Tuesday 25 October 2016

Television: How 'Mad Men' finally found redemption?

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Heading for the hills: The last episode of Mad Men was screened this week
Heading for the hills: The last episode of Mad Men was screened this week

The first season of Mad Men came within touching distance of perfection. It was possible to enjoy this tale of jousting advertising executives in 1960s' New York strictly at the level of retro-eye candy - all those pastels and boozy lunches. But, in holding a mirror to the recent past, it also drilled deep into the psyche of contemporary manhood, laying bare the comforting lies husbands and fathers tell themselves, the ways in which they fall short of their promises to their wives, their children, their colleagues (and, it goes without saying, to themselves).

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But ever since that glorious opening run, the show has been scrambling for a reason to exist. Creator Matthew Weiner has stated that he originally conceived of Mad Men as a one-shot, 13 episodes chronicling the rise and fall (emotionally, if not professionally) of Don Draper, a smoothie whose outward suaveness concealed, as it often does, a world of pain and self-hate.

With that story told, Mad Men didn't know where to turn and so descended into soap opera pulp. For that reason, a great deal hinged on the final episode, broadcast on Sky Atlantic on Thursday. Could Mad Men redeem itself at the last and provide a worthwhile coda to that sledgehammer opening series? Or would it continue, as in following years, to rehash the same tired tropes? (Don gets drunk, Roger sleeps with his secretary…)

Happily, the finale matched the hype. Indeed, it is hard to think of a recent television show which so thoroughly reversed course at the death. Along the way, it even managed flashes of a quality Mad Men has conspicuously lacked: humour. Having fled his life as womanising over-achiever, with a train-wreck personal life, Draper had fetched up at a hippy commune in California. Shrugging off news of ex-wife Betty's terminal cancer and having said his farewells to protégé Peggy, we saw him achieving inner peace meditating on a ledge.

It was a winning conclusion, one that might have been ripped from the pages of Cheever or Updike. However, there was a delicious kink at the end - a cutaway from Don's beaming face to the iconic '70s Coke ad in which a United Colours of Benetton-esque cast warble 'I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing', from a clifftop not unlike that where Draper was chanting 'ohm'.

What did it signify? Most likely, it was a winking suggestion that, despite appearing to turn a new leaf, Don could never really leave his true self behind and would inevitably channel his hippy-dippyiness into a commercial for a fizzy drink (it had been signposted earlier that his firm had landed the Coke contract).

However cynical, this conclusion was curiously encouraging - there's nothing wrong with being true to your self, Weiner seemed to be saying. Even when your job involves manipulating the feelings of strangers and flogging them sugar-saturated products, doing what you are good at to the best of your ability may be the key to a fulfilling existence and a life lived with dignity.

Dignity was in short supply on this week's Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic, Monday). If you've stepped within 100 yards of the internet you will already have caught wind of the kerfuffle. Part six of the latest season concluded with the rape of heroine Sansa Stark. The scene was widely condemned as glib and exploitative - television wallowing in nastiness for its own sake.

There is some validity to the argument - particularly in view of the fact that Game of Thrones engaged in the same shock tactics, more or less, last year, when evil twin Jaime was shown apparently raping his sister Cersei. The humiliation of Sansa has left an unpleasant taste, with many fans declaring they were 'quitting' GoT.

With four episodes of the current run left, it is possible GoT will grant the character an empowering redemption. You wonder whether it will be a case of too little too late.

An altogether jollier stripe of escapism was provided by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (BBC1, Sunday), adapted from Susanna Clarke's 2004 tale of feuding magicians and wicked fairies, unfolding against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. As with the book, the first of seven dispatches took its sweet time and it would be a shame if viewers switched off before the series achieves lift-off, as it does in episodes two and three.

A somewhat bumbling tone suggested a tin ear towards the novel - though there were flashes of the book's grandeur too, particularly in a stunning early sequence in which Mr Norrell, one of only two practising magicians left in England, brought the statues of York Cathedral to life. We advise you to persist - it really does get better.

That is more than can be said for Pat Kenny in the Round (UTV Ireland, Monday), which saw viewership slump 50pc in a week. This is no fault of Kenny who, though frequently critiqued as Alan Partridge made flesh, can be an insightful interviewer when freed of the obligation to make meaningless chit-chat with his subjects.

In his tête-à-tête with astronaut Chris Hadfield, Kenny was thoughtful and dogged - but unlike Hadfield, you wonder if he won't be soon dragged back to earth, laid low by the merciless entropy of low ratings.

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