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 (–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 ( 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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