Category Archives

14 Articles

The NBA Didn’t Require Ernie D. Dave Gavitt and The Big East? Oh yes.

It’s never too late to mark and quantify the impact of Ernie DiGregorio. Not in New England. Not when the subject is college basketball. Yet here’s the immediate news peg, the reason to contemplate Ernie D and his attendant rabbit hole early in 2024: It was 50 years ago this week that DiGregorio set the NBA rookie record for assists in a game: 25, for the old Buffalo Braves, during a 120-119 win over the hapless Trailblazers, in Portland, on New Year’s Day 1974.

This particular moment in NBA history, in and of itself, packs enough meaningful hoops serendipity to justify an entire 30 for 30 documentary:
• Ernie D led the Association in assists that 1973-74 season, his first. He led the league in free throw percentage, too.
• The Trailblazers were indeed terrible enough to earn the no. 1 pick in the June 1974 draft. They took a guy named Bill Walton.
• The Braves coach that record-setting January night? Dr. Jack Ramsey, who left for Portland the summer of 1976, whereupon he and Walton immediately led the Blazers to their only NBA championship.
• After acquiring Nate Archibald in September 1977, Buffalo let DiGregorio go — to the Lakers, who waived him halfway through the season. Boston signed him but didn’t offer a new deal. Just like that, Ernie D’s NBA run was over.
• That same summer, Buffalo owner John Y. Brown Jr. swapped franchises with Celtics owner Irv Levin, who promptly moved the Braves to San Diego.
• A year later, the newly christened Clippers signed Walton, meaning Ernie D missed playing with The Big Redhead by only a couple Degrees of NBA Separation.

Consensus NCAA Player of the Year in 1973, at Providence College. NBA Rookie of the Year in 1974. Out of the league by the summer of 1978.

Today, that sounds like an epic tale of crash and burn. Yet the mid-1970s did represent the most turbulent period in NBA history. The league had battled the ABA for talent and eyeballs the previous 10 years, before absorbing its competitor prior to the 1976-77 season. Free agency was instituted at roughly the same time. Many on-court careers were cut short or otherwise doomed by the ensuing roster consolidations, by franchise-swapping owners, by drugs, by a decidedly incoherent league promotional strategy. In the pre-cable age, television networks weren’t at all convinced the NBA would ever prove marketable as a major sporting enterprise. One reason why: The newly merged league was far more Black (the pre-merger NBA was so lily white, there was meaningful playing time for not one but two Van Arsdales!). Would middle America ever watch something so “urban”? Ultimately, yes; it would. But as late as June 1980, two full years after Magic and Larry showed up, CBS was still showing NBA Finals games at 11:30 p.m. EST, on tape delay.

It’s no coincidence that college basketball first planted its own flag during the Seventies, this period of marked NBA chaos/weakness. In this sliver of broadcasting daylight, especially, college hoops created a viable toehold in the culture. And it was the college game where Ernie D would prove a far more influential figure.

Read More
Play-in, Schmay-in: Just give every D1 team in the nation an NCAA bid

Play-in, Schmay-in: Just give every D1 team in the nation an NCAA bid

351 image

Let’s take the gloves off and settle this, right here/right now, for the greater basketball good: Another bout of March Madness is nearly upon us and the current NCAA men’s basketball tournament format — 68 teams, with 8 playing off/in to create a field of 64 — begins with the worst sort of capricious, competitively arbitrary folly. From the moment the current play-in gambit was instituted, in 2001, the slope got very slippery indeed. At first, just two small-conference champions squared off for the right to get boned, on 36-48 hours’ rest, by a top regional seed. Let’s skip over mere half measures, or further regression, and proceed straight to the ultimate solution: tournament berths for every last Division 1 program, all 351 of them.

Don’t freak out: Here’s how quickly and seamlessly it would work:

1) The regular season ends when February does. All 351 teams in Division I Men’s College Basketball retire briefly to their ever-more plushly appointed training facilities, where they wait on the tabulation of a final computer ranking — 1 through 351. In essence, the period now devoted to “Championship Week” is given over to a 287-game, three-round, six-day tournament that produces the familiar, final bracket of 64.

