Sunday, July 06, 2008

Mad Men

At the risk of becoming a bore on the subject, I keep being impressed by the quality (of the writing, acting, cinematography and writing values) of so many good American drama series, whilst dumbfounded at the endless critical praise heaped on the garbage that makes for drama series given peak viewing slots on British TV. The last gasps of Russel T Davies reign on the BBC's Doctor Who, which aired his season finale on Saturday, show just how dire a situation we're in. The last two episodes of this British award-winning series weren't just bad, they were dire. Actually make that diarrhoeia. Ask a six year old to write fan fiction and you'd get better results than the garbage that was put out as peak time viewing on the BBC last night.

What makes me so angry is that the Beeb are so busy pushing their tawdry tat as 'event TV', with constant updates on their news pages about what's happening and how everyone's tuning in, and the script's a secret etc etc that even the tabloids are all rushing to join in. Seemingly the need to cash-in on merchandising from the mindless masses who just follow what they keep being told to follow means that the real dramatic gems get consigned to the graveyard slots on BBC2 with not even the merest hint of promotion or advertising.

The BBC royally screwed up Rome, a series they'd invested millions of license payers money in, by doing what no other country did when showing the series - condensing the first two episodes of the series down into a single episode, cutting so much out in the process that what aired made no dramatic or cohesive sense. That they did so without telling anyone, presumably hoping nobody would notice in an attempt to make it fit between a couple of the cheap reality shows they'd rather be making, only adds to the general incompetence that seems to reside in the corporation's drama department. It was left to the episode's director, Michael Apted, to apologise profusely for what had been done behind his back, making it clear that he washed his hands of what aired in the UK as being in any way representative of what he'd filmed as director.

The BBC even manged to kill ratings winners like The X Files by introducing constantly changing schedules and time-slots that made it impossible to work out when the next episode might air, and on which channel.

They did the same, only worse, to The West Wing which never got off the ground despite rave reviews, because nobody could ever figure out what night and at what time the next episode might be on.

And now they've done it again. This time to Mad Men, the first season of which I caught a brief 10 minutes of by accident around midnight on BBC2 a few weeks ago just because I couldn't sleep and was channel flicking. I was so intrigued by what little I caught I imported the (thankfully region free) Blu-Ray disc of Season 1 from MovieTyme for just £22 (OK, £21.99 if you want to be precise). The show tells the story of ambitious, thriving ad men in Manhattan in the 1960's and is that rare thing - a subtle work of beauty, that's also thrillingly addictive.

It has more than lived up to my hopes. The writing is excellent, the cast are superb and the production values are exemplary - from the exquisite Saul Bass -homage opening titles, to the beautifully lit period detail in every scene. It exudes the sort of class and quality the BBC used to be famous for before it got obsessed with merchandising and producing infantile nonsense like Toshwood or endless free adverts for the two millionaires responsible for most West End musicals.

Thankfully, Mad Men has just been released on bog-standard DVD here in the UK and sells for £25 - a bargain thirteen 50 minute episodes of this quality - but, in yet another example of the great British rip-off, includes as extra's (if Empire magazine's reviews section is to be believed) just 3 commentary tracks and a couple of short extra's that deal with the music for the series and what advertising in the 60's was like. There is no hi-def release in Britian.

But my US imported hi-def release, paid for in British pounds and shipped to me from a British address, cost me £21.99. So, for £3 less than the official British 'standard definition - there's no other choice' release you can buy the hi-def version on Blu-Ray and get not just a far better picture that show the high production values the show has, but also had additional material. How much additional material? How about TWO commentary tracks PER EPISODE instead of three commentary tracks sperad across all thirteen episodes? Or a documentary on the making of the series itself?

Why would anyone with internet access buy the British release?! Come to that, why would the British release not only cut out so much additional material but then have the temerity to charge us a higher price? I think we all know the answer to that: it's just business as usual for the British distribution companies.

Things are so bad that I'm seriously considering purchasing an American Blu-Ray player to play the titles I want that AREN'T region free (basically everything from Fox, including shows like Lost which aren't available in hi-def formats in the UK). We get ripped off in so many ways - a big mark up in price for significantly less. How do they get away with it? There really is no excuse.

Empire gave Mad Men four stars by the way, which is a high mark for them, and I'd agree with that rating. But if you're going to check it out please buy American and don't encourage the UK industry which insists on ripping us off so much.

I heard over the weekend that another superb US drama series, Dexter, which kicks off its second season on a channel I don't have access to (FX) TONIGHT, is going to eventually surface on ITV. No doubt that will follow the fate of other quality drama over at the BBC and end up being aired too late for anybody to be able to watch it.

Still there was a little glimmer of hope for those interested in improving the quality of widely viewed British drama this week. In a Q & A session on the BBC web site hack writer Russel T Davies said that when he left Doctor Who at the end of the five specials next year he would never write for it again! Hoorah!

I hope and pray the BBC got that promise in writing! It's sad, especially as I loved his Queer As Folk scripts, but Davies' Doctor Who scripts have been the most inane, infantile, plot-hole filled, ex-deus machine ending filled garbage masquerading as drama that I've seen fill our screens in a long, long time. So, as far as I'm concerned, it's good riddance, thank God you're going, and please Mr BBC commisioner don't let him anywhere near sci-fi ever again if his work on Who is an example of all he can do.


Erica said...

I can only vouch for the BBC television shows that were on a few years ago, but I have noticed a downward trend in the quality of television in general. I am sick and tired of the MTV Real World mentality that has pervaded the television landscape. In addition, the excuse for drama has taken the form of Desperate Housewives and the reoccurring cop and hospital shows that have been reworked to say the same thing as their predecessors.

I also see that as soon as Hollywood gets tired as the above, they resurrect past hits such as Beverly Hills 90210 and Knight Rider--old hits for a new generation. Anything that requires a brain cell is shelved.

The only thoughtful and provocative shows on television are on cable, rather than network television. Cable television channels such as HBO, Showtime and now AMC have--for the past few years--filled the void for drama left by network television's stampede towards cheaply made and cheaply delivered reality TV.

Mad Men is arguably the best show on television. Its subtlety in deliverance of the plot, the patience in the development of characters and the plot and fantastic character study all remind me of what British television used to be--a far cry from the hyper-realistic and shallow characteristics that plague the present crop of "dramas".

vern said...

Mad Men depicts the America of 60's amazingly well. i really love this show and completely agreed with Erica that it is the best show on tv rt now. i just can't afford to miss to Watch Mad Men and eagerly waiting for its next season to come

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