Imagine you’re an AMC network executive tasked with ushering your company into the lucrative market of original scripted drama series. After being pursued for weeks by ‘Sopranos’ writer/producer Matthew Weiner, you’re intrigued as to what the Emmy and Golden Globe winning screenwriter has to offer. The Baltimore native sits anxiously across from your mahogany desk in a $3200 chair, sipping on a fresh latte your Swedish intern personally delivered just moments ago. “Sell me on it,” you tell him. Weiner shrugs his shoulders, sits back, and begins to explain ‘Mad Men,’ a period drama that’s already been rejected by a slew of heavy-hitters including HBO and Showtime. You? You grin because you know the show he describes would perfectly bridge the gap between what American Movie Classics once was and what it’s fighting to become.
Set in the amoral arena of advertising executives in the early ‘60s, ‘Mad Men’ focuses its eye on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a junior partner at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency who has become extremely successful at wooing the firm’s toughest clients with brilliant, revolutionary ad campaigns. His good friend and direct manager, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), has big plans for Don and readily embraces his thoughts and vision for the company. However, Don doesn’t have it as easy as his colleagues assume. He has to contend with a young office upstart named Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a psychologically troubled wife (January Jones), a feisty mistress (Rosemarie DeWitt), and the truth of his own secretive past.
While ‘Mad Men’ mainly focuses on Don and his expense-account cohorts, the series also introduces a second protagonist named Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss). Rising through the ranks of her male-dominated industry is a near-impossible task, but Peggy is quickly promoted from secretary to copywriter after impressing Draper with her ideas. Alas, her success is overshadowed as the other secretaries and executives begin to undermine her authority and question her talent, motives, and determination. Adding to her problems, Peggy must deal with the fallout from a short-lived affair with Campbell, an increasingly belligerent group of co-workers, and an unexpected surprise that threatens everything she’s worked so hard to achieve.
Unlike many drama series on television today, it isn’t necessary to suffer through the first few hours of ‘Mad Men,’ waiting for the story to hit its stride. From the opening volley of the first episode, viewers are thrust into the sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic culture that dominated American corporations in the early ‘60s. Business executives were WASPs, housewives were the naïve property of their husbands, and working women were secretaries, sex objects, and office play things. Weiner doesn’t pull any punches, exposing the show’s fictional firm for what it is -- an impenetrable boys’ club whose existence is fueled by other successful boys’ clubs. As a result, the show’s plotlines, character development, and central themes generate plenty of unsettling reactions that make it difficult to root for the whole of Sterling Cooper’s greedy and distasteful workforce.
Even so, Weiner doesn’t revel in his characters’ behavior or the firm’s exploits to shock his audience (as most edgy dramas on television are obsessed with doing), but instead aims to pull back the curtain on the world of advertising, marketing, and materialism in general. His assertion seems to be that advertisers don’t care for your well-being any more than the companies they represent. Profit is their goal and dishonesty is their game. To that end, Weiner uses Don and Peggy to provide an emotional counterpoint to the soulless practices of Sterling Cooper. Sure, Don and Peggy aren’t exactly role models themselves (neither one is a big fan of fidelity), but they represent a conflicted duo who have to propagate lies to survive the dog-eat-dog world of corporate business.
If Weiner fails at anything with this first season, it’s that the series’ middle episodes grow a bit redundant and bring the story to a standstill. ‘Mad Men’s opening episodes are packed with intriguing introductions, seedy confrontations, and thick tension. Likewise, its last four episodes are brimming with startling revelations and devastating developments. However, Weiner runs out of steam in between, allowing a handful of soap-opera-esque subplots to sneak into the script and destabilize some of the series’ more impressive accomplishments. I do hope that's all merely the symptom of first season growing pains, but I’ll have to reserve judgment until I can dig into the second season this summer.
Still, ‘Mad Men’ works overwhelmingly well as a remarkably-detailed period drama, a fascinating glimpse into the birth of modern corporate culture, and a tragic study of manipulation and greed. I can’t guarantee everyone in TV land will enjoy its slow pace and niche subject matter, but I can definitely say it deserves all the attention and accolades it has received over the last year.
