2013 TV at the Half

2013 has been an interesting year in TV so far. American network TV has been a huge disappointment… but there’s plenty of great stuff out there if you know where to look. And this year’s “best of” list contains a few surprises: two shows from New Zealand, and the first ever non-English language show!

So… let’s get it on! As always, you’ll find the list of my favorite new shows, in rough ascending order of preference (keep in mind that the list is only for new shows, so Breaking Bad and Mad Men aren’t on the list). Then there’s a list of shows that tried but failed, a section about miniseries, a tribute to shows that have left the air, and various odds and ends.

THE BEST NEW SHOWS ON TV

The Americans (FX) – This show has the potential to be great: Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, an all-American couple raising two kids in northern Virginia. However, their real names are Mischa and Nadezhda, and they’re a pair of KGB spies trained to pass as Americans. The “spy stuff” on the show is great, although it doesn’t hold up to close examination: you’ll find yourself asking “Why would they… ” or “How come they don’t…” early and often. In spite of that, it really does keep you on the edge of your seat. But where the show fails is “any time they aren’t doing spy stuff”. Philip and Elizabeth have domestic troubles like any other couple: intimacy and trust issues, trouble with the kids, etc. Others, such as neighbor (and FBI spy hunter) Stan Beeman have similar (boring) problems, too, and it drags the whole show down. Still, the supporting cast is great: Margo Martindale plays “Claudia”, Phil and Elizabeth’s KGB handler, and Richard “John Boy” Thomas plays Stan’s boss at the FBI. One odd thing about the show is the lack of historical detail. The sets and costumes look more like “generic Americana” than the early 1980s specifically. And sometimes the camera seems to focus on one particular object – like an old rotary phone – as if to make up for the lack of a time-specific feel. It’s like the show doesn’t have the budget to do the nice touches Mad Men is known for, and to make up for it they have the camera linger on a Space Invaders arcade game or Kim Carnes cassette as if to scream “SEE! IT REALLY IS 1981!!!”. Most of the suits the FBI agents wear would be perfectly acceptable in 2013 corporate America: not a single polyester jacket, wide lapel or obnoxious tie is seen. In early episodes, rotary pay phones and old cars are really the only hints that it’s 1981 and not 2013. Perhaps it’s a minor quibble, but Mad Men has really raised the bar for details like this.

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Way to Go (BBC Three) – For years I’ve believed in something I call the “French Film Fallacy”: a certain type of film buff will only watch French films because they’re “so much better than American films”. Of course, in a good year only the six best French films make it to the US, so the pretentious hipster never sees the 200 crappy French films made that year. The point is, I don’t know if I’m losing my taste for British comedy, or if the easy downloadability of TV shows has “diluted the talent pool” such that I’m seeing a lot more crap comedies these days. This makes Way to Go especially interesting. Although made in the UK with British actors, it’s written by Bob Kushell, an American who has written for The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle and 3rd Rock from the Sun, among others. Blake Harrison stars as Scott, a nice guy who has taken a dead-end job as a receptionist at a veterinarian’s office because he can no longer afford medical school. When his gambling addicted half-brother Joey (Ben Heathcote) gets in trouble with the Wrong People, Scott reluctantly agrees to help pay back the bookies by assisting a terminally-ill neighbor’s suicide. Scott steals euthanasia drugs from his vet’s office and asks his friend, Cozzo, who repairs machines at fast food restaurants, to build him a “suicide machine”. When the suicide is successful, Scott, Joey and Cozzo decide to go in to the assisted suicide business… and people are just dying to become customers! (Sorry, that was truly terrible). Although morbid (and more than a little controversial), the show was one of the funniest things I’ve seen on UK TV in a long time. The characters remind me a bit of a more daring Reaper. Blake Harrison (Scott) plays a similar “nice guy” character to Bret Harrison’s Reaper character (they have the same last name, too!), and Marc Wootton (Cozzo) is not only a dead ringer for Tyler Labine, he plays a similar “good friend who is a slacker, and constantly screws up” just as Lebine did in Reaper.

