Judge Dan Mancini wants to be Roger Sterling when he grows up.
Our reviews of Mad Men: Season One (published July 2nd, 2008), Mad Men: Season Two (published July 14th, 2009), Mad Men: Season Two (Blu-Ray) (published July 14th, 2009), Mad Men: Season Three (Blu-Ray) (published April 1st, 2010), Mad Men: Season Four (Blu-Ray) (published March 28th, 2011), and Mad Men: Season Five (Blu-ray) (published November 12th, 2012) are also available.
"Change isn't good or bad. It just is."—Don Draper
Another season's worth of episodes of the best show currently on television. What a gas!
Facts of the Case
Set in the early 1960s, Mad Men concerns the work and play of a group of slicksters who work at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue. The firm's creative director is Don Draper (Jon Hamm, The Day the Earth Stood Still ), a man who has it all—talent, money, good looks, a beautiful family—but also harbors a secret: He was born in poverty as Dick Whitman, and became Don Draper by a bizarre twist of fate during his time as a grunt in the Korean War. When last we left the folks at Sterling Cooper, it was October of 1962. Against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an unexpected pregnancy had given Don and Betty Draper's (January Jones, We Are Marshall) floundering marriage a hint of new life, Roger Sterling (John Slattery, Flags of Our Fathers) and Bert Cooper (Robert Morse, Here Come the Munsters) had sold a controlling interest of the agency to a British firm, and everyone's future was uncertain.
Season Three opens in March of 1963 as Sterling Cooper struggles to find its new identity under the authority of its British parent company. During the course of the season, Don strikes up a taxing but potentially lucrative business relationship with famed hotelier Conrad Hilton (Chelsie Ross, Drag Me to Hell), Betty gives birth to their third child but finds herself attracted to an aide of Governor Rockefeller, curvaceous office secretary Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks, Firefly) prepares to leave her job to become a housewife, copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, Girl, Interrupted)—the firm's only female employee who isn't part of the secretarial pool—continues to grow in confidence, and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, Alaska) and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton, August Rush) fight for dominance as the agency's two Account Directors. New to the show is financial officer Lane Pryce (Jared Harris, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Placed in charge of Sterling Cooper's transition, the Londoner struggles to remain loyal to his company while dealing with the sometimes harsh realities of life in New York City.
Mad Men: Season Three contains all 13 of the season's episodes, spread across four discs:
I'd have guess two seasons ago that Mad Men would have worn out its welcome by now, that its early '60s shtick would've grown tiresome. Boy, would I have been wrong. The series continues to be a riveting riff on life in America a half century ago. It's a soap opera, to be sure, but a daring and intelligent one that plays the genre's usually tired conventions like Paganini played Il Cannone Guarnerius. Consider the season's first episode. On a business trip to Baltimore, Don has a one-night stand with a stewardess (they weren't called flight attendants back then, remember). Marital infidelity is a staple of soap operas. Mad Men is no exception, but it treats the subject with a thematic and emotional weight uncommon in nighttime television dramas. The episode ends with a shot of Don, back at home, sitting up in bed beside his sleeping wife. He stares in the middle-distance, eyes vacant, fearful perhaps that he's slipping back into the same patterns that led to his existential malaise throughout Season Two, and that nearly ended his marriage. It's not the sort of complex emotional truth one finds in, say, Desperate Housewives. But Mad Men's characters are rich and complex; its writing sharp.
The show's writing has always been exceptionally intelligent, but Season Three ups the ante over the previous two runs, delivering 13 episodes so tightly planned and scripted that, by the finale, every single moment of the season feels vitally important. Much of Season Three unfolds with the dramatic ebbs and flows typical of soap operas, until the last three or four episodes when the various far-flung plots and subplots begin to congeal, and we see the entire season as a tightly constructed, precisely integrated whole. Season Two ended against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, using the anxiety the American people felt while living on the edge of nuclear annihilation as an analog of Sterling Cooper's being absorbed by the firm's British buyer. Season Three uses early '60s history to even better, more emotionally resonant, effect as the characters' stories are resolved against the assassination of President Kennedy. Directed by Barbet Schroeder (Chloe in the Afternoon), the season's penultimate episode, "The Grown-Ups," is a clinic in melancholy storytelling—relationships end, business deals fall apart, and a variety of chickens come home to roost, while Lee Harvey Oswold's evil deed immerses all of the characters in the inescapable truth that their world has changed forever. Yet "The Grown-Ups" is followed by a season finale that is exuberant, fun, and filled to the brim with narrative closure. The episodes' contrasting styles and tones make them one of the most enjoyable TV one-two punches in recent memory. If you're looking for a full-season television box set with the kind of storytelling that'll leave you feeling fat and satisfied, this is it, baby.
