Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Is the look the thing?

Dominic West in The Hour
As The Hour hits our screens this week, are audiences looking for programmes which are style over substance?

I have a confession to make: I didn’t like the first series of Mad Men. I found it slow, boring and tedious. Nevertheless, I watched every minute of it. And then, I watched the second series as well. Why? To try and keep up with the Joneses and “like” this cool, new show? Partly, yes, but on the other hand, I loved the way it looked.
My admiration for the look of the show is frankly obsessive – an obsession for which I have been rightly mocked. I love the cut of the suits, the smooth photography, the proliferation of single malts, and the omnipresence of cigarettes.

Oh dear God, the smoking looks good. I’d take it up, if I weren’t so damned scared. If only I’d been born in the early forties in New York. By my age, I’d have been on forty-a-day and feeling good about it. The cigarettes in the show led to the best tube ad I’ve seen in a long while: a picture of three of the characters, Pete Campbell, Roger Sterling and the ice-cool Don Draper, looking dead ahead: Sterling smoking, Draper lighting up and Campbell with no nicotine to speak of. Above them, the slugline: “Addicted yet?” With this show, even the marketing’s got style.

The Cast of Mad Men
The power of the aesthetic is great and affects many more than just myself. There is an appetite for high standards of production, and certainly an increasing emphasis on the design of TV shows, driven by the influx of superbly constructed HBO dramas. This is not universal: Doctor Who deliberately has shaky production values as part of its charm (and the conditions for its pre-watershed timeslot). Nevertheless, the first sight of a stylish TV show is enough to generate huge levels of excitement. So it has been with The Hour.

There are many reasons to be excited by The Hour. It has Ben Whishaw, who single-handedly made Bright Star watchable, Romola Garai, who remains one of Britain’s most celebrated young actresses, and Dominic West, who is Dominic West. Such a cast is something to get animated about, but the trail for it, which has been coming up with increasing frequency over the last month, is superb: a split-screen joy of animation and shots of the actors, in (you guessed it) really good suits, set to an energetic fifties jazz score.

I found myself almost giddy with excitement. And then I asked myself why I was so excited? This was difficult to answer, because I knew that my answer was weightless: it looks good. Would it just be a repeat of Mad Men: Series 1? Or, perhaps more pertinently, would it be a repeat of Zen, the Rufus Sewell vehicle which looked sharp and sweltering – a demonstration of Mediterranean cool – but was, at the end of it all, dull and underwhelming?

Caterina Murino and Rufus Sewell in Zen
We wait to see with The Hour, but though I may be able to get past a few episodes on its style alone, it will need something more to keep me going. After all, with Zen I found nothing to keep me gripped and I stopped watching, but halfway into the second series of Mad Men I suddenly realised that I was really engaging with it, that I knew the characters in rich detail and that there was an absolutely incredible level of subtlety that was hypnotically good. This was nothing new. Perhaps I had been ignorant in first. Perhaps it was a slow burn. But, I started devouring the show, and have been ever since.

Audiences like high production values. They appreciate good craftsmanship, but they prefer good stories and good characters. Ultimately, they’d like to have both. But, you cannot have style without substance. That’s why Zen doesn’t have a second series, and Mad Men has just been able to negotiate its own terms with its network. Audiences enjoy one-series stands, but shows need more to last long in the affections. Something long-term is what audiences want, which, I suppose, is ironic when considering Don Draper.

The Hour starts Tuesday 19th July, 9pm on BBC 2
Mad Men and Zen are available on DVD 

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