mad­ness

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dis­cov­ers he has been ne­glect­ing his fam­ily in his zeal to help his parish­ioners, and there are fine per­for­mances from Celia John­son, Mar­garet Leighton and a very young Denholm El­liott. Nine also has Catch Me If You Can ( 8.30pm, Fri­day) which makes a gor­geous change from Steven Spiel­berg’s usual are not yet avail­able. House con­sis­tently rates about the one mil­lion mark.]

Yet this re­lent­less Mad Men cam­paign has done lit­tle to sway me. If any­thing, it’s the rea­son I’ve held out for so long. Be­cause I can’t help won­der­ing: As view­ers, we’re more atom­ised than ever, with more op­tions, more chan­nels, and less in­cli­na­tion to hun­ker down en masse. For a lot of us, our tele­vi­sion-watch­ing habits don’t even in­volve ac­tual TVs. So why do we still feel this manic need to co­a­lesce around a sin­gle show?

It’s hard to re­call the pre-So­pra­nos TV land­scape, way back in 1998. This was be­fore DVD boxed sets and DVR ad­dic­tion, be­fore YouTube and TiVo, back when HBO was best known for sec­ond-run movies, pay-per-view box­ing and a year-old sit­com about four gal pals in Man­hat­tan star­ring that woman from Square Pegs .

In 1998 we were still liv­ing in what might be called the Hill Street Blues con­tin­uum, an era when a slickly pro­duced net­work drama, com­plete with en­twined plot­lines and showy act­ing and ap­pro­pri­ately adult themes pack­aged in very spe­cial episodes, rep­re­sented the apex of the medium. Shows such as ER and NYPD Blue his­tor­i­cal epics and su­per­nat­u­ral thrillers, and was for me the best com­edy of 2002. Based on a mem­oir by Frank Abag­nale Jr, it’s the story of a mas­ter im­pos­tor ( Leonardo DiCaprio) who passes him­self off as an air­line pi­lot, a sur­geon, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor and stock­bro­ker be­fore the FBI catches up with him in the per­son of Tom Hanks. A charm­ing frolic, re­call­ing Hitch­cock’s To Catch a Thief. Mag­nif­i­cent Ob­ses­sion ( Thurs­day, 12.15am, ABC1) is not the one with Robert Tay­lor but Dou­glas Sirk’s 1954 re­make with Jane Wy­man and Rock Hud­son, in which Wy­man plays a blind woman, a widow, whose life is trans­formed by the re­formed wastrel were con­sid­ered very good tele­vi­sion. But no one quite had the stom­ach to call them art.

Of course The So­pra­nos changed all that. It nor­malised, then pop­u­larised, the idea that a TV show could mea­sure up against the best of any art form. It her­alded an age of creative lat­i­tude for TV pro­gram mak­ers, at­tract­ing vi­tal tal­ent to the medium. And it co­in­cided with the rise of the in­ter­net, which gave ar­dent TV fans a new place to gather and whip them­selves into a froth, as if the of­fice cooler had been trans­ported into a gi­ant echo cham­ber. All of which cre­ated the per­fect con­di­tions for a show to be de­clared the best ever: not just an amus­ing en­ter­tain­ment but a can’t-miss cul­tural event.

When The So­pra­nos ini­tially went off the air, it was like Ein­stein hang­ing up his chalk or Shake­speare re­tir­ing his quill. There was no longer a con­sen­sus best ever to rally around. You’d think it would be years, even decades, be­fore an­other con­tender would ap­pear. In­stead, a new best ever — HBO’s The Wire — was im­me­di­ately crowned to fill the va­cant throne.

Oddly, no one ( in­clud­ing yours truly) had man­aged to fig­ure out how good The Wire was in its first three, un­der­watched sea­sons. Then sud­denly every­one fig­ured it out. In 2006, ev­ery re­spon­si­ble for her hus­band’s ac­ci­den­tal death. Al­most as sad, and a much bet­ter film, is Joseph Losey’s The Go-Be­tween ( Tues­day, 11.20pm, ABC1), about an English­woman ( Julie Christie) en­gaged to a mem­ber of the Bri­tish aris­toc­racy but in love with a lowly farmer ( Alan Bates). This pro­found and del­i­cate ex­plo­ration of mem­ory and lost love is full of shocks and sur­prises but never fal­ters in tone or pur­pose. A quick men­tion of Danny Boyle’s Mil­lions ( Wed­nes­day, noon, Seven), hardly the sort of film you’d ex­pect from the maker of Trainspot­ting and 28 Days Later . It’s a strange, un­set­tling com­edy about two boys on a hous­ing es­tate in north­ern

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