How I Fell in Love with Richard Schiff: He Has a Quality

Standard

When I sat down to inhale The West Wing – only ten years after it ended – I didn’t realize that I would fall in love with Richard Schiff. Or at least partly Schiff and partly the character he embodied, the beleaguered, smart Toby Ziegler. The whole cast is stunning – and every episode is packed with smart dialogue, consistent treatment of issues and so many guest stars that I can’t count them. But by the end, Schiff stood out for me. A show conceived as a starring vehicle for Rob Lowe, who saw less and less action until he finally exited the show in the fourth season, it did not occur to me that of the strong ensemble, Lowe would be the least interesting part of the show. I have always loved Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford’s performance launched him into the lead, in which we care deeply about his character and story. Sure, none of it would work without the ensemble, but these were standouts. And Schiff is one of those pieces of the ensemble. He is a part of the group, close to all the players, but still stands apart – negative, a voice of reason but never quite a part, sometimes going renegade and doing things someone would never expect from Toby Ziegler.

I read recently that Schiff felt strongly that Toby would not have done what he did in the final season of The West Wing. He might be right, but considering that he was principled almost to a fault and might break other confidences and principles for greater principles, and he was grieving in his own quiet/angry Toby Ziegler way at the time, the result did not feel completely out of left field.

I only write about this because I devoured all of The West Wing in about a week, and as much as I enjoyed so many characters and related to them, Schiff’s Toby stood out to me as my favorite (even if dealing with the guy would probably have been totally infuriating in reality).

And somehow, maybe because he is just so good at blending into what he is doing as an outsider, and does not mind not being well-liked, I had already forgotten that he was in the initial season of Manhattan, which I really enjoyed. He was not a nice guy and not the flashiest (John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams as the Winter couple provide this flash), but fit so well into his role as interrogator and another kind of fish-out-of-water. He also did a stint in Murder in the First, which I have also enjoyed.

And next up, he has a recurring role in The Affair… one of those shows that had a lot of promise and only turned itself around a little bit in the end. I liked the two sides of the same story, told from two different perspectives. I liked the cast but somehow the idea of an affair does not appeal in the long term as a long-running television show. I don’t know what Schiff will do in the second season, much as I do not know what the second season can cover – the titular affair is over, the main character left his wife (at least that’s how it seems in the end of season one). Where can it possibly go from here?

But who cares? Schiff is in it – he has a quality!

Lunchtable TV Talk: Bradley Whitford, TV’s Everywhere Man

Standard

Thanks to my curiosity and love for connecting the dots, I discovered a recurring column on The AV Club website that features interviews with actors and pops questions to them about random roles they have played. I stumbled first onto the Bradley Whitford column because, while I had seen a steady Whitford presence on TV for years, lately he suddenly appeared everywhere in almost everything I was watching: the canceled-too-early Trophy Wife, the delightful and poignant Transparent, the acerbic and churlish HAPPYish, the hilarious Brooklyn Nine-Nine and satirical Alpha House. I don’t much need to highlight his presence in The West Wing or its short-lived Aaron Sorkin follow-up Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

A number of other actors turn up in these random role articles – some favorites, like Allison Janney – and others who turn up positively everywhere but whose real names elude me but whose faces show up everywhere. Bradley Whitford is not exactly one of those name-on-tip-of-tongue guys, especially because his roles, however small, hold such sway. His cynical realist role in HAPPYish, in particular, has been a perfect foil for Steve Coogan and exactly the counterbalance needed. Even in a guest role, such as playing Jake Peralta’s absent asshole father in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is winning. Same applies for Whitford’s role in Transparent. It’s not big, but he makes the memorable most of it. This is why I love Mr Whitford and hope he keeps popping up everywhere. (News flash: while I was writing this I happened to be watching the film CBGB – and who appears out of nowhere? Bradley Fucking Whitford! Was not expecting that. Or his Trophy Wife trophy wife, Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry…)

Coca-Cola and “assholery”: Mad Men and HAPPYish

Standard

Coca-Cola believes it taught us to sing. Or at least it believes it is so intrinsic to our lives that we won’t even notice its ubiquitous presence in our favorite TV shows. How pervasive Coca-Cola suddenly is in two TV shows that focus on the advertising industry: Mad Men and HAPPYish. If everyone in the world is an asshole, as the TV show HAPPYish posits, then ad men are the biggest assholes in the world, selling asshole ideas to a world of susceptible asshole sheep-herd consumers.

“In this toilet of a world, the asshole is king*.” Everyone loves the asshole.

