“The Hour” V “Mad Men” via “The New Yorker”

The New Yorker is peerless, providing a home and sustenance for the finest writers in the English language. And its stable of regular critics are every bit as impressive as the rest of the writers that go to make up its rostrum. Whether it’s Anthony Lane and Alex Ross on film and music, or Judith Thurman and Nancy Franklin on couture and television, their pronouncements are flawless and delivered with impeccable aplomb. So it might have been disappointing to read the latter on the BBC’s The Hour. But it wasn’t.

That’s because anyone who has ever witnessed an American when confronted with a British accent will know how disarmingly impressed they are by it. It’s like watching a magpie being dazzled by a shiny object. They’re quite dumbfounded. So seeing the ordinarily foot-perfect Franklin reduced to a gushing schoolgirl when confronted by this tosh was, alas, par for the course.

In her review (http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=2011-09-12#folio=086), she refers to the inevitable comparisons that have been made between The Hour and Mad Men, and to the fact that so many of us on this side of the Atlantic found the former so palpable wanting. It wasn’t that they got so many things wrong in The Hour, rather it’s the fact that they somehow managed to get practically everything wrong. Every conceivable detail, every nuance, every look was so manifestly a reflection of when it was made, and not when it was set, that you literally didn’t know where to look.

The difference between that and Mad Men is nowhere better illustrated than in one of the earlier episodes from series 1 of the latter, when the newly arrived Peggy is being shown to her desk by the practically edible Joan (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OR0w37yQ4MI&feature=fvsr). Unveiling the brand new typewriter that Peggy can now use to work on, Joan says to her,

“Now try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology. It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”

Peggy nods at her nervously and says, genuinely grateful,

“I sure hope so.”

The reason that the scene works so well is because both actresses play it completely straight. There are no asides or raised eyebrows. Peggy, the proto-feminist, and one of the show’s protagonists really is grateful. The two women are as much a part of the magnificently sexist late 1950s landscape as the men who sculpted it. It is because the world of Mad Men rings so completely true, that you believe wholeheartedly in the characters there and the stories that engulf them. So your emotional investment in them is unwavering.

In contrast, every move that the female protagonist makes in The Hour has attitude, and reeks of today. None of the encounters with her superiors at, of all places, the BBC demonstrate any of the deference and diffidence demanded by the epoch, the institution and indeed the British Empire. Could it be more anachronistic? Hence, you don’t believe a word of it.

Still, it is rather sweet to see the cultural Titan that is the New Yorker blindsided by such silly pap from across the pond.

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