New TV series are starting everywhere right now, and I think this would be a good time to start reviewing them again – before we finally decide that the little time-sucking box underneath the TV is no longer our friend, but one of those hangers-on that encourages you to do the wrong thing. Many, many hours later; you emerge shuffling, like Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest, and wondering where the hell your evening went.
But this being a new season – March already, bloody hell – the evil little box has some new temptations ahead. I’ve sampled a few of them, but let’s start with the most, ahem – respectable.
Mad Men is brought to us by the writers who worked for the guy who used to make the Sopranos. You know – it must be good, right? It highlights the lives of a group (or should that be ‘grope’…? Please insert your own LOL) of cocky ad men working from a slick skyscraper in 1960s-shaded New York. Their problem for this episode is that the Reader’s Digest has just announced that cigarettes are actually bad for you, and Lucky Strike are urgently seeking an advert to smooth over this PR disaster. Only problem is, their top man – a rugged Andy Garcia lookalike – has contracted major ad-writer’s block.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) puzzles over his latest ad for Lucky Strike
Perhaps it’s because this is the sum-total of the plot that this first episode seems to drag on – forEVER. It isn’t helped by its group of characters who have about as much personality as the guy in the red shirt from Star Trek. It’s not quite Down With Love, although I don’t mind it if I’m in the mood for it. All the same, none of this felt real enough to escape its 60s staging – and I do mean staged. There are issues balanced on top of this smug little piece of work that scream ‘plot instead of character’. These days, that just bores me to tears.
I’m willing to allow that the characters will bed in – and bed each other – and then things will become more interesting. Hopefully. They also don’t swear often, if at all, which means to my jaded ears that this ISN’T REAL ENOUGH. I suppose it could be because it’s on AMC not HBO. Call me desensitised, but it confuses my sense of these being down-to-earth people, or even people we can recognise. Characters are staying hidden behind their suits and pastel skirts, wrapped up in cliché armour. They have a closet gay guy, another guy who’s only marrying a girl for her trust fund, and a repressed mousey girl who promptly goes on the pill and gets warned by her doctor not to be a slut.
Colourful cast: Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser – Connor in Angel!!! Looking about 12!!!)
So, everything is gearing up to a theme of ‘this is what they were like in the 1960s, but – LOOK, WE’RE ALSO LIKE THIS NOW! But it’s a small wonder that the BBC have picked it up, instead of Channel 4 or even Sky – because to all first impressions, Mad Men is a just a period piece set in the 1960s, with a slightly higher budget and better aspirations than, say, Heartbeat. It covers issues like homophobia, racism, and blatant sexism in the first 20 minutes. Unfortunately, with these ‘issues’ underlying the whole thing it feels too deliberate to be truly enthralling. So far, none of the characters have managed to exceed that either. Which is a shame.
This show has had rave reviews so far, but judging from the first episode, I just don’t see it. It could grow and I’m willing to give it another two episodes to get to grips with it – but it could be one of those series that’s more fun to watch with the sound turned down. It’s hard not to compare everything to the Wire, or the Sopranos, or even the peerless Buffy. In this case, I’m just grateful that it isn’t another Ugly Betty – but I am afraid that the characters in Mad Men could slip into clean-cut good and evil roles, and it’ll have to pedal pretty hard to avoid this. The set-based footage doesn’t help either – some real atmosphere is sorely needed to energise the cast and to keep us immersed. So add a little more speed, and a lot more wit, and then we might have some believably mad men.