Last Night's Television: Mad Men, BBC4
Natural World, BBC2
Thursday 28 January 2010
When it comes to grown-up drama – rather than children's drama for grown-ups – America is unquestionably in the ascendancy right now. It's hard to think of any domestic equivalent for a show like Mad Men, which ignores the stock ensembles of the emergency room and the police station and allows its characters to retain a bit of opacity and mystery. Or one which would launch into its third series with a scene as oddly oblique as the opening minutes here. Don Draper, standing at a stovetop heating milk, sees a compressed vision of his own origins play out in his kitchen. He's born to a prostitute who curses his father as she dies in childbirth. "I'm going to cut his dick off and boil it in hog fat," she groans, and the woman who takes the baby and hands it over to a childless couple of ominous fury takes this as a cue for a christening: "His name is Dick.. after the wish his mother should have lived to see," she says darkly.
All this could just be cultural cringe, of course. We know that the papers of surrender have been signed and that it's our job, as viewers, to drool over the riches of the transatlantic offering, conveniently forgetting the fact that quite a lot of rubbish comes from that quarter too. And if you resent this almost reflexive twitch of forelock-tugging then this series at least offers one consolation for the discomfort of recognising just how superior Mad Men is to most domestic brands. It takes us back to a time when we Brits still felt we could condescend to the Yanks. "You Americans don't know how to handle your emotions," said Hooker, one of the English invaders who've just arrived at Sterling Cooper, "it's unbecoming." Hooker, nicknamed Miss Moneypenny by the other secretaries, is personal assistant to Lane Pryce, the patrician wine snob who's arrived to perform corporate surgery at the firm, and who steadfastly upholds the British reputation for impeccably mannered double-dealing.
Lane (unconvincing name for a British toff, by the way) provided the first bit of fun by simultaneously informing Pete and Ken that they were to be promoted to head of accounts, neglecting to make it clear that they were actually going to share the job. "Of course," he said languidly when the facts eventually became clear, "it's possible that someone will distinguish themselves... it would be easier that way." Pete, who's always been a bit of a whiner, thought this was desperately unfair: "Why can't I get anything good all at once!" he moaned to his wife. Because that way, Pete, we wouldn't have much of an incentive for tuning in next week and the week after that. Lane's decision was the starting gun on a dirty fight that will help tug us through the coming episodes, along with the rising resentment of the Madison Avenue natives against their ex-colonial masters. What will make it a pleasure to come back – rather than the empty narrative-dependency that some long-running series contrive – are all the things that fill in the bare bones of the plot line: the way that Don's indifference to Sal's homosexuality (exposed by a coitus-interrupting fire alarm during a business trip) was conveyed by what wasn't said rather than a grandstand speech; the odd insinuating way that Don brushed the grass with his fingers while watching a school dance; the feeling throughout that there is more here than meets the eye.
"How can we know what a chimp is thinking?" asked the voiceover at the beginning of Natural World's "The Chimpcam Project". I don't know the answer to that, but I think we can now categorically say that giving them a camcorder to make their own video diaries is an investigational cul-de-sac. The idea, that of an American student called Betsy Herrelko, was charitably described here as "ground-breaking research". If by that they mean that the camera left a divot in the grass of the chimpanzee enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo, after one of the chimps had hurled it down, I'll buy it. If they're trying to suggest that we actually learned anything new about chimp psychology, I beg to differ.
Herrelko's idea was to train the chimps to use a touch screen and then offer them a range of footage to see what most attracted their attention. What most attracted their attention, it turned out, were the peanuts she employed to bribe them into the screening room. They showed a mild sort of curiosity about the monkeys on screen, but mostly they just poked anything in the hope of getting another reward. And the strengthened camcorder was simply treated as a fruit with a frustratingly hard shell. Everyone involved tried to pretend that the whole thing wasn't a bust: "It took thousands of years of human ingenuity to invent video," the voiceover fatuously concluded, "but these ordinary chimps grasped something of this technology in just 18 months." They grasped that it got them peanuts.
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