(‘Mad Men: Season 1’ features all thirteen episodes from the series’ original television broadcast including “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Ladies Room,” “Marriage of Figaro,” “New Amsterdam,” “5G,” “Babylon,” “Red in the Face,” “The Hobo Code,” “Shoot,” “Long Weekend,” “Indian Summer,” “Nixon vs. Kennedy,” and “The Wheel.”)
When I caught ‘Mad Men’s HDTV broadcast on AMC, I endured an onslaught of blocky artifacts and flushed skintones that continually distracted me from the excellent production values of the show. Thankfully, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Mad Men: Season 1’ includes a gorgeous 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that trounces the original broadcast, puts the standard DVD to shame, and finally presents the show the way it was meant to be seen.
From the first episode through the final credits of the season, ‘Mad Men’s colors are naturally saturated, contrast is comfortable and strong, and shadows are deep and well-delineated. The series’ warm palette holds up exceedingly well in spite of a variety of interior and exterior lighting schemes, allowing the characters’ yellow-hued homes to look every bit as good as the firm’s brightly lit offices. Detail has also been painstakingly preserved, imbuing the picture with crisp edges, clean patterns, and sharp textures. I continually marveled at the depth of the image and found myself entranced by everything from the creases in the firm’s leather chairs to the stitches and pinstripes in Draper’s suit coats. While a few random shots look a tad soft compared to the majority of scenes in the show, Lionsgate’s BD transfer really highlights the series’ critically acclaimed research, set design, and period accuracy.
Best of all, the transfer doesn’t suffer from any distracting noise, banding, or post-production garbage (like DNR or edge enhancement). A few bursts of minor artifacting do pop up in a half dozen shots over the course of thirteen episodes, but the issue isn’t nearly as intrusive or pervasive here as it is on other high-def television releases. All in all, ‘Mad Men’s video transfer looks fantastic and adds a tremendous amount of value to this low-priced release.
‘Mad Men: Season 1’ features a front-heavy, conversational DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that nevertheless sounds quite good. Compared to the muddled audio included on the show’s standard DVD, the dialogue and sound effects on the Blu-ray edition are crisp, clear, and nicely prioritized in the soundscape. Unfortunately, the LFE channel doesn’t have much to do and is largely relegated to supporting the various elements of the soundfield. While it does inject some healthy weight into the actors’ voices and the series’ music, it doesn’t pack enough punch to make this release memorable. Likewise, the rear channels are fairly uninvolving and are only engaged to create realistic interior acoustics and deliver subtle ambient effects (most notably present in the office noise surrounding the secretaries’ desks or the street traffic featured in the brief exterior scenes in New York City).
Technically speaking, Lionsgate has put together a lossless track that handles everything thrown its way with ease, offering fans a faithful rendition of the series’ sound design. In fact, there isn’t a single moment in the course of this season’s thirteen episodes that merits any critical knuckle-rapping. The only downside here is that ‘Mad Men’s DTS HD MA track isn’t nearly as breathtaking as its video transfer or supplemental package.
I’ve never been as overwhelmed by a collection of supplements as I was with ‘Mad Men: Season 1.’ Boasting twenty-three… that’s right, twenty-three audio commentary tracks, another two hours of HD video features, and a extensive photo gallery, the special features literally cover every imaginable angle of the production. Sure, the Blu-ray edition doesn’t include any significant exclusive content per se, but the sheer enormity of the supplemental package will take even the most eager fans days to dig through.
’Mad Men’ excels where it should fail and delivers a series of intriguing characters, fascinating plot developments, and engaging storylines. Yes, the series’ pacing and subject matter may not be everyone’s flavor, but solid writing and stunning performances help this one stand out from the crowd. The Blu-ray edition is even better. Lionsgate has put together a gorgeous video transfer, a faithful DTS HD MA track, and an insane collection of supplements that includes twenty-three commentary tracks. When you combine it all together with such a low introductory price, ‘Mad Men: Season 1’ is a no-brainer.