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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Masters Of Sex” and the death of the Soap Opera.

Masters Of Sex.

Mas­ters Of Sex.

The Sopra­nos, Break­ing Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Home­land, The Shield, The Killing, The Returned reviewed here, Top Boy reviewed here, our own Love/Hate, 24, Board­walk Empire, Dead­wood, House Of Cards, Six Feet Under, Lost, Game Of Thrones, Glee, Buffy, and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. reviewed here.

They all give us believ­able char­ac­ters in a rec­og­niz­able world that you real­ly want to invest your time in. Because what they are all about is the rela­tion­ships that are forged between the indi­vid­u­als who live there, and the bril­liant­ly told sto­ries that con­nect them and bring them all into conflict.

In oth­er words, they all do what soaps used to do in days gone by. Except they’re much, much bet­ter writ­ten, act­ed, direct­ed and produced.

Mad Men.

Mad Men.

Which isn’t mere­ly because they all have far more mon­ey to spend than a con­ven­tion­al soap ever did. Rather, it’s a reflec­tion of the rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion that tele­vi­sion had under­gone over the last decade or so. It’s part of what’s come to be called box set cul­ture.

Tele­vi­sion pro­grammes have to be so good today, that they demand to be seen on our ever larg­er and loud­er tele­vi­sion sets. So that down­load­ing them or stream­ing them onto your phone just isn’t going to be enough.

Not only that, they have to be so good, so remark­able, and to gen­er­ate so much talk and inter­est, so much noise,  that you’re going to feel an uncon­trol­lable urge to buy the box set and watch them all again. So good in fact, that when then they’re all repeat­ed, repeat­ed­ly on cable and satel­lite, you’ll hap­pi­ly watch them all again.

On the job.

On the job.

The lat­est in the cur­rent line of Olympian tele­vi­sion is Mas­ters of Sex. Based on a rev­o­lu­tion­ary study into sex­u­al mores and mechan­ics in the late 50s and 60s, it revolves around Michael Sheen as the sex­u­al­ly prud­ish but sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly dri­ven doc­tor, and the part­ner­ship he strikes up with the sex­u­al­ly lib­er­at­ed but com­plete­ly unqual­i­fied Lizzy Caplan, who he takes on as his assistant.

He by the way is called Mas­ters, and she Vir­ginia. Which could eas­i­ly have been an exam­ple of how clev­er­ly yet sim­ply the dif­fer­ent dynam­ics of sex­u­al pol­i­tics are delved into and invert­ed on the show. But that real­ly was what they were called.

In many ways, it’s lit­tle more than Mad Men lite. But it’s so well act­ed and writ­ten, and the sto­ries and their arcs are so care­ful­ly and clev­er­ly plot­ted, and it and they all look so fan­tas­tic – soft porn has rarely looked as plush, lush and refined – that you hap­pi­ly sit back, relax and let it all wash over you.

One more rea­son to stay in of an eve. And one more nail in the Soap Opera cof­fin.  You can see the Mas­ters of Sex trail­er here.

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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.