Mad Men had a lot going for it when it debuted on AMC a year ago. With The Sopranos off the air, the next thing from its producers was sure to turn a few heads and within weeks of its debut it was being hailed as one of the best dramas on television. While AMC, a network known mainly for its airing of classic films, may seem like a strange network for the show to debut on, the shows focus of a 1960s New York advertising agency and its many employees is a surprisingly strong fit for the network. The era matches the networks “theme” and while it may portray areas of life far seedier than what the “classic” films it usually shows, the series proved that sometimes all it takes is one outstanding original production to throw everyone’s eyes toward a network not previously known for original content.
Set in 1960s New York, Mad Men comes from creator Matthew Weiner who wrote the original pilot script of the series back in 2000, but shelved it after being brought on board for The Sopranos. With his projects coming to an end, Weiner dusted off the Mad Men script right as AMC happened to be shopping around for an original series. The result was nothing short of fantastic: a rich, engaging show, filled with characters that were as complex and flawed as the characters Weiner worked with in the past. Between the thirteen episodes that make up the first season, there is no shortage of scandal and heartbreak, along with some genuinely entertaining and sharply written scripts. Mad Men may be an uncouth show, but it is one of the strongest original series to come out of Hollywood since…well, The Sopranos.
It’s odd I’m so highly praising of Mad Men now. When it originally debuted I was looking for something to replace the void that The Sopranos had left (I’ll probably talk about The Sopranos a lot here, but there’s valid reasons for that) and since this was from some of those involved with the series, I immediately jumped on board. Within a few episodes, however, I found myself wanting to get off as it wasn’t anything at all what I was looking for in a television show. When it came time to review the DVD release, I decided to give it a shot again and was quite surprised to find that even though I still didn’t enjoy the first few episodes, I slowly began to get wrapped up in the series until I found myself at the end of the set.
My main quibble with the show was with its treatment of women. Yes, that’s an odd thing to fault a show for, especially after watching how The Sopranos followed in similar footsteps, but I honestly felt disgusted with the show that they’d represent women this way. Of course what I failed to take into account at the time was just how time-accurate the setting of the series was and with this in mind the second go around I was a little more lenient. Obviously women are still portrayed as sex objects in the media today, but it was the way this series shaped them that just felt incredibly wrong to me. Even though there was no short of independent thinking women in the series, there were still times I couldn’t believe how the male characters treated them. Again, signs of the times, but…it took getting used to.
Of course it wasn’t just the treatment of women in the show that turned me off of watching it…it’s also absolutely loaded with racism, which, again, comes from the 1960s era. I guess what shocked me out of watching the show was just how “beautiful” the 1960s were portrayed in movies during that time and how it actually was just as dirty and screwed up as the world is today…only we didn’t have the media to talk about it or the gall to actually do the things to the fairer sex that we often thought about. For that reason alone, no matter how shocking and appalling it may come off as, Mad Men is worth seeing simply for the incredible level of corruption and disgust that was going on during the 1960s.
Settings aside, what makes Mad Men such a guilty treat to watch? Well the characters in the film are all so richly developed and well characterized and acted throughout the series that they alone are what keep you coming back. The plots can be thin as can be, but it’s the individual character plots that keep you interested; all the members of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency are as engaging as last and the lead of the show, Don Draper (played by Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm) really just makes for a magnificent character in more ways than one.
Like The Sopranos, Mad Men’s characters rely on each other to interact with to really get the feel of who each individual is, but once you see how individuals act in different settings with different people, you really start to connect with them, even if it’s on truly despicable ways. Each one of Don Draper’s character profiles, ranging from his work, to his home and even to the one he shares with his girlfriend on the side, are unique unto themselves and nearly all of the cast have multiple faces depending on who’s around. It’s these elements that allow you to immediately connect with characters, as it makes them more believable.
The show isn’t going to be for everyone. Those who sat through all seasons of The Sopranos will find things feeling very familiar, as the level of deceit, corruption and lies that are spread around walk along similar veins that Tony Soprano and his supporting cast all went through. But, when you have a working formula, why try to fix it? Mad Men may feel like The Sopranos at times, but it’s the setting, both in terms of the business shown and the time period, that really helps sell the show.
Other elements of the series to enjoy are the fantastically replicated office environments and clothing of the era. Everything feels absolutely authentic and I can only imagine what it must be like to set foot on the stages when they’re shooting. On top of the superb cast and visuals we have outstanding music by David Carbonara that, whether composed or licensed by, fits the show like a glove and never once feels out of place.
For a series I once disliked and didn’t think I’d ever watch, I was pleasantly surprised by what Mad Men was able to pull off. While I’m still not as blown away as others, the show is very well done in all avenues and will likely improve in few that its weak in. The series comes with a hearty Recommended, although like most dramas there isn’t much replay value after one or two viewings.
Mad Men arrived on DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate and, as usual, I’m continually impressed by what that studio is able to pump out. Not only are the DVD and Blu-ray editions of this four-disc set available for nearly the same price (meaning this set is actually affordable on Blu-ray), but it also comes housed in a fantastic cigarette lighter packaging (to accompany the massive amounts of smoke that fill the screen during the show). At least I assume it’s fantastic; it seems they ran out of the special lighter tin packaging and have switched to a standard digi-pak casing with clear plastic slipcase. Kind of disappointing when you see pictures of the tin, but oh well. Menus for the set are animated and aside from the annoying amount of load screens you have to sit through (Lionsgate intro, FBI, commentary notes, etc.), are easy to navigate around.
