First off -- on the remote chance that anybody was missing this blog and wondering when it was ever going to be updated, please accept my apologies. I've been sick, unwell enough that even my TV brought me little joy.
I'm back with this quick note about the AMC original series, Mad Men, which was among my Top 5 shows last year. For those already in the know, season two starts Sun., July 27, but lemme make a pitch for the uninitiated. You CAN catch up on season one right now, and join the fun. It's out on DVD; you can watch full episodes at www.amctv.com; or you can power-watch (or set the VCR/DVR) the whole season starting at noon, Sun., July 20.
I admit when I heard about the show -- a look at a Manhattan advertising firm in the late 1950s -- I was leery. Another office show? And TV does retro so poorly. Either it's sloppy and rife with anachronisms -- or it's a cheap excuse to hang a bunch of jokey costumes and slang on. Also, the words "AMC original series" didn't exactly inspire confidence; HBO has made us all snobby, and I was coming down off The Sopranos and The Wire with a frantic itch for more quality serial programming.
But my fears were unfounded and my expectations far surpassed. Mad Men ended up being among the better scripted shows out there, at once fresh, reflective, funny and melancholic, and with plenty of big themes to unpack after screening. The show is penned by Matthew Weiner, who did some scribbling for The Sopranos, and it's obviously the project he's been nursing for years.
Wiener's genius is to set the show in 1959 -- in what we know from hindsight is the decline of a certain age. These are the last hurrah days for the American Way, for men, for conformity, the primacy of print media, old-boy ties in the face of ambition ... everywhere are the teeny harbingers of impending trouble whether it's the lacquered but unhappy suburban wives, or the guffaws generated by a funky car called the VW Beetle.
Wiener's primary character is Don Draper, ad man on the move, but not quite part of the club, a deeply troubled and conflicted man who remains an intriguing cipher throughout much of the season. John Hamm does a great job portraying Draper as the "perfect man" who nonetheless is cracking up behind his smiling shell. And he's hardly alone: The sprawling ensemble cast which includes the office -- ad executives and their female staffers -- as well as various families and assorted clients, are all floundering to some degree. Look good and present well -- these are after all public-image professionals -- but what to do with all the unburdened anxieties?
The writing is so sharp, the acting so great that I'd have forgiven Mad Men for lesser sins of décor, costume and set design. But the care taken here is extraordinary -- from the tiny clothing details (one possibly gay man wears a tie that's just a shade louder ... or is it?), to the getting the big picture right: All secretaries would not wear the same clothes, and Mad Men accounts for differences in the ladies' personal styles, ages and position within the office. Homes are neo-Colonial, not "crazy 50s" and set decorators have done their homework on real-life items like The Relaxicizer and the Chip-and-Dip.
There are plenty of winks for us watching in 2008 -- it takes a bit to get used to all the smoking and drinking at work -- but even these are presented in context. Among my faves last season was a child who came running through the kitchen wearing a full-sized dry-cleaning bag as a play-costume. The mother freaked out and got angry -- not because of any modern concept we understand such as safety -- but because the child might have messed up her freshly laundered clothing.
OK, so much for my quick note. I ramble forever about Mad Men. Get caught up, and then come back for season two.
Keeping up with promoters and venues in this town is sort of like getting entwined in a soap opera ("WHAT? JOKER'S WITH DIESEL NOW? OMIGOD!"). There are a few mid- to major-level show promoters who tend to bounce back and forth given the dearth of one well-located mid-level venue in the city. The latest development in the game is the arrival of Opus One Productions at the Bloomfield/Lawrenceville hipster joint the Brillobox.
Opus One is known for bringing us most of what happens at the bigger venue Mr. Small's in Millvale; they also take care of many of the touring acts that find their way to Club Cafe on the South Side. The new appointment at the Brillobox will bring the promotions team into a new ballpark -- a smaller venue with a slightly different clientele and history.
When the Brillobox opened in the fall of 2005, the team that was booking there (the now-apparently-defunct Theorem) brought a glut of notable big indie rock shows. Some time thereafter, the tenor shifted some and more and more dance parties, along with general non-venue "bar stuff" (read: karaoke) began to dominate the schedule (a bit sad since, for small rock shows, the venue is an ideal size, and the location is perfect).
Lately the nightly dance party trend has seemingly calmed down to a much more tolerable level and perhaps the new arrival of Opus One at the Brillobox signifies a new era of decent rock shows at the venue -- the team brings us the latest installment of PghPOP, in a much more sensible location than its old venue at Mr. Small's, this Saturday (featuring The Coast, Power Pill Fist and The Red Falcon Project).
The challenge, of course, will be translating experience booking shows at a big semi-suburban venue (Small's) where local openers aren't that common on the whole, and at Club Cafe, which has an entirely different sound in its "scene" (tending more toward the folky acoustic and WYEP-style AAA stuff) into a successful venture at a place like the Brillobox. The built-in clientele at the Brillobox is generally a hip rock crowd with a certain set of local favorites, and it'll behoove Opus One to familiarize themselves with what goes over well there if they want as many people at the show upstairs as there are in the bar downstairs.
It's also notable that Secret Eye is booking some dates at the venue now as well; those of you who have been taking notes will remember that I wrote up Secret Eye's band, Black Forest/Black Sea, a few weeks back for the paper. That should bring up the less straightforward, more experimental side of rock for the venue -- as is evidenced by the upcoming Secret Eye/Brillobox presentation of the French two-piece Vialka on July 18.