2) The opening round — comprising 95 games and held the first Tuesday & Wednesday in March — pits the team seeded 351st against the team seeded 161st. In between,  #162 takes on #350, and so on. You like Cinderella? I’ll give you Cinderella: Imagine the crazy shit that will inevitably stem from a 190-team Round I — contested over two nights, at on-campus venues all across these United States. Elegant in its mayhem, Round I rewards the top 160 with a bye (thus lending meaning to the our otherwise meaningless regular season) and quickly reduces the field to 256, a perfect multiplier of 64.

3) Round II takes place Thursday and Friday, whereupon those 256 remaining teams — the bye teams and the Tuesday/Wednesday winners — contest 128 games and symmetrically reduce the field to 128. Traditionally, the Thursday/Friday segment of NCAA Tournament week delivers 32 games and a dependably crazed bacchanal of buzzer-beaters, nail-biters, upsets and blowouts, all in the space of 36 hours. A universal-bid Thursday/Friday takes that spectacle and quadruples it.

4) The 64 games comprising Round lll, on Saturday and Sunday, would approximate a mere doubling of the traditional Thursday/Friday pandemonium, while neatly and cleanly winnowing the field to the recognizable 64. Sunday night the remaining teams — retaining their original seeds — are assigned opponents and regions in the traditional manner we’ve come to expect.

Rounds I, II and III would essentially form a massive, universal play-in bracket unto itself — producing more money in less time, via a more competitively honest framework than the current play-in scheme combined with the odious, so-called Championship Week. All 287 games are necessarily played on campus, at the higher-seeded school. This mechanism is critical because, in rewarding higher seeds, it assigns another, much needed element of meaning to the college basketball regular season. It also guarantees kick-ass atmosphere and avoids potential scheduling conflicts at neutral sites, while reducing site-rental and travel costs. There is no reseeding between rounds. The bracket holds its shape and schedule all week, meaning teams are locked into either a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday schedule, or a Wednesday/Friday/Sunday schedule.

What’s more, there is no good reason why a 351-team women’s tournament could not, or should not, be administered in exactly the same way, during the exact same time frame.

One of the great attractions of March Madness, perhaps the greatest of all, is the meting out of  champions based purely on game performance. Polls don’t matter. Bowl traditions don’t muck up the works. Ultimately, seeds don’t either. By winning six games in a row, a deserving champion is invariably crowned. The universal-bid system underlines, preserves and enhances this dynamic. As an added bonus, we dispense completely with any and all “bubble” and “snub” talk. Crucially, the regular season is dramatically transformed, for the better, in myriad ways I detail below. The bloated frippery of conference tournaments is eliminated. Bracketology? That irksome construct — and the tiresome, flatulent conjecture that wafts about it — are similarly put out to pasture.

•••

The original play-in scheme, instituted at the turn of the millennium, was shameful enough. The 8-team “First Four” we’ve endured since 2011 has proved that much more arbitrary and capricious. I wish I could tell you these “expansions” of the tournament were first undertaken in the name of inclusiveness and equity. But let’s not kid ourselves: In fact, let’s add a third descriptor, “mendacious,” because this peculiar arrangement was first advanced and expanded entirely in service of annually preserving tourney revenue and exposure for no more than a dozen would-be, at-large, major-conference also-rans — at the expense small-conference champions. Today, the Atlantic Sun Conference title-winner is obliged to play-in against its Summit Conference counterpart because, if they did not, there would be no room in the field of 64 for some seventh- or eighth-place team from the Big Ten — a conference that will soon have 16 basketball members.

This is shameful. If you think about it, the entire bubble/Bracketology thing — as a media construct — is built around whether and which second-tier, major-conference teams make the tournament, at whose mid-major expense. It defies logic that such expansive hoo-hah fixates on a group of teams ranked 55-75 in the country, teams that will not win the title, almost certainly won’t make the Elite 8, and may not even win a tournament game. Accordingly and appallingly, play-in games have eventuated so these demonstrable haves might make more money — at the direct expense of have-nots. 

