour in Dubai. “I got the news and then my world got turned upside down.”

Noah’s childhood was divided between his mother’s home in Soweto and his father’s residence in the Hillbrow neighborhood, then entirely white. His parents, who met as part of an underground, desegregated social scene in Johannesburg, never married; it was against the law. His Swiss father worked as a chef and managed a grocery store, and his mother was a secretary.

The comedian developed strategies for dealing with the suspicion aroused by his skin color. He pretended his mother was the maid, played along when people assumed he was albino and walked across the street from his father. (That is, until his father moved away, first to Cape Town, then to Switzerland; they had little contact for many years.)

Noah says the experience of living between, if never entirely within, two wildly different worlds turned him into a “cultural chameleon” and an expert mimic — skills he wields impressively onstage, where he slides between various American, English, Australian, and South African accents with ostentatious ease.

“You find that if you can blend in,” says Noah, who also speaks a half-dozen or so languages, “people spend less time asking you why you aren’t one of them.”

There was no money for college, and in his late teens and early 20s Noah began to gravitate toward — doing a bit of acting and working as a radio DJ. He stumbled into comedy, quite literally, about 10 years ago, when he was thrust onstage during a raucous visit to a comedy night at a Johannesburg bar.

Within a few years, he’d risen to the top of South Africa’s small comedy scene, hosting his own talk show and regularly selling out the country’s largest theaters. The documentary You Laugh But It’s True, chronicles Noah’s meteoric ascent, and the resentment it created among some of his peers. In one scene, an older white comedian calls Trevor “arrogant,” and it’s hard not to cringe.

“There was a general resentment of comedians of color rising very rapidly,” Noah says, “as there was a resentment of people of color rising rapidly in any sphere in South Africa.”

More dire than racism was the violence that touched Noah’s life in 2009, when his mother was shot in the head by his former stepfather. She survived, as did her sense of humor, says Noah. “Comedy gives you the power to not take things seriously. When you laugh at somebody, when you laugh at something, all of a sudden, it seems surmountable.”

Still, there are few life experiences that can prepare one for becoming the target of an angry Internet mob. The excitement that followed the news of Noah’s hiring in March gave way almost instantly to a firestorm over tweets, written by Noah as far back as 2009, that many viewed as misogynistic and anti-Semitic.

Noah was taken aback by the criticism and viewed the tweets as the work of a less polished and mature comedian. “It’s very difficult for somebody to go back into your past or into things you’ve done and no longer do and then tell you to change. It’s like someone telling you to quit smoking, and you quit smoking seven years ago.”

Now that the virtual dust has settled, the outrage seems misguided. In person, Noah is less reminiscent of a frat boy than the cute, earnest guy in your philosophy class who stayed up late drinking coffee and talking about Camus.

He says things like “as human beings we have children, so that we ourselves can learn again” and speaks using constant metaphors and analogies. (Watching Raw as an aspiring comedian was like “someone showing you a skyscraper when you’re busy building Legos”; society is always moving in the direction of progress, “like an iPhone.”) It’s a trait he says comes from growing up in a Bible-reading household where “everything was a parable.”

In the weeks since Stewart signed off in early August, nearly every waking hour of Noah’s day has been consumed by a blitz of promotion, writing sessions and test shows.

Throughout the process, Noah has impressed his new colleagues with his “self-possession and charm and unflappable nature,” says Alterman, who adds that “it’s possible that he’s a cyborg.”

Executive producer Steve Bodow praises Noah as a “quick study” in American politics, which comes in handy as the race for the White House gains momentum. He’s also developing a voice distinct from that of his predecessor, who was fond of calling out political hypocrisy and media distortions.

“Trevor approaches it more as someone who’s new to the process. There’s just as much comedic potential with that,” says Bodow, one of the key Stewart-era players who will remain at the show under its new leader.

As for contact between the hosts, Noah says, “I’m conscious of using my ‘call a friend’ very sparingly.”

By way of explanation, he invokes another metaphor: As a child, Noah would ask his mother for help locating misplaced belongings and she would gently steer him in a more self-reliant direction.

“She would always say, ‘If you look like you know I’m going to come and look for you, you’ll never find it. Look like I’m never coming, and then you will find what you need.’ That’s how I see it with Jon Stewart. I go look for the answer as if Jon Stewart doesn’t exist.”

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

Photo: Peter Yang/Comedy Central

President Obama To Rough It On Bear Grylls’ Show

By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — President Barack Obama is going wild.

NBC announced Monday that Obama will explore the Alaskan wilderness with survival expert Bear Grylls in a special episode of the docuseries “Running Wild with Bear Grylls.”

The episode will be taped this week as part of the president’s three-day trip to the Last Frontier, intended to bring attention to the issue of climate change. It will air on NBC later this year.