“Your problem is that you think that assholes are some sort of anomaly, some sort of aberration. Nature is an asshole factory, my friend. If you exist, you’re an asshole*.”

Throughout the latter half of the final season of Mad Men, there have been multiple references to Coca-Cola, as present as Lucky Strike was to its first season. The references are subtle – talking about Coke like it is the holy grail of advertising, what all ad men aspire to. With only one episode left, it remains to be seen whether all these mentions lead somewhere or are just planted for the sake of talking about Coke. Lucky Strike’s dominance in season one, and the ad men’s urgent campaign to wipe out the rising tide of health warnings against smoking, foreshadowed a brave-faced Betty Draper Francis being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Do the constant references to Coke as Mad Men winds down – the pursuit of their business – foreshadow the oncoming proliferation of diabetes, obesity and other health ills that soon overtake America? Is Matthew Weiner painting a cautionary tale in broad strokes? The vices we desire are ultimately what will kill us, but there are awfully compelling, glossy ad campaigns that make these vices appear however ad men want them to look – seductive, sexy, wholesome, beautiful, “toasted” (Don Draper’s pitch to Lucky Strike in season one) or a harbinger of world peace (“I’d like to teach the world to sing/in perfect harmony… I’d like the buy the world a Coke…”). All in the consumerist pursuit of elusive happiness and using manipulative, asshole tactics to convince us that a sugar-filled drink can accomplish anything of the kind.

Quite a different show about advertising, HAPPYish started off pretty weak and is still far from perfect. But in episode four, it started to get better. In it, the ad team at the heart of the show is pitching Coca-Cola. Much less subtle and totally over-the-top, the episode began with showing a bunch of young ad interns a parody of the original Coca-Cola “I’d like to teach the world to sing” ad. The actual Coke pre-pitch turns out to be a slap in the face to the young, Swedish upstarts trying to overtake the agency with their rejection of traditional ad campaign tactics. Oh the Swenglish sounds, spewing such corporate marketing psychobabble and insanity! One of the Swedish duo, Gottfried, exclaims, “We don’t need campaigns any more. It’s one smart idea, and it changes the world, ok? We need ideation! We need social integration. We needs events, we need moments… it wasn’t a war that started the Egyptian revolution, it was fucking Facebook.”

The show’s main character, Steve Coogan’s Thom Payne replies, “And the Egyptian revolutionaries.”

Bradley Whitford, the manager of the agency, grows more irate: “I don’t think Egypt is the best case study for the long-term effectiveness of social media.”

Gottfried: “It’s like you told me when we first met about Al Qaeda. They’re a great brand but what makes them a great brand? They don’t make campaigns – they make events: 9/11, 7/7, Charlie Hebdo…” ?!

Whitford’s Jonathan exclaims in angry exasperation: “THIS IS COCA-fucking-COLA! They couldn’t be less insurgent-like if they fucking tried!*”

The idiotic Swedish upstart interjects his “end of campaigns” BS and tries to tell Coke they can be an insurgent. After the Swedish wunderkind makes an ass of himself pitching the death of advertising, Bradley Whitford’s Jonathan jumps in to pitch Coca-Cola on a level it will understand: domination… in the form of the programmed, hyperdetailed, 600+ page 1933 Nazi organization brand bible: “This is what Coke needs” – the book that, Jonathan claims, makes Mein Kampf look like child’s play. He urges them to embrace global dominance the way the Nazis did – as no brand has ever been as powerful as the Nazi brand, not even Coke. “Domination is the same goal no matter what you’re selling. Coca-Cola is not a brand: it’s an uber-brand; it’s a movement that deserves a fanatical devotion*.”

HAPPYish’s antihero, Payne, ends up declaring, after the Coca-Cola pitch nightmare and a conversation about how society has cast philosophy and insight aside to look for wisdom in advertising and in retail therapy (“It’s not hard to be a genius in a world that looks to shopping bags for insights.”): “If I hadn’t met Lee (Payne’s wife), it wouldn’t be funny at all. We’re the only ones on earth that the other one can stand. Maybe that’s all you can ask for on this planet. One non-asshole. After all, the pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness. You know who said that? LuLu Fucking Lemon. Here on planet asshole, the shopping bag knows all.”

Mad Men and its revelation-via-ad-campaign has echoed these same reflections, questions and explorations in its characters’ pursuit of happiness. It is a subtler, quieter evaluation of happiness and man’s wants in life. But it is further evidence of what HAPPYish hammered home – everyone is an asshole, which has been proven time and again in seven seasons of Mad Men.

*All quotes from season 1, episode 4 of Showtime’s HAPPYish