But here’s the good news: From the moment this play-in component was introduced, we began the inexorable move  toward the final, most competitive, most equitable, most evolutionarily mature, most lucrative solution: a pair of all-in, 351-team NCAA basketball tournaments. This format is nothing less than our national hoop destiny. It will generate way more money and fan interest. There’s no practical reason why all-in men’s and women’s tournaments cannot run concurrently.

Read More

When (Cartoon) Art Imitates Live (Action)

I don’t want to blow anybody’s mind, but the classic cartoon Go-Go Gophers is further evidence of a little acknowledged but fascinating trend in 1960s cartooning, whereby animators actively ripped off popular live-action television shows of the time, essentially mining/co-opting them for themes, plots and personalities.

These cartoons were the stuff of my childhood — on Saturday mornings, after school — and I expect much of my cohort will read this and nod knowingly. “Ah yes,” they will ruminate, mindfully stroking their gray beards, “The Flintstones.”

Yes, but it’s bigger than that.

The Flintstones are indeed the best-known example of this dynamic and the first cartoon ever to air on network television in prime time. Launched in 1960, the show was a blatant rip-off of The Honeymooners, then a vivid-but-still-a-mere memory; its 39 episodes had aired from 1955-56 (though star Jackie Gleason would reprise the role and the show intermittently for years). Fred and Wilma Flintstone were clear homages to the lead, live-action roles played by Gleason and Dorothy Meadows. Barney Rubble was even more distinctively based on Art Carney’s character, Ed Norton. I think everyone realized what was going on here, even at the time. It was part of the imprimatur that led to featuring of The Flintstones in prime time, something unprecedented for an animated series at that time and frankly, still today, apart from The Simpsons.

But cartoonists would eventually prove some of the most facile and prolific rip-off artists in 20th century media history. They saw The Flintstones formula working and reprised the process without shame — to a degree we kids didn’t realize at the time and, I’d wager, few appreciate still today.

Exhibit A? The inimitable Go-Go Gophers, an under-appreciated cartoon and one based completely on another live action (and culturally tone-deaf) TV show from that era, F Troop. Indeed, Go-Go Gophers was the cartoon that decades ago tipped me off to and set me thinking on this weighty matter.

As a kid, I thought F Troop was sorta funny. Fittingly, each episode of Go-Go Gophers also begins with one of cartooning’s all-time great theme songs, followed by an uncanny homage to F-Troop’s fertile-if-untoward frontier theme. One wonders today how anyone could see the opportunity for such broad humor in the slow-moving genocide of an indigenous people… (We could include here a sitcom based in a German POW camp, with the Holocaust presumably taking place all around it. When Hogan’s Heroes was airing, perhaps folks were similarly dumbfounded by our bygone acceptability of black minstrel humor, like Amos & Andy, just 30 years prior. Thirty years from now, we may similarly come to grips with other such untoward manifestations of white supremacy and the patriarchy.)

Be all that as it may, the creators of Go-Go Gophers (ad guys from Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, apparently seeking to provide content during which their General Mills client’s cereals could be advertised) and their producers (Total Television then CBS, starting in 1967, as part of the brilliant Underdog Show) devised a cast of characters that does the live-action show one better. The two aboriginal characters (members of the Hakawi Tribe) are straight cribs from the TV show, but you’ll recall the cartoon Colonel inhabits a Teddy Roosevelt milieu, while the Sergeant (played by Forest Tucker on TV) is animatedly morphed into a laconic John Wayne-ish figure.

