Box Watch – “Mad Men”

When watching movies, I know I’ve found a new personal favourite when I’m grinning from ear to ear as the credits roll. It’s a recognition of the craft – the art – that went into what I’ve just witnessed. It’s the realisation of how slickly I’ve been played as an audience member. And the jaw-stretching grin is all the more sweeter if my expectations were pretty high beforehand.

In the last five years, that credit-roll grin has been hurting my face after just an hour – sometimes only half that – of television drama. From the oh-my-gods-I’m-exhausted elation/relief of The Shield and Bodies, to the what-the-heck-happens-next-gods-dammit addiction of The Wire and Sports Night – and let’s not forget the hot-damn!-that-was-good enjoyment from The Closer, The West Wing and the occasional Burn Notice episode.

So what is it about Mad Men that makes me griiin and whine cry out Finished already? each week?

Nothing happens. It’s about relationships – between a bunch of distinctly unlikeable rogues bastards in an era where women were little more than chattels, blacks were invisible, and every damned one of the characters smokes.

It’s those very things that I savour about Mad Men.

Nothing much may happen in an ep but we’re learning more and more about Don and Peggy and company – and what we learn not so much answers questions about them but deepens what we know about their characters. Where most other television dramas would portray the dick-swinging camaraderie with a post-Top Gun homoeroticism or symbolic gunfights and car-chases, the male relationships in Mad Men are so finely detailed that even The Goddess is forced to ask me What was that all about? And as for the show’s portrayal of the time and place: I salute creator Matthew Weiner‘s unflinching lack of gloss or veneer – ‘S how it was, baby.

In portraying a period of history as unflatteringly as one might cover current events, Weiner’s genius is in showing us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Where the choice on the box is usually between procedural (or procedural with a twist) and soap (or soap with a twist), it’s great to have a drama that – just like its characters toil at in advertising – gives more of the same, but different.


Box Watch Postscript

Despite the promise of The Street‘s pilot, subsequent eps have disappointed. I thought their About Schmidt-ep with Jim Broadbent was a blip but when it was followed by The Crucible-ep with Neil Dudgeon, and Timothy Spall’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?-ep, we cried uncle. Four episodes into the season might be overly generous and forgiving of us but I think it shows how much the acting talent elevated the scripts. Tch.

Last man standing is Burn Notice which, though light and disposable like a LAW, remains breezy and entertaining with no soapy aftertaste. Man cannot get by on one show alone – sure, I’ve a backlog of DVDs to watch study but I need my fix of regular programming and the current free-to-air schedule is, in a word, desolate.

And thanks to the very connected Motorbike Steve, The Goddess and I’ve enjoyed the pilots for Bionic Woman and Dirty Sexy Money, and look forward to more. Arriving soon is the much anticipated Pushing Daisies and the rather intriguing Dexter.

Also – miracle of miracles – we’ve just embarked on a seven season retrospective of Homicide: Life on the Street. That series nails everything so well, it’s only things like the ubiquitous smoking and the box-shaped cars that date it. Damn, it’s good.

Summer’s not looking so shabby after all.


Box Watch Update

Those TV nuggets were, of course, hiding on the VCR.

  • Jimmy McGovern‘s The Street is an excellent example of an involving drama that shows fully-realised individuals and their complex, interconnected relationships with their loved ones and the wider community. Such material may be grist for the soap opera mill, but in the hands of Mr McGovern, his collaborators and an ensemble cast that includes Jane Horrocks, Jim Broadbent and the ever excellent Timothy Spall, we’re in meaty Mike Leigh and Ken Loach territory. It took me a while to warm to it but The Goddess loved it because it’s all about relationships.
  • Equally satisfying was Burn Notice, a spy/P.I. series cut from the same cloth as Eighties classics Stingray and MacGyver, and lined with the cool absurdity of David Niven‘s Casino Royale and the sudden violence of True Lies. It’s got a light touch that’s rare in American television, and enough home-made gadgets, action set-pieces and one-liners to have me grinning by hour’s end.

(Am looking forward to Pushing Daisies after reading the Vidiotsreview – particularly since its premiere inspired one of them to poetry.)