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Mad Men: Symmetry

Last night, Pete Campbell’s transition into Don Draper came full circle. The symbolism was blindingly obvious… after all, does this shot:

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Remind you of anything? How about this shot from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”:

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More beautiful symmetry from Matt Weiner and Co.

 

Some Goofs from “The Doorway”

Hi-ho Mad Men fans! What did you guys think of the season premiere? I liked it, although it was a bit rough around the edges (WTF, Betty?). Of course, most Mad Men premieres are a bit “slow”, so I’m kind of… not “shocked”, exactly… but sort of… “confused” by much of the negative press the premiere got. What do you think?

Some observations – mostly goofs – from last night’s premiere:

– Did anyone catch that Megan was wearing a backless dress at the luau (no bra), but was wearing a white bra later that same night in the hotel room?

– Those really tall hotels at the base of Diamond Head didn’t exist in the 1960s. Here’s a picture of what it looked like in 1967, and here’s a pic of what it looks like today. I guess it would have been too involved and\or expensive to remove the new hotels via CGI.

– Is it just me, or was the product placement even more blatant than usual? Ritz crackers? Smucker’s jelly? Talk about on the nose!

– Given the high profile of the Super Bowl, I’m surprised that they got so much wrong about it. First, some background: American football was created by universities. The first football game was played by Rutgers and Princeton on November 6, 1869. The sport rapidly spread to other universities, and it was the success of college football as a spectator sport that led to the creation of the American Professional Football Conference in 1920 (it renamed itself the “National Football League”, or NFL, in 1922). However, professional football would remain a distant second in popularity to college football until the late 1950s. Nationwide TV broadcasts allowed millions of Americans to see the games for the first time, and air travel made a geographically larger league possible. However, the NFL was reluctant to expand into “untested” cities. A man named Lamar Hunt (son of Texas oil tycoon HL Hunt – the inspiration for the “J,R. Ewing” character on Dallas – and younger brother of Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt, who famously tried to corner the silver market in 1980) approached the NFL about creating a team in Dallas. The NFL turned him down, so Hunt, along with others who had been refused teams, created his own league, the American Football League (AFL). At first, the NFL dismissed the upstart league, but when the AFL quickly became popular with football fans, the two leagues went to war with each other. Both leagues expanded to new cities and fought with each other over players leaving college. It was soon obvious to everyone that the whole situation was counterproductive, and merger talks began between the two leagues. 1970 was the first year they played as a combined league, but before that the leagues agreed to play a game between the NFL and AFL champion at the end of the season. This was, of course, the Super Bowl. However, for the first two seasons it was known by its official name, the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game”. So I’m not so sure Peggy would be calling it the “Super Bowl”. The name “Super Bowl” existed, but wasn’t officially adopted until Super Bowl III. What’s more, the first few Super Bowls were not the huge “events” they are today. Super Bowl I didn’t even sell out: the stadium was only two-thirds full, perhaps because of the “high” ticket price of $12 ($81.40 in 2012 dollars, which is almost laughable given that face value of tickets for the most recent game, Super Bowl XLVII, was $850 to $1,250!). Super Bowl commercials really didn’t become a “big thing” until Apple’s famous 1984 ad from Super Bowl XVIII in 1983:

Before that, the only really notable Super Bowl commercials were from Master Lock (their iconic “lock getting shot with a rifle” ads debuted during Super Bowl VII):

Coca-Cola (the “Mean Joe” Greene commercial, aired during Super Bowl XIV in 1980, and considered by many the best Super Bowl ad ever):

And Xerox (their “monk” ads first aired in Super Bowl X in 1976):

So it’s also highly unlikely that Peggy would be stressing out over a “Super Bowl ad”, when such ads had not become a “thing” yet.

– While I’m on the subject of football, the “Cotton Bowl” was mentioned. This is a postseason college football game played in Dallas, Texas. College sports are somewhat confusing, especially to people outside the United States. The oldest “bowl” game is the Rose Bowl, which started in Pasadena, CA in 1901. At first the game was meant to feature the best team from the eastern US against the best team from the western US, and whoever won the game was considered national champion. The bowl game was incredibly popular, and other cities wanted to get in on the action. A few decades later you had the Cotton Bowl (1936, Dallas), the Orange Bowl (1934, Miami), and the Sugar Bowl (1934, New Orleans). Nowadays there are over 30 bowl games! And for the record, in the Cotton Bowl mentioned in Mad Men, Texas A&M beat #8 Alabama 20-16.