Larry Storch’s memorable TV character, “Agarn”, didn’t make the cut. Neither did the Colonel’s live-action love interest, a sort of Annie Oakley figure clearly inspired by Ellie May from the Beverly Hillbillies. (In the 1960s, when in doubt, no matter how incongruous to the sitcom premise, producers were sure to write into the show some hot young blond. See The Munsters and, for that matter, The Jetsons). Television producers did a lot of shameless things, then and now. They borrowed from any genre or competing show that worked. And so they could hardly complain when cartoon producers did the same.

Read More

Larry Sanders: I Never Knew Ye

Larry Sanders: I Never Knew Ye

[Ed. This piece was originally written/posted in 2011. It’s reprinted here to mark Gary Shandling’s recent passing.]

I’ve never subscribed to HBO. There may have been a month here and there when it was provided to us here in New Gloucester, by mistake, or as part of some promotion, but when the cable monolith inevitably attempted to charge us, we balked. The movie-watching we missed as a result of this cultural diminishment we didn’t see as relevant.

However, many is the time I wish I had seen all those episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show.

Last year, from some Bangkok street vendor, I procured up first four seasons of Curb, for a ridiculously small sum. It was good. I had seen the odd show here and there. But ultimately I had trouble watching them en masse. After 5-6 episodes, not even a full season, I found myself worn out but the sameness of each plot: No, Larry. No, don’t do that. Oh geez…

By contrast, IFC started rebroadcasting The Larry Sanders Show in January and with a deft flick of my DVR settings, I have proceeded to record each and every episode, in order, from the very beginning of the show’s run in 1992. It’s hard to keep up. My family rolls its eyes when they glimpse the list of recorded shows and spy this sea of Larry.

I’ll temper my ultimate, unfettered enthusiasm by saying the first two seasons of Larry Sanders were only slightly better than average — and something of a letdown when contrasted with the glowing tributes this series routinely garners from television cognoscenti. These episodes didn’t suffer from a sameness, a la Curb, but I did find myself wondering why it is I am supposed to care about any of the main characters who are unfailingly funny, but rather shitty.

Well, I can report that by Season 4, the show officially hit its stride. It’s not just easy for me to sit down and watch 2-3 episodes in a sitting; I make time for it. Indeed, I recently watched the fictitious talk show’s 8th anniversary special, and it struck me that a number of things have come together, revealing the show’s genius and explaining all the accolades I’d read and listened to over the years.

Read More

Awfully Fond & Proud: Sesame Street’s Founding Generation

I have the distinct memory, among my very earliest, of my mother describing a new television show about to debut on Public Television. “It’s for kids exactly your age,” she told me, and so it was. Sesame Street first aired in late 1969, when I was 5. In a home where screen time was highly restricted (our boxy Sony Trinitron representing the only screen at that primitive time), Grover, Ernie, Bert, Maria, Mr. Hooper, Kermit, Gordon, Guy Smiley & Co. proved a staple of my early cultural sentience. It occurred to me recently that without the enthusiastic approval of kids my age — this founding Sesame Street cohort — the show might not have survived or become such a thing.

And what a thing it has become: 50 years and counting.

While channel surfing through the upper, premium reaches of my cable guide, I never seem to happen upon Sesame Street. Yes, today the show airs on HBO. You may have read about this arrangement whereby first-run episodes can be found there on Saturday mornings; eventually, they cycle back onto PBS in a post-modern form of syndication. I never see it there either, to be honest. My viewing habits are primarily nocturnal. It made this transition to HBO 2 years ago and I gather the show continues to wear extremely well.

Buoyed by the idea that this hugely influential, 50-year old show retains “the brassy splendor of The Bugs Bunny Show and the institutional dignity of a secular Sabbath school,” I’ve been conducting an experiment these last few weeks: I’ve been mentioning Sesame Street to folks generally my age and paying attention to their mood in reaction. If it generally brightens, I know they are fellow members of my cohort. However, if I make a Cookie Monster or Roosevelt Franklin reference to someone just 4 years older, the reactions differ quite markedly. Often they don’t get it, or they will roll their eyes and make it clear they didn’t really watch Sesame Street. This makes sense: When the show debuted, these elder folks (Baby Boomers, primarily) had already aged out.