Obama and Grylls, the British adventurer introduced to Americans through his Discovery Channel series, “Man Vs. Wild,” will observe firsthand the effects of climate change. Grylls also will give the president a primer on survival skills — though hopefully they’ll skip the yak-blood drinking.

The “Running Wild” appearance is Obama’s latest attempt to get his message out to the public using nontraditional media outlets. The president already has sat between two ferns to promote his health care overhaul and chatted in Marc Maron’s garage about gun control and partisan gridlock.

Obama has made climate change a top priority for the remaining months of his presidency.

On each episode of “Running Wild,” Grylls pairs with a celebrity for a wilderness adventure. Previous participants have included Ben Stiller and Channing Tatum. The series is in its second season on NBC.

Photo: Public Domain Pictures via Pixelbay https://pixabay.com/get/5ff47d1b8b36c8a00215/1441041094/glacier-220090_1280.jpg?direct

‘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)

Gerry Goffin, Songwriting Partner Of Carole King, Dies At 75

By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times

Lyricist Gerry Goffin, whose songwriting partnership in the early 1960s with then-wife Carole King yielded some of the most indelible hits of the era, died Thursday at home in Los Angeles, said his wife, Michelle Goffin. He was 75.

Michele Goffin said the death was due to natural causes. Among the hit songs Goffin wrote with King were “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” sung by Aretha Franklin; “Take Good Care of My Baby,” performed by Bobby Vee; and “Up on the Roof,” sung by The Drifters.

But perhaps their most enduring song was their first smash hit. It was in 1960, not long after the couple had their first child. They were working for music producer Don Kirshner, whose publishing company Aldon Music was across Broadway from the famed Brill Building in Manhattan, home to numerous successful songwriters.

Goffin came home one night from a bowling excursion with his buddies to find a note on the tape recorder from King, asking him to write lyrics for a melody she had composed for the girl group the Shirelles. Goffin said the lyrics came easily.

“Tonight you’re mine, completely,
You give your love so sweetly,
Tonight, the light of love is in your eyes,
But will you love me tomorrow?”

“Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” which hit the top of the charts in January 1961, showcased Goffin’s sensitivity as a lyricist, a trait that would resonate in many of the duo’s best songs.

“His words expressed what so many people were feeling but didn’t know how to say,” said King in a statement Thursday.

Goffin was born on Feb. 11, 1939, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and began writing lyrics as a child. But he was a chemistry major at Queens College when he met fellow student and aspiring songwriter King, then known as Carol Klein. Despite his major, Goffin was working on a musical about beatniks, and was looking for someone to compose the music. King was looking for a partner to provide thoughtful lyrics for her infectious rock melodies.

The two struck up a creative partnership, meeting in the lounge at Queens College to write music together. “Eventually it came to be a boy-and-girl relationship,” Goffin recalled in a 2001 interview with Vanity Fair. “Eventually I began to lose heart in my play, and we stuck to writing rock ‘n’ roll.”

They married in August 1959.

Together, King and Goffin wrote more than 50 top-40 hits and became one of the most successful songwriting duos of the many working in and around the Brill Building. For a while, it seemed they could do no wrong, professionally. They even enlisted their baby-sitter, Eva Boyd (stage name, Little Eva), to sing their song “The Loco-Motion,” which became a No. 1 hit and spawned a dance craze.

Throughout the 1960s, Goffin and King’s music evolved with the changing tastes of the era, and their songs were recorded by artists as diverse as The Chiffons, Dusty Springfield, Vee, the Animals, and The Byrds.

But the King-Goffin marriage was troubled. Goffin struggled with mental health problems exacerbated by his use of hallucinogenic drugs; at one point, King made the anguished decision to admit him for shock therapy, an experience detailed in her memoir, A Natural Woman.

His extramarital relationship with singer Jeanie McCrea Reavis of the girl group The Cookies led to the birth of a daughter in 1964.

The fruitful but troubled relationship between King and Goffin, which ended in divorce in 1968 as their growing lifestyle differences became irreconcilable, is the subject of the current Broadway hit Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The show won two Tonys earlier this month.

After the breakup, King went on to have a successful solo career. Her 1971 album Tapestry was one of the best-selling of all time.

Goffin wrote with several other collaborators, including Michael Masser, with whom he earned an Oscar nomination for “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” sung by Diana Ross. Masser and Goffin also wrote “Saving All My Love for You,” for which Whitney Houston won her first Grammy in 1986.

And with Barry Goldberg, he wrote “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” for Gladys Knight & The Pips and “It’s Not the Spotlight” for Rod Stewart. “Gerry was one of the greatest lyricists of all time and my true soul brother,” Goldberg said in a statement Thursday.

Goffin also released two solo albums, but they were not successful.

He and King were admitted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

“Carole loved me for what I was,” Goffin said in a United Press International interview in 1996. “I’ve had a lot of guilt. It’s been almost 30 years, and I’m finally feeling expurgated.

“I feel like I’ve worked it off, but maybe you never work it off.”

