TV review

Please don’t take our TV imports away

The Times

March 4, 2010

Mad Men / Damages

Desperate Housewives

If the BBC really is thinking of cutting its imports budget by 25 per cent, and dropping American dramas from prime time, can we ask that when the axeman cometh, he leaves Damages and Mad Men well alone? Walks on by, tips his cap at Don Draper and Patty Hewes and instead slashes viciously in the direction of Heroes — really, disembowel away until nothing remains.

Last night in Mad Men, Don (Jon Hamm) decided — in that unreadable way of his — to indulge in some risky behaviour  after his wife Betty (January Jones) demanded to know why he wasn’t prepared to sign a contract to stay with the advertising agency.

Don’s equivocation is not easily explicable: the curl of his lip suggests that he finds the professional life in which he is wrapped up somehow contemptible. Don is forever running from his past and his present (and suddenly that falling figure in the opening credits makes perfect sense), although the sharp-suited, debonair veneer obscures all that. In the end, he was blackmailed into signing the contract by his boss, holding the knowledge of his stolen “Don Draper” identity over him.

Don picked up two hitchhikers who gave him some pills. The next moment he was in their hotel room. Tripping out, he imagined seeing his father deriding him from a chair. Then the boy hitchhiker beat him viciously and took his money.

Mad Men is now so confident in its oblique storytelling that every episode is, rather like Don’s crazy drive into the night with a glass of whisky, an adventure on its own terms according to its own logic. Peggy slept with the rival ad agency head Duck Phillips. “I’ll give you a go around like you’ve never had,” he promised Peggy — now my favourite dirty seduction line ever — and he was true to his word.

With feminism and equality legislation yet to splutter into life, Peggy had less luck demanding equal pay from Don. But Don is no hero and Mad Men no conventional drama; Don is the heart of Mad Men, and is variously morally compromised, flailing, pained, kind and cruel. He told Peggy to get on with her job.

The poisonous contours of Don and Betty’s marriage are coming into sharper relief. Every time there are scenes with Betty and the kids (Sally, her daughter, is becoming a steely presence), you are struck by the massive distance between Betty’s porcelain Grace Kelly looks and the ugliness and sadness inside her. She is not a perfect mother, far from it (most of the time she is icily absent) yet she looks like one and Mad Men skilfully mines the contradiction.

It seemed that Patty (Glenn Close) was going soft in Damages. Her dog was sick, she propped him up on blankets, and called her soon-to-be-ex-husband to help. But just as he, and we, thought that she might be willing to give him another chance (it is a very cute dog), she told him it was over, finito, no return. A cobra would have been kinder in its dismissal.

In Desperate Housewives Susan and Katherine fought in the bath and Gaby tried to home-school her child and Mary Alice is still banging out homilies and plot guidance from beyond the grave. Everyone was left swirling dementedly in soap and slapstick. No show does it better. The Save Our Imports campaign begins here — well, on Wednesday nights anyway.