– As far as I know, there were no courts martial for war atrocities in Vietnam until well in to 1968.

– DEFCON (short for “defense readiness condition”) is an acronym used by the United States military to describe their overall alert level. The system was instituted in November of 1959, but I’m not sure how much the average public would have known about it in 1967 (especially since Peggy notes that the system “counts down” rather than up; i.e that DEFCON 5 is normal and DEFCON 1 is nuclear war).

– Lastly, the area around St. Mark’s Street was known as the “Lower East Side” until the 1980s, when “East Village” became the norm. There were people calling it East Village in 1967, but it was rare, and very unlikely that a 15 year-old girl from Rye would even know to call it that.

I’m Stupid (“Parks and Rec” Edition)

I lived in Atlanta from the day I was born until I was 31 years old. I am also a huge fan of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, the comedy with Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman and Rob Lowe. In fact, if Offerman’s “Ron Swanson” character was a real person, in my book he’d be the greatest living American by a long shot.

Anyway, I watched last week’s episode, which opened with a shot of “JJ’s Diner”. It wasn’t until I went online after watching the episode that I found out that not only was the exterior shot filmed in Atlanta, it was filmed at a diner on Cheshire Bridge Road I’ve been in 100 times:

Parks and Rec
Click to embiggen

In fact, I even reviewed the diner on my “old” site (read it here). Seriously, folks… I’ve been in that place – when it was the Dunk N’ Dine – at least 50 times, if not more. I’ve got several stories from that place I bore my friends with, like the time I sat next to a table of three older white men in suits… and one 6′ 5″, 275lb. black “woman” in a dress. Or the time my friend Jefferson and I almost had to swap tables because we were laughing so hard at the bitchy drag queens in the corner* that we couldn’t eat. What’s more, as you can see from the picture, I also got a tattoo at a shop next door, bought “smoking accessories” several times at the shop next to that, and gawked at the “toys” at the adult store next to that.

What AWESOME observational skills I have! I’m slipping, folks. I watched a recent episode of Death in Paradise, a UK crime drama filmed in Guadeloupe. The main character is an English cop who is kind of a lesser Sherlock Holmes. He also can’t stand the tropical weather and is anal-retentive to the point of offensiveness. Anyway, the cop was able to figure out who the bad guy was (in this case, the bad girl) because she kept two mobile phones, identical except that one was black and the other white. Aaaaannnnnnddd I totally missed that, too.

* – I feel I should mention that we were laughing at the drag queens because they were being funny, not because they were drag queens. They were arguing amongst themselves, doing some kind of drag queen version of “Yo’ Momma” jokes back and forth. It was really funny.

The Random (Mostly Entertainment) Post

– One of my favorite shows of the new year is ITV’s historical drama Mr Selfridge. In it, Jeremy Piven plays Harry Selfridge, the American entrepreneur who revolutionized retail in the US and UK. Born in the woods of Wisconsin, Selfridge worked at a store owned by a cousin of Marshall Field as a teen, and when other prospects didn’t work out (including trying to gain admission to the US Naval Academy), Selfridge went back to Field’s cousin to get a letter of introduction to Marshall. He began working at Marshall Field’s as a lowly sales clerk in the sock department, but soon rose to the top thanks to a neverending stream of ideas. It was Selfridge who came up with the idea of putting merchandise out so customers could see and feel it, instead of the old way of keeping it behind a counter. Selfridge moved perfumes and cosmetics to the front of the store, so that customers would smell enticing perfumes as they walked in. Selfridge pioneered the concept of prêt-à-porter in women’s clothing. He even invented the saying “x shopping days until Christmas” and is most likely the person who coined the phrase “the customer is always right”.

In 1906, Selfridge and his wife went to London on a vacation. He found London’s department stores lacking in almost every way: their selection of merchandise was limited, their sales methods were downright hostile to customers, and the whole system seemed at least 20 years out of date. He spent £400,000 (almost $58 million in 2011 dollars) building a new store in what was then a rundown section of Oxford Street. And it became a huge success. But things all went downhill for Selfridge from there. He loved his wife, but loved beautiful women, too. He’d often shower pretty show girls with furs and jewelry from his store.

But – and here’s the whole point of this post – as this article from the Daily Fail points out, the real story is even more amazing than the one on TV. The real Selfridge fell in love with a dancer named Jenny Dolly, and literally showered her with millions of dollars. Jenny loved ice cream, so Selfridge had it shipped by airplane to Paris every day, where Jenny was performing (no telling how much that cost in 1910!). He helped her buy a chateau near Fontainebleau and paid the equivalent of millions of modern dollars to decorate it. Jenny and her twin sister Rosie loved to gamble, and Selfridge would sit behind them at gaming tables, handing them stacks of thousand franc notes.

I won’t spoil it for you… but let’s just say it doesn’t end well for either Selfridge or the Dolly sisters. And if you haven’t seen the show yet, you should download it as soon as possible… it’s great!

– If, like me, you’re a fan of the BBC’s historical drama The Hour, you might want to read this article about whether the show deserves a third season (series). I love the show, and of course I want to see season 3 (and 4 and 5 and 6 and…). But the show’s ratings aren’t that good in the UK, and critical opinion has been sharply divided.

– My current favorite band, the Greek synthpop duo Marsheaux, are finally going to release their new album, Inhale, this April. Check out this sampler at SoundCloud. I CAN’T WAIT!

– Ever wonder what Andrew Ridgley, the other half of Wham!, is up to? Here’s your answer.

Dashrath Manjhi was a poor laborer born a small village in Bihar, India. Manjhi’s wife died because she could not get medical attention. Although the nearest village isn’t that far away as the crow flies, the winding, circuitous mountain roads meant that the trip was 44 miles (70 km) one way. Heartbroken after her death, Manjhi swore that no other wives needed to die because of the roads. So from 1960 to 1982 he spent almost all his time, night and day, carving a road through a mountain. The result was a 360 foot long (110 m) road, 25 feet deep (7.6 m) in places and 30 feet wide (9.1 m)… chiseled by hand through solid rock. The road cut the route to the nearest village from 44 miles (70 km) to less than a mile (1 km).

– The Centro Financiero Confinanzas building in Caracas, Venezuela was supposed to be a glistening skyscraper dedicated to modern industry and finance. Started in 1990, building ceased in 1994 after the main investor died and the Venezuelan banking system fell into a crisis. Squatters moved in and quickly turned it into a city of its own. Read the fascinating story behind it here.

– Prince Charles recently visited The Florence Institute, a community center near Liverpool which had recently undergone a £6.4 million restoration. As he was leaving the Institute, patrons at a rundown pub nearby began gently hecking him… you know, stuff like “hey, Charles, why don’t ya come in for a pint?”:

Charles pub

 

To their complete surprise… he did! I guess ol’ Charlie isn’t the big stick in the mud most of us thought he was!

Good News!

Great news, Mad Men fans! The series returns April 7, 2013 with a two-hour premiere written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher!

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The premiere airs at 21:00 on April 7, with following episodes returning to the show’s 22:00 time slot!

Sadly, I won’t be able to recap this season. Just as with last season, I have friends coming in from the Netherlands (actually the same friends from last year) and we’re going on a trip to Florida later that month. Although I’d only miss two episodes at most, I found that once I’ve fallen behind I just can’t seem to catch up. So I’m not even going to try this go-round. Sorry.

The Year in TV (2012)

2011 was a great year for TV. 2012?  Not so much. The first half was pretty decent, but the second half of the year was pretty much a strike-out. So while 2011’s list was a lot of work (because I had to whittle down a huge list to acceptable levels), 2012’s list was also a lot of work (because it was that hard coming up with a list of decent new shows).

And so… the list, keeping in mind that this is all about new shows, not returning ones. There’s also lists of shows that didn’t make it, shows that ended this year, the biggest disappointment of the year, the best news of the year and the best and worst moments of the year. Enjoy!


