The art of darkness

This compelling period piece is far more sinister than its critics have argued

<strong>Mad Men</s

The Mad Men effect is everywhere. Only this morning, I opened a glossy magazine, and there was an ad for Aquascutum in which all the models had Brilliantined hair and looked exactly like Mr Junior Accounts, Pete Campbell (the superb Vincent Kartheiser).

Naturally, not everyone thinks this is a good thing. For some, the leaching of the Mad Men aesthetic into the wider culture is a symptom of rottenness at the drama's heart. Yes, it looks great, they say; but beyond the Eames chairs, it's a moral and dramatic void. Last year, I read a piece about the series in the London Review of Books by a young man - I'm guessing his age, but he sure writes young - named Mark Greif. He called the show, which is set in a Madison Avenue ad agency in the early 1960s, "an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better . . ." and accused its fans of enjoying a good snigger at its period sexism and anti-Semitism. "Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn't That Look Good," he went on. "The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children!"

Now, I don't have any children to slap, but I must admit that the drinking does, on occasion, look pretty good (although, rest assured, I do draw the line at getting into my Buick several bourbons in). Otherwise, I am completely bemused by this argument. For "snigger", try "shiver". It's not only that one shivers whenever a character indulges in casual prejudice; it's that the whole thing is suffused with such an air of menace. You sense it - and, very occasionally, you see it, too, out of the corner of your eye. For every moment when the viewer considers what we have lost - good and bad - there is an equivalent one in which we cannot help but think about what these characters are getting themselves, and therefore us, into.

Anyway, Mad Men is back (Tuesdays, 10pm) - and I am very happy about it. I watched the first series the way I like to eat a box of chocolates: in one go. This time around, I'm following it as it's screened, which could possibly drive me nuts. Mad Men's writers are so cool-handed, they don't at all mind making their audience wait. Part one opened - and closed - without anyone telling us what has happened to the baby that Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) so shockingly gave birth to at the end of season one. Jeez, guys. "Would you like to have children, Peggy?" said Pete, her child's father (though he doesn't yet know it). "Eventually," she said, neatly. And that was it.

In other news, Roger Sterling is back at work following his coronary (thank God, because John Slattery inhabits this role the way a fox inhabits a hole); Salvatore (Bryan Batt), the closeted art director, appears to be involved in some kind of lavender relationship (I look forward to much agony beneath the satin coverlet); and Betty Draper is learning to ride (this very ominous indeed; I keep thinking of her back, so straight and so lovely, and imagining it broken, like a piece of expensive wood). As for Don Draper, he is having problems maintaining an erection, there being no extra-curricular female on the scene right now. Where is Rachel, the department store owner (Maggie Siff)? I think I long for her almost as much as he does.

Mad Men is watchable - compellingly so - for many reasons, but for me, its chief virtues are the amazing stillness of its central performances (this sounds perverse, but the more you study them, the more you realise they are the result of surprisingly little movement) and its obsessive attention to detail. Greif et al rail against its 1960s interiors and clothes as a clever distraction, but in fact these things often work as fine metaphors (a "chip and dip" plate signifies a marriage too deeply embedded in social mobility; Betty's earthenware coffee service represents, in her neighbour's hands, a certain kind of rhetorical self-justification, each clink of cup on saucer another warning of oncoming bitchiness). Their camp or vintage appeal is just an added bonus.

Look, if you missed Mad Men first time around, get yourself a box set this minute. If you didn't, you will know to ignore the contrarians. Enjoy the slow unspooling of its very inky plot.

Pick of the week

The Victorians
Starts 15 February, 9pm, BBC1
Jeremy Paxman tells the story of their cities - grumpily, we hope.

Starts 15 February, 10.20pm, BBC1
Glenn Close is back as the über-baddie lawyer Patty Hewes.

16 February, 9pm, BBC4
Smell that bouquet. Documentary about Berry Bros.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression