For those of you who live in some kind of subterranean lair (or reside in an orbiting space shuttle), let me recap the basics of AMC’s award-winning series ‘Mad Men:’ The show takes place in the early 1960’s in an ad agency in New York. Our main character is creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Draper has a beautiful wife (January Jones), a couple of cute little kids, and a kind of wizardly ability to come up with the perfect way to sell a product, no matter how bland it may be.
Draper is also a serial cheater, shaking up with all sorts of women. It’s a philosophy held by many at the ad agency, Sterling Cooper, particularly his boss and good friend Roger Sterling Jr. (John Slattery), the firm’s senior partner. Others that inhabit Draper’s orbital world of cocktails, cigarettes, and thin ties include Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a young account executive who is probably a sociopath (in my estimation), and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), the office manager and head of the secretary pool who always knows what’s going on.
There are two main dramatic thrusts at work in ‘Mad Men’ (at least at this point, in season two): One, will Don Draper ever get his shit together, stop cheating on his wife, and open up about his mysterious past? (Spoiler alert: his real name is not Don Draper.) Two, how will our characters and their lives buttress and collide with the tumultuous historical events swirling around this period. The two complement each others in certain ways, and the show always walks a fine line in terms of what it’s telling us (about history, about the characters) and what it’s keeping from us.
That last conceit is key to ‘Mad Men’s’ second season. If you haven’t watched season one yet, you might as well skip the rest of this section of the review and read ahead to see how nifty the picture quality and special features are. Everyone else, keep reading. At the end of season one, one of our central characters, Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), who was kind of our introductory vessel into the crazy, testosterone charged world of ‘Mad Men,’ found out she was pregnant. The events of season two jump several years forward, so now there’s an even more mysterious element built into the show of what, exactly, happened with Peggy and her baby, who helped her cover it up, etc. Peggy’s mysterious past mirrors Don’s mysterious past, which is discovered by one of his coworkers. Both personal histories are filled in throughout the season with artful, at times shocking, flashback sequences.
Is ‘Mad Men’s’ second season as compelling as its first? Well, no. It’s a little too oppressively dark, and the final story arc, which sees Don attempt spiritual rebirth in the sunny state of California, is unnecessarily baggy, self-indulgent and overcooked. Also, the kind of fizzy, ratatat energy that was so key to the first season’s establishment of time and place, has flattened out somewhat. Everyone still looks fabulous, drinking and smoking and wearing thin ties, but without the bubbly electricity.
Still, ‘Mad Men’s’ second season is compulsively watchable (and makes way for its even crazier third season), beautifully photographed, expertly written (largely by series creator Matthew Weiner, a ‘Sopranos’ vet), and wonderfully acted. It’s now that I’ll say that when I started watching the show, in preparation for this review, I was afraid it would be all machismo swagger, a kind of period ‘Entourage.’ I’m sure others fear this too. But what I was so impressed by, from the very beginning of season one, was that the women characters are the most fully fleshed out and interesting, particularly Joan and Peggy. While the show may be called ‘Mad Men,’ it’s the women that keep you watching.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘Mad Men’s second season is a three-disc set (each disc is 50GB) and is Region “free.” The discs auto-play once you put them in your device, followed by a creepy ad for Clorox that condones infidelity, and an ad for the show (for some reason) – if you bought this set, you’re probably a fan. I should also say that the interface of these discs is really wonderful, intuitive, and slick. Loved it.
Part of what makes ‘Mad Men’ such a fun watch is the period detail. Here, with the set’s sublime MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: a cinematic 1.78:1), this detail has never looked better.
Everything in ‘Mad Men’ has an almost three-dimensional level of texture, from the different fabrics (and metals and plastics) used in both the costumes (particularly Joan’s outrageous getups) and the set design, to the way everyone’s hair is so expertly coiffed. This texture is wonderfully strong here. Skin tones look amazing. Colors vibrantly pop. Shadows are deep and inky. Everything looks divine.
There aren’t any technical issues, either. There is a fine layer of grain, however, which actually adds some authenticity to the show, and in a way adds to the period detail.
If you’ve only seen 'Mad Men' on television, in standard definition, then your eyes will probably pop out of your head when you see this absolutely stunning transfer. It’s about as good as any television show can look (and on a basic cable budget no less!)
Less bombastic but still quite good is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. (This is the set’s only audio option, by the way.)
‘Mad Men’ is a dialogue heavy show, for sure, so most of the action is in the front, with little use for the more dynamic surround sound elements we all clamor for. (The rear channels mostly handle the score and finely chosen songs.) But this is okay when the dialogue is reproduced as crisply and clearly as it is here. Occasionally other channels get used, and generally the effect is one of subtle immersion – you feel as though you’re just down the hall from the steno pool.
This is the kind of subtle precision track that isn’t trying to wow you, but is just as impressive (and all too overlooked). This track is an immersive and atmospheric one, where ambience and dialogue are equally important, and everything is perfectly prioritized. No complaints here.
There are also subtitles in English and Spanish.
All the extras presented on this set are also on the DVD version. Thankfully, there are a whole bunch (and here they’re in sparkly HD).
‘Mad Men’ is one of the best shows on television. It’s smart, stylish, and occasionally confrontational. If you’re already a fan, you’ll be over the moon for this set. The audio and video are exceptional and the special features (a ton of commentaries, some wonderful documentaries) are an embarrassment of riches. Pour your martini, light your cigarette, and straighten your skinny tie – ‘Mad Men’ Season 2 is highly recommended. If you love the show, then bump that up to a must.