THE BEST NEW SHOWS OF 2012

Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 (ABC) – The premise of this show is simple: June, a naive and trusting Indianan, moves to New York City after graduating college to pursue her dream career. But on her first day the CEO of her mortgage company is arrested for running a Ponzi scheme. Desperate, June becomes the roommate of Chloe McGruff (Krysten Ritter), an amoral scam artist, a swindler and party girl. Chloe is the worst person ever, and is only genuinely nice to her best friend, former Dawson’s Creek actor James Van Der Beek. Unfortunately, the ratings aren’t very good, the writing has taken a turn for the worse in season 2, and ABC is monkeying around with the episode order. I don’t expect it to last much longer.

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Line of Duty (BBC) – Every year the BBC puts out a really dark police drama in which the police aren’t necessarily any better than the people they’re chasing. Be it my personal fave Luther or last year’s favorite The Shadow Line, there’s always some show about the dark side of police work. This year’s entry is Line of Duty, in which the young, idealistic Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) accidentally causes the death of an innocent man during an anti-terrorist raid. Arnott refuses to participate in a cover-up of the incident, and is ruthlessly ostracized by his colleagues for it. To get away from them he joins an internal affairs division led by Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar). Hastings’ main target is Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates (the great Lennie James). Gates’ unit consistently has huge arrest numbers, and Hastings knows that this is partly because Gates only takes on cases he knows he can solve, then piles tons of charges on criminals once caught. But Hastings suspects the corruption is far worse. Although family man Gates might not want to admit it, he has a mistress, and she just might get him in a world of trouble.

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Copper (BBC America) – And speaking of dark police dramas, BBC America debuted its first original series, Copper, about Kevin “Corky” Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), a rough and tumble Irish cop in 1860s New York City, specifically the notorious, crime and poverty ridden Five Points neighborhood. Like a lot of men at the time, Corky went away to fight the Confederates in the Civil War, and while he was away his wife and daughter were murdered. Much of the series is about his investigation into what happened to them. He’s helped by Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) a wealthy industrialist who was his major in the Union Army, Eva Heissen (Franka Potente), a Prussian madam who knows a lot of secrets, and Dr. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), a black physician who seems to know more about forensic science than any other doctor in America at the time (one of my small beefs about the show). Many disliked the show, saying it was too slow, and the fact that it was set in a time-frame similar to the slightly more popular Hell On Wheels didn’t help. But if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded. It’s a well-done series with rich characters and well thought-out stories.

Copper

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2012 TV at the Half

Wow! Where 2011’s “TV at the Half” seemed like an embarrassment of riches, 2012 seems awfully thin. I actually had to put a lot of thought into last year’s list, in order to whittle it down to an appropriate number of “Good” shows. This year I struggled to come up with a measly six “Good” shows. So 2012 hasn’t been a very good year for TV so far. And so… the list, keeping in mind that this is all about new shows, not returning ones:

THE GOOD

Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 (ABC) – There aren’t a lot of major network sitcoms that make me laugh out loud. The Office and 30 Rock seem to be on their last legs. Modern Family is good, but always seems to end on a heartfelt note or “message”. Parks and Rec seems to be in a slump. Community is funny, but tries way too hard to be clever. So this season’s Don’t Trust the B came as a surprise. The premise is simple: June, a naive and trusting Indianan, moves to New York City after graduating college to pursue her dream career at a mortgage company. But on her first day of work the CEO is arrested for using the company as a giant Ponzi scheme. The company is shut down by the feds, who also seize the company apartment June was going to live in. Desperate, she becomes the roommate of Chloe McGruff (the lovely and funny Krysten Ritter), who is an amoral scam artist, a swindler and total party girl. Imagine Paris Hilton if Paris Hilton ran check forgery and identity theft scams on the side. Chloe is the worst person ever, and seems to only be genuinely nice to her best friend, former Dawson’s Creek actor James Van Der Beek. The first couple of episodes spend a bit too much time showing June falling for Chloe’s evil tricks and scams, and the preachy June tries to make the amoral Chloe think about her actions. But after that, the show gets it in gear. While June is still “the good one”, her desperate financial situation causes her to look at Chloe in a different light. My favorite part of the show, however, is James Van Der Beek. He plays a fictionalized version of himself who hates any mention of Dawson’s Creek… unless it can get him something free or get a woman in bed. Who knew Van Der Beek had such a sense of humor? There’s a great scene where he talks about his starring role in a Guy Ritchie film… and it’s hilarious!

