Review: Better too many ideas than a sea of crinolines

Mad Men, BBC4
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The Independent Culture

Television drama used to put the past and the present in two separate boxes, marked "Contemporary" (think police sirens, shell suits, "ishoos") or "Period" (pinnies, status obsession, nostalgia). You were either Byker Grove or Howards' Way, Ab Fab or House of Idiot. One was "relevant", the other dusty, escapist and quaintly mannered. Sometimes, great stuff came along that was neither one nor the other (think The Singing Detective), but generally, it was as if TV had taken it upon itself to maintain the tedious theatrical feud between the well-made drawing-room comedy and the kitchen-sink drama.

Well, that's all over now, baby blue. One look at Mad Men, the classy new US import about the advertising executives who worked on Madison Avenue in the Sixties, and you realise that TV drama has finally found its own sweet middle way. Mad Men is set in a past so recent its paint's still wet. It's a costume drama but the characters aren't museum dummies; they wear old-style hats and coats but the lifeblood of contemporary issues pumps through them. They are busy creating the consumer culture that has us by the neck today. Episode one shows the inception of an advertising strapline ("It's Toasted!") that tempts me every time I look at a pack of Lucky Strike. In Mad Men the past isn't another country; it's the present just about to happen.

So it's good, then? Indeed it is. The first episode gives us several characters we miss as soon as they leave the screen: the camp Salvatore, stuck in the closet but still waving gaily; the troubled hero, Don Draper, whose very cranial structure resembles that of a Sixties matinee idol (they just don't make backs-of-necks like that any more); and my favourite, the new office girl Peggy, whose sexual adventures are motivated by reasons as yet opaque – though of one thing we can be sure: her gawky china doll fringe betokens a makeover about to happen.

The show is great at giving out dots and letting you join them. When Don Draper's account file appears in his rival's hands, he says sardonically: "It's not like there's ... some magic machine that makes copies of things." Ah-ha, we crow from the comfort of 2008: there soon will be!

This technique is familiar: at around the same time as Mad Men was a hit in the States, we were making our own time-condensing, perspective-twanging drama Life on Mars. Their scripts share some principles (in episode two of Mad Men, there's a brilliant moment where a child playfully puts a plastic bag over her head – and gets a far from contemporary response), though where Life on Mars constantly questioned its own rhymes and reasons, Mad Men delivers straight drama with the sweeping authority you'd expect from a producer whose last job was The Sopranos. The touches of pastiche (Saul Bass-style titles and Bernard Herrmann-ish musical interlude) never threaten to overwhelm it: this show is centred. Sometimes it feels as if there are too many "ishoos": sexual inequality, minority rights, consumer choice crammed in too zealously, as if someone's head had exploded when they realised period drama could be relevant. But better too many ideas than too many crinolines, I say.

Of the raft of accompanying documentaries, watch out for Selling the Sixties, a great companion piece, but don't bother with The Hard Sell, a talking heads yawn. Meanwhile, see you on Madison Avenue – unless, that is, you have disappeared down Stephen Hawking's plughole in the space/time continuum – though really, I would recommend sticking around on BBC4. While Stephen Hawking: Master of the Universe gives a fascinating portrait of the man it also sprays out dangerously disorientating scientific hypotheses, such as the idea that our universe is, relatively, no bigger than this. That's right, a full stop.