Monday, December 22, 2008

2008 round-up part one

As has been traditional for, ooh, three years now at Irk The Purists Towers, it's time for the end of year round up. This year, I'll be stretching the awards over a few blog posts.

Worst CD cover:

A slam-dunk for The Kings of Leon, whose Only By The Night looked like an explosion at the Adobe Photoshop development lab.

Honorable mention to Keane's effort, the inaptly-named Perfect Symmetry, which resembled a ten year old's interpretation of Mondrian. It's a long way from perfect. And it's not even symmetrical.

Best TV show:

A few contenders here: Steve Coogan's Sunshine was a strong contender, as was Ashes to Ashes. But the hands-down winner for me was AMCs Mad Men, an American import. A look at a Madison Ave. ad agency in the pre-Kennedy era, the show was pitch-perfect (no pun intended). Morally ambiguous, subtly-detailed and superbly-acted, it's incredible to think that the normally astute HBO passed on this. The office interiors are to die for, featuring a parade of mid-century classic furniture by the likes of Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, and much of the clothing on show makes Hedi Slimane look like Mr. Byrite. The characters are carefully delineated too by their mise-en-scene; the young, eager secretary Peggy's clothing, for example, is slightly farmish and frumpy compared to that of the vampish and worldly Joan (played by the astonishingly pneumatic Christina Hendricks), while the young newlyweds house isn't filled with early 60s classics as you might expect in a less nuanced production; instead Pete Campbell and his new spouse make do with outmoded, pre-war furniture that would have been passed down from in-laws.

But its the acting and scripting that really astonish. Characters are allowed to reveal themselves slowly, in a way that TV usually doesn't allow; Peggy's pregnancy, for example, was so subtly developed over the course of most of the last series that for about five weeks my wife and I were saying to each other "has she put on weight?". Most series would have had her fainting, patting her belly etc. , and generally underestimating the viewer's capacity for inference. This is one of those rare programmes that actually credits your intelligence and repays close examination.

As an example, just look at the clip above. It looks fantastic, for a start. It's an object lesson in design and marketing history (it's like
The Hidden Persuaders at 24 frames per second- and, incidentally, it's one of the programme's strengths that it uses real products and real ad agencies in its narrative). It's also superbly acted. While on one level the scene could be read as a schmaltzy, all-American celebration of family values in the service of sales technique, its moral ambiguity is laid bare when you know that senior ad-man Don, who's making the pitch based on his own wedding photos, is actually a philandering bum. But he's not making the pitch cynically, either. He wants to believe in the American dream. He just ends up falling short. Anyway, if you haven't seen it yet, do so with all due haste.

Incidentally, can I just lay to rest the canard that appears in the Guardian and other broadsheets with dispiriting regularity? The morons who write for these papers would have you believe that US viewers are spoiled for choice with a 24-hour diet of shows of the calibre of The Sopranos, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Larry Sanders and similar. Well, sorry to bust your bubble. American TV is
not inherently better than British TV. And there's nothing inherently better about having teams of writers on a show, either. 98% of US TV shows are cack, just like 98% of the shows that are made over here. The reason that US TV seems superior to ours is that we only ever see the good stuff! The vast majority of crud never makes it out of their country. Homeboys in Outer Space, anyone? The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer?

OK, rant over. Oh, merry Christmas, BTW. More 2008 round-up soon.

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