I should share a couple of things. Firstly, apart from the news, I don’t watch regular telly. Adverts on Australian television are beyond a joke; some shows can get interrupted for up to 4 minutes some five times an hour and it drives me crazy. Quite how the writers and directors feel about seeing their shows ripped to pieces is beyond me. I tried watching Heroes on cable and I’d have been better off watching it on You Tube than in the five minute chunks I was served. So mostly I’m watching shows on DVD long after the hoo-hah. This actually suits me, because I can avoid finding things out from other people before they happen.
Secondly, I have watched almost none of the ‘must-see-TV’ of the past two decades. Despite being implored by friends and colleagues with myriad tastes and levels of televisual sophistication, I have never seen a single episode of (deep breath) the West Wing, Alias, Desperate Housewives, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or Angel), the OC, Beverly Hills 90210, LA Law, ER, the Sopranos, Prime Suspect, Ally McBeal, the Wire, Inspector Morse, NCIS, CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Six Feet Under, 24, Sex and the City or any science fiction shows since Star Trek the Next Generation finished in 1994. I’m sure there are many others but I’ve probably just never heard of them. I have seen one episode each of Friends and the X-Files and, after being literally forced to sit in front of the telly I have now watched the first few episodes of Lost. All things considered this may be why I’m crap at trivia quizzes these days.
The observant among you will note that most of the programs I have mentioned are American. This might suggest that maybe I just don’t like American TV. After all, I’ve sat through hours of Eastenders and the Bill and despite their dowdy charms even I know that some of the above series are probably better shows. Maybe my expat tastes are tragically and parochially anchored in the United Kingdom, quality be damned. I don’t think so though because my favourite TV show ever is Twin Peaks and despite its qualities it wouldn’t have been quite the same show had it been set in, say, Birmingham.
Others will note that my non-list contains lots of police dramas, science fiction and the TV equivalent of chick-lit. Maybe I just don’t like certain genres? Well, maybe, but I did nerd-out on Star Trek as a youth and I’ve spent many hours watching the revamped Dr Who so I’m not immune to a sci-fi show – just seemingly the new crop of American ones. As for cops and robbers, I would probably agree that it’s not my thing, although I did love the original Manchester-based Life on Mars. All the more interesting then that of the two shows that have so floated my boat of late, both are American and one is so cops and robbers that the hero is serial-killer-catching serial killer who works for the police.
I am of course talking about Dexter, Jeff Lindsay’s “neat little monster” played with charm and the right amount of faux-naivety by Michael C Hall. From the first time I saw the opening credits montage of Dexter Morgan’s morning shower, shit, shave and breakfast routine portrayed as a murderous ritual I was hooked. I can’t deny the possibility that maybe it’s because I’ve avoided all the other cop shows that I love Dexter so much. I don’t know any of the clichés of police drama, and Dexter might be riddled with them but I wouldn’t know. I do know that every episode of seasons one and two left me almost sick with nerves and anticipation that Dexter might be five seconds away from being caught and exposed to his trusting and unknowing colleagues, including his doting sister Deborah, not to mention his slightly insipid girlfriend, Rita. I do know that Dexter made me want to go to Miami and drink tequila and eat lobster on the beach at night whilst people salsa around me. I do know that Dexter got me hooked on Chopin. I do know that there was no need for a season three, despite Jimmy Smits’ rewarding turn.
I doubt I’ll be so enthusiastic about season four. But Dexter has proved to be my gateway to a brave new television world. As I enthused about the show and encouraged others to watch however they could, I heard echoing calls of ‘oh you like Dexter? You’ll love this’ or ‘you should try so-and-so.’ And apart from the West Wing, which everyone seems to love, everyone had a different recommendation. It made me realise the possibility that - for a short while- you could probably get addicted to just about any show on Earth if you had the time. Watching TV shows in isolation, either on DVD or downloaded from Bit Torrent sites, with the ability to zoom through a season at your own pace, can make you feel like you’re in on some marvellous secret. If you venture online you’ll find hoards of people just like you, all obsessing about the important minutiae of their chosen shows as if they’d discovered the cure for cancer but didn’t want anyone to know. I’d like to think that I’m above all that, of course. It’s not the secret addiction aspect of watching Dexter that makes me watch more. Is it? It’s just damn fine TV. Isn’t it? I was happy to believe that Dexter was a one-off in television history, a show that knowing people will refer to knowingly in 20 years time like an early Coen Brothers movie.
Only then I discovered Mad Men, a show so clever and grown up it makes Dexter look like early evening light entertainment (with knives and chainsaws, of course). Gazing dreamily at the picture perfect sets, the sculpted hairdos and tailored outfits, listening to the snappy one liners and settling into the somnambulant pace (the first time I noticed that something had actually happened I was midway through the second season) I realised I was addicted again. My secret obsession had moved from modern day Miami to early 1960’s New York, but still I wanted to know everything about my new show.
Now, I’m prepared to go out on a limb here and say that Mad Men is special. I’ll probably never watch any of the shows I mentioned earlier but I just have a feeling that Mad Men is better than any of them. The acting is perfect across the board; the characters deep as the Marianas Trench. Each of them is as distinct and isolated as each other, all of their time yet on the verge of a 1960s which will change the world beyond even their creative imaginations. Feminism, multiculturalism, civil rights, gay rights, technology and globalisation are all just around the corner from where we are observing them.
The show is unashamedly smart too; the dialogue bristles with clever lines and observations that make you realise that some of the characters will do better than others as the sixties unfold. Secretary-turned-junior-copywriter Peggy Olsen’s dual with her own sense of morality, as projected through a young and passionate Catholic priest, is as vibrant an examination of the beginning of the end of religion’s grip on everyday youth as you’ll read in any textbook. Coupled with lead man Don Draper’s existential internal battle spelt out through the words of New York poet and writer Frank O'Hara, you see a show unafraid to wear its brain on its sleeve.
Mad Men lives against but not for the big moments in American history. The historic nature of the Kennedy v Nixon election is portrayed as another day’s work for those working on the campaign, most indifferent to the possible winner. Staff in the office are equally affected by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the death of Marilyn Monroe depending on what they’re into – like people who were more interested in the life and death of Jade Goody than the collapse of the world economy.
The show looks like a dream; Lynchian retro yet as alive as a beat poem in a late night Manhattan bar. The costumes and hairstyles are so wonderful that it makes you feel rather dowdy just watching it, and yet they never shy away from the reality of maintaining such a look (in one wonderful scene, office siren Joan – known for her pert wiggle and gravity-defying bosom is shown undressing at home, tenderly rubbing her shoulders where her industrial strength bra has almost sliced grooves into her perfect porcelain skin). January Jones’ Betty looks like a movie star as she sashays around her suburban home (they cut to the chase with everyman and his dog telling her she looks like Grace Kelly) but you know that she’s not doing the cleaning in those skirts.
There are so many articles out there right now about Mad Men and why it’s so good that it’s pointless to go on (my favourite is this one from last year by Chicago Tribune journalist Mo Ryan) other than to reinforce my already apparent enthusiasm. But in the context of my hopeless addiction and wrapped up in the excitement of someone who has basically caught up to the rest of the world and realised that in front of the television can be a nice place to be sometimes, my advice is twofold and simple: be who you is, and watch Mad Men. It’s ace. Now, where’s that Desperate Housewives box set…