Before delving into the massive amount of extras on this set we first must tackle the audio and video portion of the set. Video is presented in a fantastic anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks absolutely pristine. There is, of course, a bit of grain on the picture, but every smoky wisp is well defined and without any real sign of compression. It’s a fantastic transfer all around and the accompanying 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio is equally as impressive. While the majority of the effects are placed in the front channels only, the music for the series emits from every channel. There’s no hiss, distortion or anything to hinder your enjoyment of the show—everything looks and sounds as it should.
And now…the extras! You’ll actually spend more time watching and listening to these extras than you will on the series itself, which in of itself is astonishing. While every other studio seems to do the bare minimum for their releases, Lionsgate consistently impresses the hell out of me with how much effort they put into their releases…especially ones that are actually sanely priced. I’m not sure how they can afford to do it, but whatever it is they’re doing they need to teach the other studios to do because there is just an insane amount of extras to get through on this set.
Each and every one of the episodes of the seasons includes commentary. Impressive, right? While that’s usually enough for most studios, Lionsgate has taken it upon themselves to, at times, record multiple commentaries for episodes. Only three of the thirteen episodes have a single commentary, so that adds up to twenty-three commentaries, adding up to over sixteen hours of commentaries. While that may sound like a lot, each one of the commentaries remains informative and interesting, although the more crew that’s on the track, as opposed to cast, the dryer and quieter it gets at times, as there’s only so much to add in. However there is a host of actors and actresses accompanying the tracks at times, so there’s rarely a moment that gets too dull.
The commentary list is as follows: Disc 1 – “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” – Commentary with Matt Weiner, Commentary with Alan Taylor; “Ladies’ Room” – Commentary by January Jones and Rosemarie Dewitt, Commentary by Micahel Gladis and Elisabeth Moss ; “Marriage of Figaro” – Commentary by Jon Hamm, Maggie Siff and Darby Stanchfield. Disc 2 – “New Amsterdam” – Commentary with Vincent Kartheiser, Alison Brie and Lisa Albert; “5G” – Commentary with Elisabeth Moss, Jon Hamm, Aaron Staton; Commentary with Leslie Linka Glatter; “Babylon” – Commentary with Christina Hendricks and Maria and Andre Jacquemetton; Commentary with Andrew Bernstein. Disc 3 – “Red in the Face” – Commentary by January Jones, John Slattery, Jon Hamm and Vincent Kartheiser; Commentary with Tim Hunter; “The Hobo Code” – Commentary by Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss and Bryan Batt; Commentary with Phil Abraham; “Shoot” – Commentary by Janie Bryant and Matt Weiner; Commentary by Dan Bishop. Disc 4 – “Long Weekend” – Commentary by Christina Hendricks and Matt Weiner; Commentary by Tim Hunter and David Carbonara; “Indian Summer” – Commentary by Elisabeth Moss and Matt Weiner; “Nixon vs. Kennedy” – Commentary by Jon Hamm, Vincent Kartheiser and Rich Sommer; “The Wheel” – Commentary by Jon Hamm, January Jones and Elisabeth Moss; Commentary by Matt Weiner, Robin Veith and Malcolm Jamieson.
As if the commentaries weren’t enough, Lionsgate has thrown on some standard extras as well. From disc one we have “Scoring Mad Men” (7:20) as well as a Mad Men Music Sampler, the first of which talks about the music in the show and the second of which actually provides some of the music from the show. Wrapping up the first disc is “Mad Men Season 2 Preview” (1:02), while the second disc boasts “Advertising the American Dream” (19:01), which is an overview of the 1960’s advertising the “American Dream” and isn’t strictly relating to the show itself, but more to its time period and the goal marketing studios had when it came to their products. Also on disc two is “Pictures of Elegance”, a rather cumbersome and clunky extra that has commentary over the many costumes used in the series. It’s all simple imagery and commentary, provided by costume designer Jane Bryant and hair stylist Gloria Casny, that runs over an hour and twenty minutes.
Moving onto disc three we find the last of our non-commentary extras. “Establishing Mad Men” (01:01:10) is a lengthy, three-part (or is at least divided up into three parts during the actual documentary) documentary that discusses the very beginnings of the show and travels all through its various stages and includes lots of behind-the-scenes video and imagery, along with a ton of cast and crew commentary. It’s easily one of the most surprising and well-done documentaries I’ve watched in a long time.
Whether it’s because I spent so much time with the DVD set or simply because of how enjoyable the show itself is, but I became quite a fan of Mad Men. And while I wasn’t as wrapped up in the commentaries as the die-hard fans no doubt are, the accompanying featurettes and documentaries were also nice crash-course extras for those who aren’t daring enough to sit through twenty-three commentaries.
It’s easy to slap a Highly Recommended tag on this set just for its production values alone, but when the content is of such high caliber, it’s easy to recommend this title to even the casual viewer. The show takes getting used to, but once you’re in, you’ll likely never get back out.
Mad Men: Season 1 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.