Goffin is survived by his wife, Michele, whom he married in 1995; daughters Louise Goffin, Sherry Goffin Kondor, Dawn Reavis, Lauren Goffin; son Jesse Goffin; and brother Al Goffin.

Photo: Neilson Barnard via AFP

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NBC Does A Victory Lap, Showcases New Season At Upfront Presentation

By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — After a season in which it’s poised to finish No. 1 in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic for the first time since the end of Friends 10 years ago, NBC ran a triumphant victory lap at its annual upfront presentation before an audience of advertisers and journalists Monday in New York City.

The network boasted of triumphs including freshman hit The Blacklist, The Sound of Music Live!, the Sochi Winter Olympics and Jimmy Fallon’s successful takeover of The Tonight Show, and attempted to build enthusiasm for a 2014-15 season that’s heavy on romantic sitcoms and spy dramas.

Courtesy of Seth Meyers, the new host of Late Night, there were a few self-deprecating jokes about the network’s less successful efforts this season, like the Blair Underwood remake of Ironside, but otherwise NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt focused on the positive.

He highlighted the network’s 21 percent growth in overall viewers, a strong enough improvement to put it in second place behind most-watched CBS. Ratings are up on five nights out of seven, with Thursday and Sunday the remaining weak spots. In terms of viewers under 50, NBC is tops this season, up 18 percent versus last year.

Key to the network’s resurgence was the James Spader drama, The Blacklist, television’s top-rated new series this season, which will be moving at midseason to Thursdays, after a post-Super Bowl airing, as part of NBC’s ongoing effort to reclaim the must-see-TV mantle.

Also pivotal was the smooth handover of The Tonight Show from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon. As Greenblatt put it, “Jimmy is killing it” in his new time slot, with ratings in the demo up 82 percent after 12 weeks. According to NBC, Fallon also continues to beat combined averages of Late Show With David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live with viewers under 50.

Greenblatt also touted Meyers’ ratings performance. His Late Night is up 35 percent in the 18-to-49 demographic.

Looking ahead at the new season, Greenblatt noted that NBC’s lineup would remain relatively stable in the fall, with The Blacklist in its current time slot at 10 p.m. and the debut of “noisy and sophisticated” shows, including relationship comedies Marry Me and A to Z, the lightly comedic Debra Messing police procedural The Mysteries of Laura, comic book adaptation Constantine and the Kate Walsh comedy Bad Judge.

Moving at midseason into coveted post-Voice time slot currently held by The Blacklist will be the Katherine Heigl drama State of Affairs, in which she stars as a Carrie Mathison-esque CIA analyst on the hunt for her fiance’s killer — with help from his mother, the president.

The network “held back several of our best assets for midseason,” said Greenblatt. These include space-age comedy Mission Control, conspiracy thriller Odyssey, the Craig Robinson comedy Mr. Robinson, the Ellen DeGeneres-produced One Big Happy, the Tina Fey-produced Ellie Kemper sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the Russian spy drama Allegiance.

Also in the pipeline at NBC are a number of limited series and specials. The Biblical epic A.D., which producer Mark Burnett teased as Game of Thrones meets The Borgias meets The Bible will premiere on Easter Sunday.

NBC will also commemorate the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live with a three-hour retrospective on February 15. And in the wake of the resounding success of The Sound of Music Live!, NBC hopes to make a live broadcast musical an annual tradition.

“I know a lot of people were rolling their eyes about it, right until the numbers came in,” Greenblatt said of the live musical starring Carrie Underwood, which became a surprise ratings smash and Twitter sensation.

On December 4, producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan will be back with Peter Pan, and Greenblatt also announced plans to tackle The Music Man in the future.

“We are as well positioned for growth as we possibly could be,” Greenblatt said.

Photo: AlexandraGalvis via Flickr
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‘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

Tamron Hall To Co-Host Third Hour Of ‘Today’

By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — Tamron Hall will co-host the 9 a.m. ET hour of “Today,” it was announced Monday on the NBC morning program.

Hall, a regular “Today” fill-in host, will join fellow hosts Al Roker, Natalie Morales and Willie Geist in the third hour of the broadcast. The new gig will give Hall just enough time to freshen up and ride the elevator a few floors to her ongoing position at MSNBC, where she has been since 2007 and will continue to anchor “NewsNation,” which was moved to 11 a.m. as part of the network’s recent daytime shuffle.

It’s yet another credit in an increasingly busy schedule for Hall, 43, who also hosts Investigation Discovery’s “Deadline: Crime With Tamron Hall” and TLC’s “Sister Wives,” and has anchored several specials for NBC News and MSNBC.

“We’re really excited to officially welcome Tamron into the ‘Today’ family,” said Don Nash, executive producer. “She brings wit, enthusiasm and a keen sensibility to an all-around fantastic team.”

Photo: Hawaii via Flickr