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Line of Duty (BBC) – It seems like every year the BBC has to put out a really dark police drama, in which the police aren’t necessarily any better than the people they’re chasing. Be it my personal fave Luther or last year’s favorite The Shadow Line, there’s always some show about the dark side of police work. This year’s entry is Line of Duty, in which the young, idealistic Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) accidentally causes the death of an innocent man during an anti-terrorist raid. Arnott refuses to participate in a later cover-up of the incident. He’s ruthlessly ostracized by his colleagues for this, and to get away from them joins an anti-corruption division led by Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar). Hastings’ main target is Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates (the great Lennie James). Gates’ unit consistently has huge arrest numbers, and Hastings knows that this is partly because Gates only takes on cases he knows he can solve, then piles tons of charges on criminals once caught. But Hastings suspects the corruption is far worse then mere padding. Although family man Gates might not want to admit it, he has a mistress, and she just might get him in a world of trouble.

line_of_duty

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Mad Men: “Far Away Places”

“Far Away Places” is different type of episode. Rather than follow a standard linear timeline, it focuses on a day on the life of three characters, Peggy, Roger and Don, with plot lines woven between the three characters. Instead of a traditional recap, I’m going to recap each character’s day. Note that “Other Stuff” will follow the linear format, with factoids and notes listed in the order they appear in the episode.

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PEGGY’S DAY: The episode opens with Peggy and Abe arguing about her obsession with work and its impact on their love life. Abe asks her to go to the movies later that day, but Peggy says she can’t think because she has her big presentation for Heinz. The two argue, and Abe leaves. Don and Megan leave the office to visit a prospective client, leaving Peggy to pitch Heinz by herself. The Heinz folks don’t like her idea (and seem to not like the idea of a woman pitching to them generally), and Peggy nearly gets into a shouting match with them. Peggy leaves the office to blow off steam by having a few drinks. On a whim, she goes to see a movie. She sees a young man in the audience smoking a joint, and partakes herself. She then gives the young man a handjob in the theatre. She goes back to the office, where she sees Ginsberg arguing with his father. She passes out on Don’s sofa, only to be awakened later by a frantic call from Don. Peggy goes back to her office and finds Ginsberg there. She asks about his past and he initially tells her that he’s from Mars. But he eventually admits that his father isn’t his biological father, and that he was born in a concentration camp in World War II and lived in an Swedish orphanage until he was five. Peggy, moved by his story, goes home, calls Abe and invites him over.

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Mad Men: “Signal 30”

This episode begins with a group of people sitting in a high school classroom watching a film about car wrecks. It’s obvious that this is a driver’s education class, and Pete Campbell is one of the students. He laughs at the film, and a pretty young girl tuns around and smiles at him.

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He smiles back at her, and looks at her legs.

Later that night he’s in bed with Trudy, wide awake thanks to a leaky kitchen faucet, which is making loud dripping sounds. He gets out of bed, finds his toolbox and appears to fix the problem.

The next morning, we see Rebecca trying to get Lane to hurry up and get ready for a social engagement. Lane asks if they just want a nice lunch, why not go to the park? Rebecca says she wants to get to the pub and enjoy the chitchat with friends. Lane says that they’re her friends, not his, and that he’s never enjoyed spending hours in pubs watching football. He also says that he hates “bringing England over in pieces”, and that it’s for the homesick. Lane sighs and tell Rebecca that her face becomes lovely when she tells him she needs something. He takes a long slug off his drink…

We then see him at the pub, happily cheering England on with his (Rebecca’s?) friend Edwin Baker. Later, the two couples eat lunch at the pub, and while the women talk about the differences between England and America, Edwin mentions that he might want to throw some business SCDP’s way.

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