IT WASN'T quite eight years extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, but Andrew Wiles spent seven years solving a 300-year-old mathematics riddle, Fermat's Last Theorem (Horizon, BBC2). It's a Swiftian world all right, in which men (they all seemed to be men) toil, apparently uselessly, to find answers to puzzles that only their colleagues can understand. For this they somehow manage to be amply paid, allowing them to maintain pleasant lifestyles in Berkeley or Princeton, where they drink cappuccinos and iced teas in between epiphanic moments of discovery.

The programme was gentle with us. Expecting no knowledge of maths, it assumed only a natural human interest in a success story. I have no idea what x2 + y2 = z2 means, but I could imagine well enough that you would need hours of quiet and a supportive family in order to think about it. And proving, as Wiles did, that elliptical curves, modular functions, Galois representations and the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture were not all a house of cards, but instead fit together perfectly to explain the aforementioned Fermat's Theorem, must have been a moment of great triumph. You could tell this by the admiring reactions of those colleagues of his, and Wiles's huge happy smiles, interspersed with moments when you thought he might weep. This was the "proof" of the century, according to one pal - and proof too that even mathematicians are quite emotional creatures. Though the word "egghead" also springs to mind.

Another anthropological study was conducted this week. Hollywood Men (ITV) revealed why Hollywood movies have such a vague idea of reality: people in Hollywood are barely of this planet. Can there really be some purpose in having your house cleaned by a muscle-man wearing nothing but a thin strip of leather between his buttocks? But that's next week's theme: degradation. This week we were offered glimpses of the worst forms of male vanity, otherwise known as "insecurity". Whatever it is, it leads men in Hollywood to work out a lot, shave their chests, have face-lifts, hair transplants and penis enlargements, andseek to maintain a permanent tan while never going out in the sun (their dermatologists have forbidden it). It has also led to the creation of Fabio, "a romance icon" who began his career by modelling for the covers of romantic novels. "Yes, I used my body to get to a point," Fabio says. "But that's over. Now I have a message. I'm a persona." In Hollywood you don't need to be a person, only a persona.

"I exfoliate once a week," said a male stripper, who complained of paper cuts from the dollar bills women cram into his jockstrap. His main pleasure in life seemed to be discussing moisturisers with the beautician dyeing his eyelashes. Elsewhere, a man who couldn't have been more than 30 was getting a face-lift, apparently just for the fun of it. He looked no different afterwards, just happy in the knowledge that he'd done the best he could for himself - ie, spent $10,000.

The point of getting your penis enlarged seemed unclear. Perhaps it's so that you can join the Hung Jury Dating Club (eight inches minimum). A scary surgeon said he could do the operation, involving cutting a ligament and inserting fat liposuctioned from the stomach, in 55 minutes. He enlarges penises thus seven days a week, though inevitably there are failures and disappointments. According to him, most of his patients are more concerned about their "flaccid size" than their erect size. Yet another unnecessary anxiety, it seemed to me. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn about flaccid size.

Back to England, and a realist drama of the kitchen-sink school in Our Friends in the North (BBC2), which, according to the BBC announcer, will trace four friends' "sexually and emotionally charged journey from the 1960s to the present day". It would have been more remarkable to show four friends who managed to remain asexual and unemotional for 30 years. But this is melodrama, or melanoma: a saga that's supposed to grow on you.

It was very good on the dismal world of the Sixties, when England had atmosphere. People then would sit religiously in front of the telly in doom-laden silence, the occasional disabled relative in a corner; the hard-faced father would build a model ship while the downtrodden mother read the papers; and teenagers had to conduct sexual liaisons outdoors, fully clothed, becoming instantly pregnant if they made any adjustment whatsoever to their undergarments. Sort of Wallace and Gromit without the humour, though there were wry touches - the "New Britain" leaflets which the fiercely idealistic Nicky distributes on behalf of the Labour Party, and lame speeches about tower blocks built of steel, glass and sunlight. Sunlight in Newcastle?

Nicky (Christopher Eccleston) is beautiful rather than handsome, a strangely exotic face for someone determined to give up family, friends and education in order to work for local government. His girlfriend, Mary (Gina McKee), handsome rather than beautiful, is an unusual love interest - the screen seems to deepen when she's in the frame. Unfortunately, both Nicky and Peter Flannery, the writer of the series, neglect her in favour of politics, allowing her to be swiftly deflowered by the imbecilic Tosker (Mark Strong). The bonks, or semi-bonks, at either end of the first episode, are simply scaffolding for a rather portentous essay on the British power structure and political disenchantment. Bob Dylan may have thought the times they were a-changing, but the only novelty was the "modern prefabricated building system".

Though much distrusted by many on the Left, opera in The House (BBC2) turns out not to be a frivolous activity after all, but a mass of practicalities. There are divas equipped with vitamin C, bully boys who tour the Upper Circle in search of seats that could be assigned a higher price, rancorous committee meetings, wardrobe attendants who struggle with European shoe sizes, and various disgruntled employees consulting their solicitors. At one point, a Frenchwoman is flown in at a moment's notice to replace the American singer, Denyce Graves, who's got a sore throat. But no one feels any gratitude. Instead they make jokes about her name behind her back ("Damonte, sounds like a tin of fruit"), they speak no French, there's no rehearsal time, and she's apparently had to leave four children behind in Paris. After all that, singing Carmen is the easy part.

But the main squabble behind the scenes was about dismissing the box- office manager (quite good-looking I thought; the poor fellow could have a future as a "romance icon"). The discussion made Jeremy Isaacs look blue. Literally - his shirt was blue and his hair seemed to have undergone a blue rinse. It was the smoothie he'd hired, Keith Cooper - a marketing and PR man brought in to tighten belts and generally annoy - who stole the show. He'd been getting anonymous hate mail, and no wonder. The guy had no finesse. He spoke in high-falutin' euphemisms about firing people, but when contradicted collapsed in a flurry of swear-words and telephone trouble. You longed for the whole company to rise up, raid the fake weaponry and bury him alive during the next Aida.