During a midyear bout of flu I rediscovered a lapsed subscription to Netflix and the opportunity – so rare in the fractured daily life of an academic – to binge-watch Mad Men’s season 6. I consumed it avidly: it’s a great show, with some spectacular twists and super dialogue.
Yet, I have to say that this program, in which I have invested around 60 hours of passive viewing time since 2007 is, at its core, a soap. Yes, it’s a commentary on past and present, gender roles and media, and its ambience is alluring. But however fine Bob Benson looks in his very impressive suits, or however cunningly aligned this penultimate season is with the shootings of Bobby Kennedy and MLK (as all seasons are mapped across significant events in US history) we are still at least as engaged with Don Draper’s sneaking into his downstairs neighbour’s bed, or for that matter into his former wife Betty’s at a summer camp. The sets look great however much they change – and the Mad Men cast members are rarely seen outdoors – but over prolonged viewing, the show becomes a cavalcade of sexual advances rebuffed or welcomed, of subterfuge and intrigue, and hedging and elision. Mad Men is a ‘quality soap’, but it’s still a soap.
What, then, sets it apart from a more run-of-the-mill, far more workaday series like Neighbours, now in its thirtieth year? No doubt, it is the putative realism of Mad Men, the abovementioned historical accuracy and the social commentary through which the program shows us (or at least, Americans) where they are now, by revealing where they have come from. Neighbours is not historical drama, except in the sense that it has mapped, year after year, changing mores – and then ‘mapped’ in the most lagging, conservative sense, waiting until all other chips have fallen before it dares make an innovative move.
To compare Neighbours and Mad Men (or other longform episodic series, traditionally produced to fill hour-long slots in batches of 12 to 13 a year) is of course to compare forms only superficially similar. Neighbours has no overall arc as Mad Men was always assumed to; there is no end in sight for Neighbours, and for that matter no central character to have endured the program. Stefan Dennis’ Paul Robinson appeared in the first show – in a nappy, no less – but Dennis, and Paul, were absent from the series from 1992 to 2004; Ian Smith’s Harold Bishop and Tom Oliver’s Lou Carpenter both began in the show a few years after its debut – in 1987 and 1988 respectively - but are now only infrequently seen, if at all. Karl and Susan Kennedy, played by Alan Fletcher and Jackie Woodburne, are ostensibly the long-running ‘parents’ of the show (since 199*), a role consolidated by the 2015 opening credits which see the two standing, arm in arm, in the sac of Ramsay Street before the viewer’s eye is hoist into the sky for a view of the street layout, its radiant houses assembled around the central asphalt.
...Have to get this finished in a few weeks but Mad Men just got in the way.