Read More

Palestra Tales, 40 Years in the Making

PHILADELPHIA — When we learned my daughter Clara would matriculate at the University of Pennsylvania, naturally her dad was thrilled: Here was my chance to make a proper pilgrimage to The Palestra, the most storied college basketball venue of the 20th Century.

As I’ve written here before, while my hoops allegiance today favors the overtly professional NBA, there was a two-decade period starting in the mid-1970s (just as John Wooden’s run at UCLA came to end) when I was a far more fervent college basketball junkie. The Palestra was central to that emerging fandom, which just happened to coincide with the sport’s surge into the national sporting consciousness.

College basketball and the NCAA Tournament are so popular today, so ubiquitous on television, it’s easy to forget their dual ascension is relatively recent. For all intents and purposes, UCLA and its 10 NCAA titles from 1962-75 effectively stunted the sport’s broader popularity (when certain teams/programs utterly dominate an underexposed sport, big cultural awareness only comes when some ridiculous win streak is snapped; think UConn, whose dominance has stunted women’ college basketball in the same way). Men’s college basketball should have taken off in the 1960s, but it didn’t because the only time anyone paid attention was when UCLA got beaten: first by Houston (1968’s famous Astrodome game), then by Notre Dame in 1973. These losses proved to be mere blips; the Bruins eventually won national titles both years. But someone finally did beat them when it counted (NC State, in the 1974 national semifinal). Then Wooden retired with one last title, in 1975. Suddenly the field was open and seeded. Take it from someone who was there: The idea that some team other than UCLA could win it all each year was novel and beguiling (!) — only then did the sport truly take off.

The Palestra (bottom right) sits directly beside historic Franklin Field, home of the Penn Relays and where Santa got booed in 1968. It also hosted the Philadelphia Eagles’ last NFL championship (1960). We visited Feb. 3, 2018, one day before the Eagles did it again.

Growing up in New England at this time, our interest had already been piqued by a Providence College team led by Ernie D, Kevin Stacom and Marvin Barnes. The Friars went all the way to the Final Four in 1973 — that year WJAR Channel 10 out of Providence started televising a bunch of PC games. The following year, rival WPRI Channel 12 took the talented University of Rhode Island teams (led by Sly Williams) under its broadcasting wing. Even obscure UHF stations like Channel 27 out of Worcester aired weekly games (each of them called by Bob Fouracre and his magnificent toupée) featuring Holy Cross mainly but also Boston College — even tiny Assumption College, led by the immortal Billy Worm (look him up; he was a stud).

Soon the national networks and their affiliates in Boston got wise and started televising big regional games every Saturday afternoon. Here is where I got to know The Palestra. Hoop-rich Philadelphia was home to The Big 5, a city series featuring local rivals Villanova, Penn, St. Joseph’s, Temple and LaSalle. Every Big 5 game was played at The Palestra and these were the games I watched with manic intensity each weekend. These were the memories dislodged to glorious effect earlier this month, when Clara, Sharon and Philly-born, erstwhile golf freak Mike Sweeney watched the Quakers beat Yale, 58-50.

When the 10,000-seat Palestra opened in 1927, it was among the largest indoor sporting venues on Earth (the name is derived from the ancient Greek term palæstra, a rectangular space attached to a training facility, or gymnasium, where athletes would compete in public, before an audience). Today it’s a bandbox but still all I could have hoped for: seating stacked steeply with front rows right on the baselines/endlines; vaulted ceilings filled with banners; exposed brick everywhere — pretty much exactly as I remember it from the mid to late ‘70s.

But there was more to our Feb. 3 visit. Quite a bit more.

Read More

Professor Nat Greene: Come on Down!

The inimitable Bob Barker, flanked by “Price is Right” eye candy Janice Pennington (left) and Anitra Ford.

