Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Land of the Lost TV Series #8: The Continental


It's easy to complain sometimes about the multitude of reality TV shows--some of the truly bad variety--that still pepper network and cable listings today. But strange television programming is nothing new. In the early 1950s, with TV still a new form of media and undeveloped territory, networks were still figuring out what types of programming would appeal to the masses and advertisers, occasionally taking chances with quirky shows. One such bizarre series that CBS aired in 1952 was The Continental

If you're wondering if The Continental has anything to do with the Christopher Walken sketches from Saturday Night Live in the 1990s, the answer is everything! It's amazing to think that someone who worked at NBC at the time knew about this obscure show, because it was short-lived and not seen by many viewers. It was also kind of creepy. 


Both the actual series and its parody featured only one character: a suave talking man with a foreign accent wearing a smoking jacket who spoke directly into the camera...at female viewers. Each unintentionally hilarious episode gave the viewer the perspective of being in the Continental's bachelor pad, with him pouring champagne and telling the viewer how beautiful they were. Lounge music punctuated by an organ played in the background. Yeah. Swoon, right?

The man who dreamed up and starred as the Continental was Renzo Cesana, an Italian-born actor, screenwriter, and songwriter who dreamed of making it big on the Hollywood screen. When his American movie career didn't work out, Cesana broke into radio, which is where The Continental got its start. It began airing in 1951 on a Los Angeles station after a program with a similar concept, The Lonesome Gal, which featured a female disk jockey "conversing" with male listeners in a soothing manner. What strange and desperate times for lonely people back in those days!


Not surprisingly, the radio version of The Continental was cancelled, but Cesana convinced a local TV station to air his filmed version, and eventually it piqued the interest of CBS. The Continental aired on CBS on Tuesday and Thursday nights from 11 PM to 11:15 PM. (Even fifteen minutes of a man whispering sweet nothings into the camera seems painfully way too long.) Occasionally, Cesana would recite the lyrics from a romantic song on the show, later referring to himself as "the only living Italian who can't sing." It ran from January to April in 1952, was cancelled, and then 13 new episodes became, remarkably enough, syndicated in 1954. 

The most obvious problem with The Continental (well, aside from its odd premise) was its air time: 11 PM. If CBS was trying to reach desperate housewives seeking a bit of self-indulgent fantasy, then it should have aired in the afternoon...preferably before the hubby came home from work and kids hopped off the school bus. And let's face it: the show was the television equivalent of a blow-up doll...for women. A quick fix for truly desperate people searching for self-esteem, but ultimately phony and unsatisfying. Also, how long was the Continental planning on feeding lines of BS to his female audience? After a while, one would expect him to put a ring on it! 

As strange as The Continental was, in a way it helped launch television's talk show format...which thankfully, relied on the presence of other live people on camera participating in conversations. 

No episodes or clips of The Continental series exist online, which may be a good thing, but the SNL spoof was not the first time it was referenced in pop culture. Red Skelton performed a parody of it called The Transcontinental and Jerry Lewis performed the character as Marlon Brando. Mad magazine also poked fun at the show. 

If you want to get an idea, however, of how Cesana channeled the character, you can listen to the "song" below, "You Go To My Head", where he recites the lyrics (remember, he couldn't sing.) It appears on a CD from the Ultra-Lounge series (not one of their best sellers, I'm guessing.) 



And of course, we'll always have Christopher Walken's version. Pour yourself a glass of cham-pag-ya, and enjoy. 



Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men's Brilliant, Ambiguous Finale: It's the Real Thing. Or Is It?


***SPOILER ALERT. Don't read if you haven't watched last night's episode yet and don't want to know how it ended!***

I'm still feeling verklempt this morning. Mad Men is now television history. It's been a long time since the ending of a series made me weepy, but I admit that's exactly how I felt last night, mostly because the 77 minute-long episode, "Person to Person", ended on a satisfying note. 

For the most part, last night's series finale brought "apple trees and honey bees" to every major character. 

Pete and his family were seen existing a limo and entering a private jet on route to their new lives in Kansas--or perhaps they were already settled in and taking their first luxury vacation. God love him, Roger married his "mother"--or rather, Megan's mother, Marie Calvet. Even a disagreement in bed with Marie screaming at Roger in French ("All I got was 'suitcase.' Yell at me slower or in English!") couldn't squelch the romance. They celebrated over a meal of the rich food we always assumed would kill the show's resident bon vivant. Shine on, you crazy diamond, you!



Speaking of romance, fans who have been routing for a "Steggy" coupling finally got their wish last night when Stan and Peggy had a beautiful, revealing office phone conversation which culminated with Stan rushing into Peggy's office and into her arms. Stan had told Peggy that he was in love with her, and Peggy realized that she in turn was in love with a friend--a guy she's had some disagreements with in the past, but only because he always had her best interests at heart. Finally, Peggy got the good guy she deserved after suffering through a string of disappointing relationships with mostly losers. Score for the working woman who can have it all. 

Things didn't work out so well for Joan in the guy department. Her businessman boyfriend Richard turned out to be "a cad" after all, doing a 180 after Joan revealed her plans to start her own business. This after he had previously told her he'd do anything to be with a woman like her and that her life was "undeveloped property." Eh, who needs the coke sniffer anyway? (Coke as in cocaine, not Coca-Cola, which I'll get to in a minute.) 

Joan still made out well. Her new advertising/media production company was off to a strong start in last night's episode (she even met with Peggy and offered her partnership, and I'm a little disappointed Peggy turned it down, even if Stan wasn't.) Her little boy Kevin is also set for life, after Roger paid a visit to announce that he was leaving half of his estate to his son. 

And that leaves us with Don, who found himself on a spiritual retreat in what I assume was the gorgeous Big Sur region of California (an area Bobby Darin hightailed it to in search of inner peace when he was going through his own identity crisis.) He is accompanied by Stephanie, the niece of the real Don Draper, the man whose identity he stole. She's had her baby, but doesn't make the child a part of her life, something she is chastised for by another guest during one of the sessions at the retreat. 

Emotions run high for Don during this episode. He practically has a nervous breakdown, calling Peggy at one point and revealing all of the bad things he's done during his life that he's ashamed of. Peggy is very concerned by his state of mind after the call and indeed, for a fleeting moment I thought that the Don Draper death rumors were going to prove true. Thankfully they didn't. Stan tells her that she needs to "let him go", which is the harsh reality all of us viewers are facing this morning after as well. 

After the phone call Don has a panic attack and one of the retreat's teachers finds him slumped on the ground and encourages him to join her next session. There, he listens to a story by one of the other attendees--an average looking man who says that he is a very uninteresting person and that he feels that other people look right through him, including his wife and kids. In a very kumbaya moment, Don is moved to cross the room and embrace the stranger, and begins sobbing along with him. Either Don relates to the man's story for feeling invisible himself, or he suddenly feels grateful that he was, at least in his career at one time, never overlooked by other people. 



The next morning, Don is sitting cross legged with the other members on a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific ocean. As the instructor reminds everyone that it's the beginning of a new day and leads everyone into an "ommmm" chant, a smirk slowly emerges across Don's--or Dick's face. Has he finally achieved inner peace, or has he found...

His next big, glorious advertising idea? Because right after that image of Don's zen-like bliss, we're treated to the highly iconic 1971 Coca-Cola commercial that featured a plethora of young people representing various races and cultures singing, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)."

We'll never know for sure, but there were clues throughout the show that seemed to indicate that fate. Coke was mentioned several times in previous seasons, and in last week's episode, "The Milk and Honey Route", Don is seen staring at a motel's Coke dispenser in need of repair (a metaphor, perhaps, for a broken brand that needs a refresh.)



Even more mysterious is that the real ad exec who conceived the commercial was Bill Backer (a name that sounds an awful lot like Don Draper, right down to the same number of syllables...dun dun dun!) He worked for McCann Erickson at the time and was inspired by the idea while he found himself stuck in an Irish airport and witnessed previously irritated travelers bonding over Coke during the layover. 

And did you notice how the girl at the front office of the retreat was sporting the same braided hairstyle with red ribbons as one of the girls in the commercial? 

In Don's case, the bonding and coming together of various people during the retreat would have inspired the commercial. It is feasible that he could have made a return to New York and McCann and pitched this in an effort to save his job.

Or maybe not. Don--or Dick--seemed to have finally found his authentic self as the series drew to a close. Everything about his former life--with perhaps the exception of his kids and friendships with coworkers--had eventually left him unfulfilled. He had declared to his daughter (or was it Peggy?) he was now retired. As I and other fans had predicted, Don Draper pretty much died and Dick Whitman was being embraced. It seems that final (or second to final) message Bert Cooper delivered--that "the best things in life are free" was now fully realized by Dick Whitman. 

Whatever we are supposed to believe, it's brilliant. Congratulations to Matthew Weiner and everyone who wrote, produced, directed, acted and otherwise contributed to such a fine, thought-provoking series--the likes of which we will not experience again for a long time. Adieu, friends. I think to celebrate, I'm going to go have a Coke. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Men: Never Can Say Goodbye


What is about some TV shows that they make you feel like you personally know the characters? 

In the case of Mad Men, it defies logic that I should be feeling especially melancholy about having to say goodbye to Don, Roger, Joan, Peggy, Pete, Betty et al because let's face it: most of them are assholes. 

And yet that's exactly why most fans such as myself feel an almost personal connection to these fictional personas. They are flawed, like us. Unlike other series based in the '60s that portrayed the decade through mostly rose-colored John Lennon granny glasses, Mad Men showed us a world a bit more like the one our parents experienced, with its sexism, racism, discrimination, alcoholism, and infidelities. For some of us, the characters on the show were our parents. 

That's why I can't help wonder what might have become of the men and women of the now-defunct Stanley Cooper Draper Price, as well as their family members, had the storyline gone on. As much as I once longed for Mad Men to take us through the disco years, it seems appropriate that the series is ending with its story lines in the early days of the '70s. It's literally the end of an era--both for the show and on the show. So as I get ready to shed some tears into my martini glass in just a few hours, here's my ode to the most memorable characters (to me) including some who left the show in previous seasons along with some theorizing on what the road ahead has in store for them. 

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