While we're on the subject of the show's brilliant writing, one of the biggest concerns I had when watching Mad Men's first season was that Don Draper/Dick Whitman's tangled past would be a poorly handled conceit that either overstayed its welcome or turned into a narrative cul de sac, or both. Season Two assuaged my concerns, revealing most of Don's secrets and seemingly resolving them to satisfaction. Don's earlier life is of little concern through most Season Three, but becomes an integral part of the proceedings as the season winds down. The writers once again do a fine job of not overplaying the subplot, but grounding it in character and allowing consequences to emerge organically. In fact, one of the show's hallmarks is that plotlines—however bizarre or outrageous—seem to sprout naturally from its intriguing, well-defined characters. Mad Men is peopled with characters who are, at turns, likable and loathsome, honorable and callow, admirable and pathetic. None are villains, and none are heroes. They're just people. That, more than its distinctive period setting, is what makes the show so unique and easy to love.
The four discs of Mad Men: Season Three are housed in an accordian-style digipak case that features a front-cover photograph of a steely-eyed Don Draper enjoying a cigarette. The digipak slides into a three-quarter height, flat black slipcover which is then housed in a heavy cardboard case featuring a photograph of a round-bottomed highball with a whiskey neat (presumably, since that's Don's drink of choice). It's a slick, attractive package perfectly in keeping with the show's perfectly tailored and quaffed style.
The show's 13 episodes are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphically enhanced transfers that are mostly gorgeous. Detail is clean and precise. Color is accurate in brightly lighted scenes, though reds and oranges tend to be slightly over-saturated in darker sequences. The digital artifacts that plagued the first season box set are largely absent here. Mad Men is a good looking show that looks great on DVD.
There is only one audio option: a Dolby 5.1 surround track that is full-bodied and immersive for a television production. The show has lots of dialogue, all of which is seated comfortably in the front soundstage. Music and effects spread out to the rear stage. The mix offers a crisp, detailed, and natural ambient space. It's a great piece of work.
The previous season sets of Mad Men each contained excellent supplemental material, but Season Three's extras top them both. Show creator Matthew Weiner, as well as various members of the cast and crew (including Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, and Jon Hamm), deliver audio commentaries on eight of the episodes, with "Out of Town," "Seven Twenty Three," "The Color Blue," and "The Gypsy and the Hobo" each receiving two tracks.
In addition to the commentaries, there are a number of truly substantive documentaries and featurettes:
Medgar Evers: An Unsung Hero is a two-part documentary spread across the set's first two discs (Part 1 runs 39 minutes, while Part 2 is 31 minutes). The civil rights leader's assassination took place on June 12, 1963 and features prominently in the events of Mad Men's third season. This excellent documentary features interviews with Evers' brother (a natural storyteller) and widow. Entertaining and informative in its own right, it's way beyond what we've come to expect of extras in a TV-on-DVD box.
Also heavy on substance is Clearing the Air: The History of Cigarette Advertising. Another two-part documentary, it runs a total of 45 minutes and is a fascinating examination of how the tobacco industry shaped modern advertising. The documentary is included on the set's third disc.
There are also two short featurettes. "We Shall Overcome: The March on Washington" (16:57) is a tribute to the August 28, 1963 civil rights march on the nation's capitol. The featurette consists of audio of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, set to photographs of the march. On a more whimsical note, "Mad Men Illustrated" features Dyna Moe, an illustrator who has become something of an internet sensation by posting stylish illustrations of scenes from the show on her web site.
Mad Men is everything I wish all television series could be: unique, elegantly written, and thoroughly entertaining. Season Three is the show's best so far. Don't miss it.
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