As yours probably does, my alma mater hits me all too frequently with some manner of e-newsletter cum fund-raising communiqué. One can hardly escape the memories stirred/jarred by all this WesContact, which is surely the way they want it. In any case, a recent MailChimp morsel revealed, among other things, that three Wesleyan faculty had received The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. While this particular tidbit proved interesting enough to peruse, I’m only now addressing the nostalgia it prompted — immersed as I am, third party, in the college experience of both my kids.

The first thing to say is that my cohort and I attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., alongside an actual Binswanger — Benjamin Pennypacker Binswanger to be exact. Never knew him but my housemates and I made note of his titanically pretentious name the first week of school freshman year and never forgot it. Never tired of mocking it, either. Always wondered if he was related to Princeton’s Jay Binswanger, winner of the first Heisman Trophy…

Wesleyan Professor Nat Greene

More to the point, Nat Greene was one of these recent Binswanger honorees. I took a couple classes with him but the first was a survey of European history 1815-1945, and I remember it best because it was the only class I ever took with my housemate Dennis Carboni, an art history major whose course load never again overlapped with mine (classical history/modern American lit).

Greene didn’t necessarily tilt the material toward “social” history, an approach then sweeping uber-liberal bastions like Wesleyan. His hewed more to the traditional “Great Men, Great Events” approach. I remember the syllabus included a book of his own scholarship, “From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919–1940”, which a) struck me at the time as being pretty awesome, that this guy was teaching from his own work; and b) still resides in a bookcase somewhere here in my house, for reasons completely bewildering to my wife. An entertaining lecturer and no-nonsense grader of essays (all testing was conducted via manic, long-hand scribbling in those little blue booklets), Greene was a fine professor, the sort I hope Silas and Clara will experience at some point in their academic careers.

But here’s what I remember most from my class with Nat Greene: It ran from 10 to 10:50 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the old PAC building — a few steps from the manhole where we often plunged down into Wesleyan’s famous tunnel system, the subject of another remembrance perhaps. If Dennis and I didn’t dawdle after class, we could race home to my off-campus apartment and catch The Price Is Right at 11 a.m.

Yes, The Price Is Right. It became a sort of ironic obsession for me but something more than that for Dennis, as many things did. It gave me great pleasure to watch him obsessively game this once-seminal game show.

I’m not sure that college kids go in for this sort of thing today, awash as they are in video content and on-demand entertainment delivery choices. However, during the early 1980s, TV was a sort of novel diversion for college kids. We had grown up with it, of course, but had virtually no access to it at school. And so, great delight was taken in the ironic devotion to retrograde programming like soap operas in dorm lounges and late-night reruns of shows like the Rockford Files and Star Trek — things we would never bother watching when home with our families. My sophomore year, my housemate and I came by a tiny black-and-white TV that I’m pretty sure we carried with us the next three years, to three different houses, deploying along the way a staggering array of make-shift aerials including one that involved a pumpkin wrapped in aluminum foil.

Read More

International Olympic Committee Learning the Hard Truths of PGA Tour Attendance

International Olympic Committee Learning the Hard Truths of PGA Tour Attendance

The life of an elite professional golfer is one of great privilege, born of great skill. And now the International Olympic Committee is learning what organizers of PGA Tour events have known for several years: Getting the elite to schedule your event is like trying to lure multi-millionaires to time-share presentations.

The news that Adam Scott won’t be competing in Rio broke just as the Tour’s traveling road show stops this week in Charlotte for the Wells Fargo Championship, a top-tier event not just on account of its huge purse and quality golf course (Quail Hollow GC), but for the way it has traditionally pampered competitors. This aspect of tour life is seldom discussed outside the most wonky, Tour-obsessed websites and cable channels. However, the last decade has witnessed a startling arms race of perks and incentives, all bestowed with an eye toward delivering “name” players to individual PGA Tour events.

It’s a hard trick to turn, making elite players show up. As the IOC is now learning, top-shelf professionals have no real incentive to show up anywhere outside the Majors and World Golf Championship events, as they set their own schedules and money no longer interests them. Olympic glory? Representing your country? Cementing golf as an Olympic sport after a 112-year hiatus? A familiar 72-hole stroke-play format (as opposed to the team formats first advanced by Olympic organizers)? Today, all these prospects, conceived to excite allure, are likely to be met with indifferent yawns.

