Series 6 “Mad Men”, Drugs and a Rare High.

Twin Peaks' dream sequence.

Twin Peaks’ dream sequence.

In retrospect, the arrival of Twin Peaks onto our screens in 1990 changed everything. On the one hand it exploded the possibilities of what a television series could aim for and encompass. And on the other, it marked the beginning of what would become a complete exodus of serious, grown-up populist drama from cinema onto television.

The exquisite At The Height Of Summer.

The exquisite At The Height Of Summer.

You can still see serious drama in the cinema. Films from Atom Egoyan, Asghar Farhadi reviewed earlier here, Julio Medem, Jafar Panahi reviewed earlier here, Lynne Ramsay, Tod Solondz, and Tran Anh Hung. And of course David Lynch. But they are very much the exceptions. The vast majority of what is on offer these days at the cinema is aimed at teenage boys and pubescent girls.

Television on the other hand has produced, to pick but four of a long, long list, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And it all began with Twin Peaks, which was the precedent, the blueprint, and the inspiration for them all.

Of the many, many things that Twin Peaks did so effortlessly well, the one thing that most people probably think of is dreams. Specifically, the dream sequence that so memorably ended the second episode.

Lynch got his actors to memorize and say their lines backwards, which he filmed, and then reversed in the editing suite. Similarly, he got them to perform some of their actions – but crucially not all of them – in the same way. It’s dazzlingly unsettling, and you can see it again here.

Lynch has always had a sensational handle on dreams. David Thompson astutely writes in his entry on Mulholland Dr. that the Dr of the title refers not to Drive but to dream here. It’s striking how often dream crops up in the dialogue. And his career began of course with the all too convincing portrayal of a living nightmare in Eraserhead.

So intimidated was David Chase by Lynch and his facility with dreams that he was rendered creatively petrified. Dreams are the one thing that The Sopranos failed to dazzle on.

If Chase is the televisual son of Lynch, then Matthew Weiner is his spiritual grandchild. But Mad Men has mostly avoided dreams. What it’s done instead is to tackle the one area that’s even more difficult to get right than dreams; drugs.

Mad Men.

Mad Men.

After all, at least in theory, anything’s possible in dreams. But for anyone who’s ever taken opiates, amphetamines or hallucinogenics, there’s only ever one way that that looks or feels. And it’s cringe-inducing to watch whenever anyone tries and gets it wrong.

Impressively, on the few occasions that drugs have surfaced in Mad Men, they’ve got it brilliantly right. There was that brief scene in series 2 when Don had his – and the show’s – first joint. There’s was the justly celebrated scene in series 5 when Roger does LSD here.

And now in series 6, there’s a whole episode, 8 The Crash, when a Dr. Roberts type figure gives Don and the rest on the creative team a shot each of speed. I’ll not spoil anything by giving any of it away, but it captures perfectly that misplaced sense of certainty that some drugs cause you to fix on otherwise meaningless ephemera. And it’s absolutely, and horribly hilarious.

Series 6 is currently hidden away in the depths of RTE2’s  Tuesday night schedule, like a former hippies’ final acid tab buried deep in a secret draw.

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“Breaking Bad” – AMC.

The golden age of American television continues, and an august lineage that began with The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men continues apace with Breaking Bad. Series 4 of the AMC show went out in the US last autumn, and the fifth and final season is due to be aired there later on this year. But it’s yet to surface on terrestrial television here, and many people on this side of the Atlantic will only be coming to it now.

All the best television depends on a series building a carefully constructed micro-world that you completely trust in because they know every square inch of it, and into which you’re invited for an hour once a week. What’s unusual about each of the above, is that they each focus on two completely disparate worlds, both of which you believe in and crucially, both of which are given equal weight when they inevitably come into collision.

The conflict created in The Sopranos arises when the mundane domesticity of family life comes into contact with the world of organized crime. But both worlds are given equal importance, and each of their characters are equally deserving of our sympathies.

Similarly The Wire has the good guys – the cops, the unions, a school and a newspaper – and the bad guys – the street gangs – but refuses to take sides. Instead, both sides are shown to be equally tainted by petty personal politics and conflicted loyalties which makes both sets of characters all the more fascinating.

Mad Men is a bit more complicated. The two worlds that come into conflict here are, on the one hand the black and white certainties of the late 1950s, which is what the show looks and sounds like, and on the other the pitch black and oh so contemporary cynicism of the show’s storylines and its characters, which is what the show feels like.

Breaking Bad takes this template and reduces it to its purest form. The two worlds here are the whiter than white collar world of an elementary school teacher and the bleached blond vanilla world that he and his family live in, and the dank and dark, grim and grimy realm of underworld drugs. When the school teacher (Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he decides to provide for his family by manufacturing crystal meth, and two worlds that ought never to have come into contact collide.

What’s so captivating about the show is that once that decision has been made, they treat everything he has to do, drug wise, as seriously as they do family wise. So for instance, when he has to dispose of a dead body, they really take you through, step by step, exactly what you’d have to do if you really were faced with having to get rid of a corpse.

Similarly, when he and his sidekick decide to offer their pristinely produced crystal meth (he is after all a Chemistry teacher) to one of the underworld’s main distributors, and suggest that perhaps he might consider using them instead of his usual producer to supply him with all his chemical needs, all Hell breaks loose, just as you’d have expected it to, should such an unlikely event have ever occurred in the real world.

All the advance reports on Breaking Bad were worryingly reverential. For once, they were entirely justified.

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