Review: Trash vs. Class

RORY ATTWOOD and CHLOE MASHITER give us Don Draper vs Danny Dyer in this week’s Trash vs Class.

Class Dyer Mad Men Trash TV UFOs

As the continued existence of Argos’ jewellery range proves, we all need a bit of trash in our lives. As much as we pretend to be paragons of wit and intelligence sometimes we need to unwind with ‘Animals Eat the Funniest Tits’ or whatever the executives have decided is a safe ratings bet that week. Everyone knows you need a balanced diet, however, and sometimes we need a little more than cretins catching STIs abroad. Barbour jackets are in, so you better have some quality TV to match your new attire. This week I’ve called on the services of Chloe Mashiter and Rory Attwood to help me in my quest. Unsurprisingly, one comes from BBC Three and the other from BBC Four.

Trash: I Believe in UFOs: Danny Dyer, BBC Three (Chloe Mashiter)

For those of you searching for an educated and technical insight into the possibility of alien contact, you might want to move along. If, however, you want to watch Danny Dyer (aka the man with the most entertaining cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke) frequently question his sanity in situations that are just opportunities for sceptics to point and laugh, then look no further.

Dyer wants to believe in UFOs but knows, in his infinite wisdom, that ‘gettin’ ‘ard evidence ain’t gonna be easy’. (My hopes of him whipping out a gun and hunting down the aliens, action man style, were sadly dashed) This is far more civilised, with Dyer first visiting Patrick Moore, who – I think – agrees that aliens exist, though I was far too distracted by Moore, in his shirt and tie, looking like Jabba the Hut had taken up temping.

Anyway, Dyer continues onward with his journey, briefly involved in what seems to be an episode of CSI Shropshire, joined by a pathologist to investigate whether aliens are ruthlessly mutilating and decapitating…farm animals. Yes, apparently aliens are a load of laser-packing animal botherers. But even this absurdity is surpassed when we’re introduced to the Aetherius Society, the world’s first alien religion. The sight of a man placing his hands on a batter with ‘Operation Prayer Power’ written on it and saying ‘ah the planetary ones!’ made Scientology look like a rational option.

The show is essentially a blur of Dyer visiting various generic middle-aged men and after the English supply runs dry he heads to America. He meets Stan Romanek, the man with the most alien encounters ever, who shows him previously unaired footage of an alien at his window. To be honest, it looks like the mist you get when someone breathes on glass – more asthmatic peeping tom than extraterrestrial being. Dyer has more luck at a UFO hotspot, where, through advanced night vision cameras, he witnesses a low-budget one-strobe rave in the sky. Cut to Dyer sincerely musing on hope, belief and how he’s had a magical experience that no one can take away from him, that sounds like it’s been lifted straight from a Disney film script.

If you do believe in UFOs and alien contact, I apologise for being so flippant, but I just can’t take any of this seriously – and getting Danny Dyer’s input doesn’t help matters. Watching Dyer ricochet from believer to believer, constantly confused as he really can’t decide whether he’s surrounded by absolute lunatics or total geniuses, is entertaining but won’t convince anyone of anything. But I wasn’t watching in the hope of meeting a Martian, I was watching to give myself a break from the world of intelligence and reason. And, with Dyer lamenting the fact that aliens don’t conveniently have Twitter, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I got.

Class: Mad Men (Rory Attwood)

In the introductory lecture on the Film and Television Studies Tripos, offered to students at the Cambridge University our grandchildren will attend (unless you decide to marry for looks), the first decade of the millennium will be identified as the moment when television drama grew up. Successful shows like The Sopranos (1999-2007) and The Wire (2002-8) proved that there is a market for intelligent drama, and paved the way for Mad Men (devised by Matthew Weiner, who also worked on seasons 5 and 6 of The Sopranos), which first aired in 2007, and has just finished its third season, currently being shown on BBC4. Mad Men is televisual art. If you haven’t seen it yet, buy, download, borrow, or come to my house and exchange sexual favours for the first season right now.

But first, allow me to explain why this show is great. Mad Men is set in a advertising agency on New York’s Madison Avenue at the beginning of the sixties; the central character, Don Draper, is its creative director, and we watch him work his persuasive magic: on clients, on any and all women, and then at home on his beautiful but dangerously bored wife, Betty. Not a lot happens, really. The plot is slow-moving, the characters are struggling, anxious, under pressure and, usually, drunk. Flawless writing and acting make just this quiet smouldering very watchable, but episode by episode Mad Men keeps unfolding.

Connections begin to emerge between the ranging dissatisfaction of each and every character and the business of advertising itself, the business of making people want what they don’t have. We see Don and his fellow mad men playing a dangerous game with America’s women: fashioning a dream of female empowerment as a way of selling lipstick, only to wonder why their own wives and daughters won’t do what they’re told. The period detail is perfect: Don’s morning coughing fits provide one momentary insight into what it must have been like to chain-smoke unfiltered Lucky Strikes all day — while devising poster campaigns to advertise their health-giving properties. The significant events of the early sixties — Marilyn Monroe’s death, the beat movement, the assassination of JFK — are seamlessly incorporated into the plot, turning the Sterling Cooper ad agency into a microcosm of the birth of modern America, and the modern Western world.

At the same time, Mad Men doesn’t take itself too seriously. We are encouraged to laugh at it and its characters: the outrageous misogyny (and homophobia) is archly handled — some sequences should be shown to certain contemporary stand-ups as an instructional video in what irony looks like — and time and again, a shot is framed in perfect imitation of a stylish advert from the New Yorker circa. 1960, only for the picture to be ruined when an ad man who has had too liquid a lunch (and breakfast) pisses himself in his office, or Don’s immaculate wife vomits with anxiety about her husband’s fidelity.

If you’re still not convinced that Mad Men is good enough for your granddaughter to write a weekly essay about, perhaps you’ll be persuaded by the fact that it pays plenty of tribute to proper art forms: the script makes pointed references to American literature — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara — and the cinematography invokes the claustrophobia and voyeurism of Edward Hopper as well as the superficial glamour of sixties advertising. Just watch Mad Men, and reflect that you might just be seeing first-hand the television equivalent of the Canterbury Tales.

To watch Danny Dyer hunting for his lost dignity…sorry I mean UFOs click here.

To watch Don Draper being a fucking bad ass click here.