Nostalgia really is what it used to be

The success this week of Mad Men, which returned for a fifth series (Sky Atlantic Tuesday), and Titanic (ITV1 Sunday), which began a four-part run, showed that TV, made in much the same way it ever was, continues to be watched in much the same way it ever was. The studios invested in programmes; the viewers tuned in when they were told to. It was business as usual, in a number of senses.

Mad Men, which secured its largest audience (around 3.5m) when it aired on US cable channel AMC last Sunday, has settled into being a soap opera. The latest instalment was content to deliver familiarity. The first episode for over a year, it could easily have come halfway through an ongoing series. The programme makers were clearly protesting too much in having Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) say she no longer recognised Don (Jon Hamm) – and in having Joan (Christina Hendricks), who’s been on maternity leave, say that she no longer understood the jokes her colleagues were making. In reality, nothing has changed. At Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and on Mad Men, it’s the same mix of office politics and heedless smoking.

Who knew that flogging a dead horse could draw such a crowd?

TV executives – that’s who. The show’s creator Matthew Weiner knows what you do to a winning formula. Stagnation and popular success are hardly incompatible, and the absence of risk seemed strategic, calculated. Weiner was sure to offer plenty of the elements that remain attractive, however undramatic their context. The 1960s – we’re up to 1966 – continue to be ignorant and insufficiently liberal but also straightforward and glamorous. America is still a land of possibility and hope and unguilty success, its postwar sheen not yet worn off by fumblings in Vietnam.

The show allows us both to patronise the past and to long for its simplicities, to experience two apparently contradictory, similarly addictive emotions, condescension and envy. It’s escapism – with a judgmental kick.

When Mad Men started, there was genuine tension at play between the characters’ 1950s attitudes and the new decade whose changes they didn’t yet know about. The 1960s may have arrived but the Kennedys hadn’t – nor the Beatles. John Updike, in his novel Marry Me, described this period as “the twilight of the old morality”. Weiner has made the twilight last for more than 50 episodes. In the first series, Don was having an affair with a woman whose beatnik friends mocked him for being too straight – he was on the way out then. But Weiner knows that the programme, long since drained of its original energy and urgency, will continue its run of luck as long as he can create the impression that the life of flowing scotch and nodding secretaries is on the verge of extinction.

Titanic, written by Julian Fellowes, was even more cynical, yet it was greeted by 7m viewers – some no doubt missing Downton Abbey and settling for the next best thing (same writer, same decade), some no doubt eager for that feeling of pity (so close to Schadenfreude) that one can rely on from stories whose tragic endings we already know. “But we can’t be in danger – not on this ship!” announced the stuffy but well-meaning Lord Manton (Linus Roache). The fact that the territory is so well trodden might have been an incentive for Fellowes, a spur to ingenuity. Instead, he used it as an excuse to kick back, confident that he could hitch a ride on James Cameron’s coat-tails.

The sinking of the Titanic was a crucial catalyst for events at the beginning of Downton Abbey. It was what brought the middle-class lawyer, with his talk of “work” and “weekends”, into the lives of the Earl of Grantham and the women that surround him. Again, in the new series, the sinking of the Titanic is portrayed as a pivotal moment in British social history. The ship becomes a moving microcosm, with aristocrats and immigrants living – and dying – cheek by jowl. In Fellowes’ telling, everyone on board is as obsessed with class as he is.

One of the functions of storytelling is to put an allegorical or ideological pill in a form that people will swallow – but the story should take on a more or less autonomous life of its own. Both Weiner and Fellowes are brazen in using narrative as little more than a means of exploiting human weakness for the kind of nostalgia that leaves you shaking your head and swooning at the same time.

Susan Sontag was giving voice to intellectual suspicion of the medium when she said that television offered “a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor”. In fact, there’s plenty of selection and continuity – and plenty of intelligence. But it’s not always put to benevolent use. During the ad-breaks, we are sold products; in between them, we are sold philosophies, lifestyles, myths about the past and present. In the age of DIY filmmaking and online entertainment, the appeal of commercial television has held strong. We continue to be attracted, however unconsciously, by the prospect of having our senses diverted, our attitudes flattered, our brains washed.

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