And why wouldn’t they yawn? Top players are so well compensated, the incentive to play 25-30 events per year — thus spreading around to many events the Tour’s considerable star power — has largely been removed. The fallback position for event organizers: lavishing of perks and niceties on players and their families.

At The Players Championship, conducted over Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass course each May, a purpose-built 77,000-square-foot clubhouse sports a cavernous locker room, a separate champions locker room, and a full-on spa that, during the tournament, dispenses free services (not just massage but manicures, pedicures and hot shaves) to players and their family members. The gourmet vittles served here are also considered the best on Tour.

There was a time when tour events burnished reputations by serving really good milk shakes and providing courtesy cars. Courtesy cars are today de rigeuer for all players, at every tour stop, but Charlotte takes it up a notch. Each golfer there is provided a silver Mercedes-Benz S-300 or S-500 for the week. They are also entitled to police escorts if they happen to encounter something unseemly, like traffic. Free valet parking at Quail Hollow? Of course — even the caddies get that!

Read More

How MadMen Should Finale, Ultimately

How MadMen Should Finale, Ultimately

vertigo_5_o_clock

It doesn’t honestly matter where Matthew Weiner & Co. picked up the seventh and final season of MadMen. Some might have insisted on 1969, to keep the 1960s ethos in tact — though the series actually started in the late ‘50s. Others 1974, thereby neatly bookending the Dick Nixon Era. But it doesn’t truly matter, because halfway through Thursday’s 2-hour finale , the show should have leapt foward from a chronological ’70something tableau to a recognizably modern day. Maybe the suit jackets might have seemed  a bit oversized. In keeping with the way other MM seasons have begun, it’s not exactly clear what year it is.

What is clear, in this alternate finale, is this: Sterling Cooper & Partners has survived and thrived, perhaps added a name or two, and the agency has taken up residence in chic modern offices high in a glittering Manhattan tower of glass and steel. For 50 minutes of this final hour, in the course of a normal business day, we learn what’s happened to most all the characters who matter, i.e. who remains at the firm, how the hierarchical machinations have shaken out, who’s moved over to or formed competitors, who no longer remains on this mortal coil, who has divorced and remarried whom, who’s aged well and who hasn’t… The pacing is pointedly brisk, recalling the Season 3 episode “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” when our gang reboots the firm. This pacing is important because frankly there’s a lot of ground to cover (for the viewer, absent all these years) and we want to make clear the agency’s ongoing vitality.

Clues re. the time period dribble out via scene details and workaday conversations at SC&P. For example, the Justice Dept. has just announced it would no longer seek to break-up Microsoft — a fact germane to SC&P because the firm is courting Netscape, which is jittery because a company called Google has just been awarded US Patent 6,259,999 for the PageRank algorithm used in its search engine. The codgers at Sterling Cooper aren’t at all sure, charmingly, what a search engine is.

Bobby Draper has grown up to be a political operative. We see him on TV as chief of staff to Congressman Gary Condit, steadfastly defending a man who would appear to be dying a slow political death while denying an affair with 24-year-old Chandra Levy, now missing for 133 days.

All this catch-up takes place on a single day, a Monday.

The next morning, standing in his Upper East Side apartment, an appropriately aged Don Draper reads the paper in his stylish breakfast nook while a radio plays in the background: Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, has been assassinated in Takhar Province. Draper’s young wife frankly doesn’t know who that is. She’s the spitting image of Betty Draper. Or, maybe it’s another brunette…

What we all accept without debate: It’s a late-summer day of rare clarity, made real under a bright, blue, cloudless sky. Don gets out of a cab and bumps into a colleague (Peggy? Roger? Dawn?) outside their NYC office tower. They’ve all got a conference call at 9 a.m. They’re running late. As they hustle inside, the camera pans back from the monolithic revolving doors and reveals, for the first time, that the Sterling Cooper offices are now housed inside the World Trade Center.

