Judge Dan Mancini: He's Toasted.
Our reviews of Mad Men: Season Two (published July 14th, 2009), Mad Men: Season Two (Blu-Ray) (published July 14th, 2009), Mad Men: Season Three (published March 22nd, 2010), Mad Men: Season Three (Blu-Ray) (published April 1st, 2010), Mad Men: Season Four (Blu-Ray) (published March 28th, 2011), Mad Men: Season Five (Blu-ray) (published November 12th, 2012), Mad Men: Season Six (Blu-ray) (published November 11th, 2013), and Mad Men: The Final Season, Part One (Blu-ray) (published October 20th, 2014) are also available.
Who is Don Draper?
Matthew Weiner penned the pilot script for Mad Men in 2000. Everyone who saw it thought it was brilliantly written, but no network wanted to buy it. Perhaps it was ahead of its time. The script did impress producer David Chase enough that he hired Weiner to write for a little show called The Sopranos.
Weiner's involvement with that successful and groundbreaking show generated newfound interest in Mad Men. In 2007, AMC picked up the show for a 13-episode first season. Critical acclaim and two Golden Globes (for Best Television Series, Drama and Best Actor in a Television Series, Drama) followed. Mad Men has found its time and place.
Renewed for a second season to begin airing in the summer of 2008, the show's first season arrives on DVD for those who missed its broadcast run (as well as those who want to see it again).
Facts of the Case
New York City, 1960. Sterling Cooper is a swinging Madison Avenue advertising agency where the men are men and the women know their place. Everyone smokes, drinks, and sleeps around…a lot.
Creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm, We Were Soldiers) is the agency's rising star, a man with a seemingly perfect life: He's on the verge of being made a full partner, has a beautiful wife (January Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), two kids, a nice home in the 'burbs, a bohemian lover in the Village (Rosemarie DeWitt, Cinderella Man)…and a secret that might ruin him. Draper spends his days wooing clients, keeping his boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery, Flags of Our Fathers) happy, and protecting his back from Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, Joss Whedon's Angel), a fresh-faced account executive gunning for his job. Against this backdrop of office intrigue, Draper produces ad campaigns to help Nixon defeat Kennedy in the current presidential election, divert attention from the cancer risks of Lucky Strike cigarettes (he comes up with the infamous "It's Toasted" slogan), and help a Jewish department store run by the beautiful and thoroughly modern Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff, Then She Found Me) attract a more upscale clientele.
Meanwhile, Draper's new secretary, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, Girl, Interrupted) learns the ins-and-outs of office politics (pun sort of intended) from Sterling Cooper's curvaceous, wily, and free-spirited office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks, Firefly). But when Peggy's focus group feedback about a line of lipstick demonstrates her keen sense of observation, understanding of female psychology, and knack for coming up with catchy slogans, she kicks off a small sexual revolution in the office as Draper considers making her the agency's first female copywriter since World War II.
Mad Men: Season One contains all 13 episodes of the first season:
• "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"
Despite the near universal accolades showered on Mad Men's writing, the pilot episode, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," is creaky in the early going, as it hammers home the otherworldliness of life in early '60s America. The first five minutes hit us with overt racism, even more overt anti-Semitism, unapologetic sexism, cynical denials of the hazards of smoking, and a blatantly obvious closet case that none of the other characters recognize as a closet case. It's all a little much, though still better than the rigidly mechanical expository writing that characterizes the first acts of most TV pilots. Just when you begin to think Mad Men is hopelessly over-written, it gets the ugly business of establishing its world out of the way and finds its rhythm. And what a rhythm it has. The show's perfect meacute;lange of office intrigue, personal peccadilloes, and witty social commentary make it a not-so-guilty pleasure. Make no mistake, Mad Men is a soap opera, but it's an awfully sophisticated one.
Context is everything. Thousands of shows parlay our base fascination with sexual intrigue and romantic infidelity into big ratings. Some of them attempt to flavor their tangled couplings with a conscience, inviting us not to feel completely morally bankrupt for taking such pleasure in watching people cheat on their significant others. Mad Men's soap opera shtick is something special because the double-dealing and betrayal is so deeply rooted in the second-class status of the show's women. Mad Men doesn't feign a moral point, but asserts one quite firmly by showing how all of the women—both wives and mistresses—are playing a rigged game, one whose rules are openly and obviously stacked against them.
Take Betty Draper. On the surface, she's a stereotypical Eisenhower-era housewife (since the show takes place during the 1960 presidential race, it is set in the Eisenhower era). Beneath that placid surface, though, she's bored, lonely, angry, dissatisfied, and sexually unfulfilled. Since Don has nearly all of the power in the relationship, his extra-marital dalliances become more than juicy little subplots at which we cluck our tongues. They are cruel betrayals of a woman who needs the security of his fidelity far more than he needs hers.
Yet it is Don Draper, with his love for the underdog and identification with the self-made, who recognizes the talent of his secretary Peggy. He pushes more and more responsibility her way, acting as the architect of her success, though they work in a corporate environment in which such success is unthinkable. The contrast between Draper's casual chauvinism toward his own wife and principled championing of Peggy exemplify the magic at the heart of Mad Men: Instead of playing the anachronisms of the show's period setting for camp laughs or using them to preach political correctness, the writers make them the slave of character and plot. The backwardness of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and glib attitudes about the newfound power of advertising to manipulate the masses may be hyper-obvious to us, but it's entirely invisible the show's characters. Since they take these things for granted as unchangeable truths, we identify with and root for them even as they say and do things that make us cringe. It's an incredibly smart and unique approach to writing a television show. When you add to that a consistent supply of unexpected plot twists and satisfying resolutions to the many intertwined subplots, there's no denying that Mad Men is one heck of an entertaining show.
Mad Men's thirteen episodes look good, if slightly disappointing, in this four-disc boxed set. From costume and set design to lighting and cinematography, the show's visual style has a high-gloss sheen in perfect keeping with both its subject-matter and period setting. The DVDs' 1.78:1 anamorphically-enhanced transfer sports excellent detail and color reproduction. Unfortunately, I have to downgrade what would have been an exemplary image score due to prevalent haloing from an excess of edge-enhancement. Overall, the video looks great, but it could've been better.
Audio is better than video. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is limited only by the relatively straight-forward sound design. The period music used throughout the show sounds superb, though.
In terms of extras, this set gets it right. Audio commentaries by cast and crew are provided for each and every episode of the show. In addition, there are better-than-average featurettes on the music used in the show, advertising in the 1960s, and a making-of that thoroughly covers the show's genesis and production. Essentially an advertisement for the soundtrack CD released in conjunction with the DVD, the "Music Sampler" is the least of the extras. It's still kind of cool, though. On par with the featurettes is a photo gallery slideshow accompanied by commentary by the creative people responsible for the show's look. Finally, there's a preview for Mad Men's upcoming second season.
Mad Men: Season One comes in standard packaging or a tregrave;s chic Limited Edition tin shaped like a Zippo lighter.
Matthew Weiner's Mad Men puts a fresh spin on some well-worn television conventions. In so doing, it breaks new ground while making full use of some of TV's most reliably entertaining plot devices. What more can you ask?
Don Draper and his team completely sold me on Mad Men. But that's their job, isn't it? Not guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentaries
Review content copyright © 2008 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.