TV Preview: Mrs Mandela | The Good Wife | Desperate Housewives | Mad Men | 24

Following the BBC's recent season of films devoted to notable women from the worlds of art and entertainment, and inching ahead of cinema releases about both Nelson and Winnie Mandela, this week brings us BBC4's Mrs Mandela, starring Sophie Okonedo as the controversial politico.

Written and directed by Michael Samuels (The Curse of Steptoe; The Falklands Play) it attempts to explain how decades of brutal oppression turned this idealistic freedom fighter into something more questionable. Unfortunately, Samuels betrays his lack of experience as a writer – he has hitherto concentrated on directing – by delivering a script that is too literal and expository, and often just plain clunky. His characters verbalise their inner motivations through trite aphorisms and corny emotional shorthand, so it's just as well that Winnie Mandela's story is interesting enough to hold the attention.

It's fortunate too that Okonedo delivers a fiery, dignified performance. A complex character to say the least, Mandela is portrayed as a largely sympathetic, headstrong woman whose passionate support of her incarcerated husband (David Harewood delivering a competent impression) was gradually compromised after 27 years of constant pressure and police harassment. The film flashes backwards and forwards between the historic day of her husband's release from prison to her many struggles as a symbol of black empowerment in South Africa, not least the five days of violent interrogation she suffered at the hands of army major Theunis Swanepoel (David Morrissey frighteningly embodying the tyrannical jackboot of apartheid).

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While it fudges her alleged involvement in the murder of a black South African teenager in the late 1980s, the film does at least provide a plausible explanation for how she may have become hardened after an adulthood of unceasing physical and mental torture. It also theorises that living in her husband's shadow, together with his interminable imprisonment, eventually sunk their marriage. Like the woman herself, Samuels' film is deeply flawed, but thanks to Okonedo and the inherent grip of the storyline, it succeeds despite itself.

A beleaguered woman of a considerably less significant kind is introduced in The Good Wife, a hit American legal drama starring Juliana Margulies as a lawyer struggling to recover her career and reputation after her husband is jailed following a high-profile sex and corruption scandal. On the evidence of the pilot, it's a drably conventional enterprise featuring a central character who doesn't inspire much enthusiasm or interest. Margulies has received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her performance, but given that her character appears to be a mild expression of empathy where a person should be, it's difficult to see why. The series may improve, but I wouldn't blame you for lacking the impetus to find out.

Lady woes also abound in Desperate Housewives, which returns for more archly soapy fun. I'm not a devoted fan, but I can appreciate its appeal. It is, after all, a perfectly enjoyable and smartly tuned bauble of comedy-drama. Told almost entirely in flashback during the eight weeks leading up to Susan's wedding to her ex-friend Katherine's ex-fiance, the opening episode introduces yet another mysterious family to Wisteria Lane (the mother is played by Drea de Matteo, aka Adriana from The Sopranos) and generally provides the usual melange of drama, sex and slapstick.

A big week for returning American dramas continues with the third series of Mad Men, in which angst-ridden ad man Don Draper has a weird, symbolic dream and cheats on his pregnant wife with an air hostess. Very much business as usual then.

The same could be said for the mercilessly entertaining 24. Series eight begins with a double-bill, at the start of which you can amuse yourself by wondering how long it will be before retired agent Jack Bauer must stop watching cartoons with his adoring little granddaughter and start saving the world again. Clue: at one point he has to improvise a tourniquet using a stuffed mattress, so it's not long.

He is prompted into action by reports of an assassination attempt against the president of one of those fictional Middle-Eastern countries that 24 loves so much. And on the day of a potentially world-changing peace conference too! He may be a civilian now, but fortunately Jack still has the permanently constipated Chloe to assist him from some ludicrously hi-tech government headquarters that makes the old CTU base look like a potting shed.

Despite a relocation from LA to the streets of New York, it is of course just more of the same. But for addicts such as myself that really doesn't matter as long as the action never becomes stale or the plotting too implausible (I do of course realise that judging 24 in terms of plausibility is like criticising Star Wars for being a bit far-fetched, but I'm talking in relative terms here). For a series that gobbles up plot twists so greedily, the question remains of how long they can put Jack through his paces before they run out of ideas altogether. But for now it seems that 24 is just as madly effective as ever. Mrs Mandela

Monday, BBC4, 9pm

The Good Wife

Monday, Channel 4, 10pm

Desperate Housewives

Wednesday, Channel 4, 10pm

Mad Men

Wednesday, BBC4, 10pm


Tomorrow, Sky1, 9pm

• This article was first published in The Scotsman on 23 January, 2010