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