Maddening Mad Men

April 10, 2015
Image credit: AMC

Image credit: AMC

Alas, there wasn’t time to sit through every episode of Mad Men (AMC/Sky Atlantic), as I had pipedreamed, before the first episode of the second half of the final season (there’s an easier way to put that but as long as showrunners want to tease us with half-portions of final episodes, they should know how uncomfortable we all are). This may be a good thing: that trademark blend of purposeless sexism and misogyny, ranging from the puerile to the sadistic, was, frankly, trying by the end of this opener – exposure to 85 episodes might force a tough re-evaluation of the company one keeps on screen. Just as, say, OD-ing on Breaking Bad might make Walter White seem less of a troubled genius and more of a simpering slap-head.

I may have revised my opinion of Burt Cooper’s death shuffle from last year – terrible, lazy television with slim precedent within the programme – but I wasn’t wrong about the madness of Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Obsessively auditioning knockouts in furs, constant napping, offering to sit shiva, harassing a waitress – and this last not for sex, though that comes into it, but about mistaken identity, about his dreams. His dreams, reader! – what manner of Freudian folderol is this?

Mad Men has been an indulgent and indulged programme since about the fifth season, but it’s a step too far to try and make us care about the woman Don was sleeping with in season one (let alone the risible, patch-eyed Ken Cosgrove). Can we really trust that Rachel Katz was a genuine love of Don’s or is this just an attempt at house-cleaning by the writers? Tidying up every peripheral plot – when was the last time you heard Cosgrove mention writing? – in preference to actually, finally, settling the nature of Don’s demons.

Postmodernists should of course applaud a refusal to present us with a ribbon-tied solution to the enigma that calls itself Draper, but what is the alternative? Two months will tell and, despite this mild rant, better viewing is difficult to find – it has plenty in the credit column. To wit: Roger’s moustache.

Some might argue BBC1’s Poldark is an alternative. Indeed, I will argue that. It may be period porn and one for the ladies, but it’s exciting, uncomplicated, well-performed – all things to relish when faced with an upcoming season of Game of Thrones. And, furthermore, imagine this: Aidan Turner, as the titular captain, and Eleanor Tomlinson as wench-of-all-work Demelza are sexy without the titillation of imminent slaughter, rape or bare breasts. It does, admittedly, seem incredible but gentleness and swash-buckling sentimentality have a place in drama, too. Again, an alternative to, not necessarily better than.

Poldark doesn’t make us think about anything and nor does it aspire to. Mad Men, however, burdens its characters with pain – mainly Joan; poor Joan – as if the writers are always trying to make us consider something, but actually fail to stir sympathy for the varieties of human suffering. What we mainly take from it is how wonderful things were when men were men, whisky went down in the workplace like energy drinks, and brassieres did the job of icebreakers. Similarly, Breaking Bad stirred debate about magnets, not meth heads.

But there is a programme that forces thought about suffering, drugs, race and the sexes all in the same place, literally – please, hold your applause – imprisoning the viewer within heightened dilemma: Orange Is the New Black (Netflix). I realise I’m like Banquo’s ghost at this particular feast but that’s entirely due to ignorance. The trailers do not properly convey its brilliance – and I use that word in both senses, as from darkness comes light. A few short clips might provoke nothing more than, ‘What’s this? Prisoner: Cell Block H meets Oz?’ Well, as the senior CO says in the first episode, this is not Oz.

Image credit: Netflix

Image credit: Netflix

Perhaps it is, in a sense, watered-down Oz, that is, all the familiar elements of tribal prison life are there. But there is also playfulness, followed by violence, followed by tenderness, followed by loss, empathy, eroticism and so on. Possibly the surprisingly cheerful environment is inaccurate, but it’s as good an excuse as any for a talented gang of actresses to circle each other. The time for further comment will be when the third season crackles into being later this year, but for now let it be said that Taylor Schilling, who plays main con, Piper, manages to turn baggy prison garb and wan, make-up-less visage into card-carrying crumpet every episode.

Watching the watchers: I rather like Masterchef (BBC1). For all its flaws and shouting, it’s one of those novel competitions dependent on talent rather than participants being vaguely attractive to adolescent girls/middle-aged women. A few weeks ago, however, Grace Dent, in The Independent (for reasons that always escape me), described it as an endless programme with ‘one strand blending into another, no change, no  deviation’. This prompted me to wonder why she wouldn’t approve, as that’s surely an apposite description of her bestest, most-favouritest programme in the whole world ever, EastEnders.

Jacob Knowles-Smith

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