Cut immediately to the Sterling Cooper offices burning out of control. Don is knocked out but slowly coing to beside his own desk, lying amid the debris (which includes a bottle of bourbon, a tumbler and a slide carousel). The only real sounds are low-licking flames and the eerie, reedy hum of steady winds, as several ceiling-to-floor windowpanes have been shattered/knocked out by the impact and subsequent blasts of jet fuel. The whole scene is staged and blocked to recall MadMen’s seminal Korean War flashbacks.

Don ultimately does come to. Things are suddenly moving really fast again. MM characters dart in and out, to see if Don’s alive, to express ignorance or disagreement as to what has actually happened, to tell him so-and-so is dead, to inform him they can no longer stay put, to always exude the massive, sincere reverence they have for this man in particular, whom they’re looking to, beside whom they might well die. A group has decided to ignore the “stay put” advice of emergency personnel on the ground — they’re leaving, and they’re taking the stairs. Draper says he’ll be right there.

Alone now, he grabs the bourbon, pours himself a drink and downs it. As he takes one last look around the wreckage that was his office/firm/life, the episode-ending music begins (“Be My Baby,” by Ronnie Spector and the Ronnettes). Don walks past the camera toward what we assume is the door. Instead, he walks to the open window and calmly steps out.

No need to show the trag-iconic footage of that businessman falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11. It is immediately recalled — and provides new meaning to the animated version of that footage we’ve seen at the start of this and every other MadMen episode, including the final one.

McShane Deserves a Bust in Rogue’s Gallery

McShane Deserves a Bust in Rogue’s Gallery

For reasons I’ve never quite understood, I’ve maintained an odd recollection of and attachment to the 1969 film, If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium. It was on TV when I was a kid but no more frequently than any other junkie films that populated the late-night film archives of local Boston affiliates. Why would I so fixate this film? For a while I assumed it was the presence of a youngish, sneaky hot Suzanne Pleshette, and maybe that’s it. But maybe, just maybe, it was the fact that her love interest was played by Ian McShane.

I keep running into this guy. I just plowed through three seasons of Deadwood, in which he hit it out of the park as iconic Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen. Now I’m onto a British mini-series production of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Fall, where McShane presides as the conniving Bishop Waleran. This son of Blackburn, Lancashire has been around forever but it wasn’t till the other day that I realized what a long screen relationship I’ve had with him.

His big screen credits frankly leave a bit to be desired. I wouldn’t call them four thousand holes in the resume, but several decades of nothing films have been followed, of late, by a series of grey-eminence roles (Coraline, The Golden Compass) and bit parts in animated features (Shrek the Third, Kung Fu Panda). He may be the only British actor who failed to land a sinecure via the Harry Potter franchise. Sexy Beast was a fine film, though his solid portrayal of Teddy Bass was overshadowed (along with everything else in this 2000 feature) by the sublime, astonishingly evil Ben Kingsley character (yeah, he’s got range but who knew Ben had that in him?). McShane’s Blackbeard in the latest installment of Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides, was probably a nice payday but it ain’t gonna win him any Best Supporting Actor nominations.

On TV, however, McShane has turned in a hall-of-fame-caliber roster of work, on both sides of the pond. God praise Wikipedia for logging it all for posterity. This guy is a mini-series maestro — Roots, Disraeli, Pillars — and has starred and/or appeared in a laundry list of fine or otherwise noteworthy series: Space 1999, Magnum P.I., Miami Vice, Dallas, The West WingDeadwood’s well earned praise, and his centrality to the show, now overshadow what had been the jewels in his crown: eight years as the unabashedly mulletted, somewhat slimy antique dealer, Lovejoy, and a recurring role in the equally laudable (and British) series Minder.

I’m not trying to make any monumental cultural point here. Only that no one does rogues of ambiguous motivation like Ian McShane.