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Every time I talk with someone about AMC’s Breaking Bad, an unfortunately not very popular show, I’m asked if I’ve seen the cable channel’s other critically acclaimed series— Mad Men. I didn’t watch the show during its initial thirteen-episode run, so this is my first experience with the cool and tight little series.

Mad Men: Season One
Mad Men concerns the misadventures of a motley crew of Sterling Cooper advertising agency workers and their dysfunctional families. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is arguably the lead character, a hard working creative director with a mysterious past and a wife suffering the early onset of a nervous breakdown. His new secretary, Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), begins her career as the naive country girl, but quickly begins infiltrating the ranks of the purely male workforce. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is the young upstart, newly married to a wealthy socialite, and focusing his attention on Draper’s job. The Madison Avenue office is pock marked with an impressive collection of supporting characters, whose impact on the series varies throughout. The whole thing centres around the backdrop of the 1960s Nixon/Kennedy presidential election.

Things start off a little bumpy. The pilot episode is a bit too power packed with anachronism, which works to stick us in the ‘60s mindset, but doesn’t really need to be so blunt and consistent. I assume that we’re meant to be shocked by the smoking gynaecologist, the rampant sexism, the rejection of Freudian theory in advertising, but it’s all a bit awkward for such a critically beloved series. However, by the end of the season one realizes that this battle of the sexes is the point of the show. It’s all about how brutal the era was on women, and what it took for them to get to the point where they are today. I don’t know about you, but just about every manager where I work is a member of the fairer sex. The title Mad Men actually works on about seven dozen levels.

Mad Men: Season One
The anachronistic jokes remain sort of awkward throughout (ha ha, she’s concerned with the clothes that were in the plastic bag rather than the plastic bag around the child’s head), but there is a whole lot going on behind and throughout this occasionally jarringly subtle series. It takes several episodes to really get into the flow of the show, especially if, like me, you’ve become accustom to the twist and episode rollercoaster of other serious and seriously good recent soap operas like Breaking Bad or Dirt.

Mad Men is all about the taut emotions brewing beneath the surface. I had assumed that the difference in narrative themes would keep this and the producers’ previous triumph (a little HBO series called The Sopranos) entirely separate entities, but the subtext and the juxtaposition of subtlety and vigour reads as branding. This is, of course, perfect considering the surface themes of Mad Men. As in the case of The Sopranos (a show I didn’t really like all that much) and Deadwood (likely my favourite modern dramatic series), you’ll need to watch a few episodes to understand the ‘language’ (both visual and audible) of the series.

Mad Men: Season One

Video


My second high definition television series, wahoo! Mad Men has a clean and crisp look, featuring realistic and solid colour schemes. This is no hyper-realistic, pseudo-documentary like The Shield, nor is it a super-flashy music video like CSI, it’s simple and almost antiseptic. Two decades may separate them, but trade up the burgundies for pastels and Mad Men looks a lot like Mary Harron’s American Psycho, which makes sense considering the similarities between characters and themes.

This Blu-ray is mostly perfect. There’s very little grain or noise, details are sharp and easily discernable even in darkness, and colours are bright and solidly crafted. Flesh tones are especially realistic. The only shortcomings I can spot here are occasional edge enhancement (with a strangely yellowish tint), specifically black against really light shades, and some noise reduction artefacts, specifically on tweed suits.

Mad Men: Season One

Audio


There isn’t too much point to this DTS-HD 5.1 track, as the series is mostly audibly focused on the period dialogue, but the mix is effectively immersive, teaming with passing cars, buzzing fluorescent lights, and shuffling commuters. There’s no point in the series where the dialogue is hard to understand, even when whispered, and it stays centred with the best of them. The only times the mix really brightens up is during the big musical cues, which are mostly diverted to the opening and closing credits. The music itself is a pleasant mix of period styles with a modern slant, and is bold and warm when fully cranked.

Extras


Every single episode features commentary, and some episodes feature multiple commentaries. Participants include creators, writers, directors, and actors (the actors are usually paired up). Frankly there was too much commentary for me to listen to entirely and still have my review out in time for the release date (as it stands it appears I’ll still miss it), so I cherry picked my way through it. The tracks are solid and informative on the whole, but there is a tendency towards dryness, and some commentators can’t make it through a full episode without losing interest in speaking. The best tracks fill us in on what to read in between the lines of each episode, the worst tracks narrate the on-screen action.

Mad Men: Season One
‘Advertising the American Dream’ is an eighteen and a half minute featurette focusing on the real history of late ‘50s/early ‘60s advertising, a time when the meaning of the ‘American Dream’ became almost entirely represented by consumerism. It’s a fine little documentary, which puts some of the side stories and background action into a historical reference. The featurette is made up of interview footage with the series creators and the people that inspired them, real ad footage, and pertinent footage from the series.

‘Scoring Mad Men’ is, as expected by its title, a featurette focused with the show’s music. Most of the featurette is made up of composer David Carbonara introducing a track, the track and scene playing with superimposed sheet music, and additional thought from Cabonara. It’s a solid featurette, running about eight minutes, but the actual music is surprisingly low on the track, and no mention of the title track. The featurette is followed by a music sampler of original and acquired music from the show.

‘Pictures of Elegance’ is a neatly designed sort of three part interactive slideshow presentation. The first part is devoted to Jane Bryant’s costume design, and is split into three sections (‘The Independent Woman’, ‘Draper’s Women’, and ‘The Fellas’). The second part is about Gloria Casny’s hair design and is also split into three parts (‘The Housewives’, ‘The Men’, and ‘The Working Girls). The third part concerns Dan Bishop’s production design, and is again split into three parts (‘Sterling Cooper’, ‘Permanent Sets’, and ‘Temporary Sets’). All three sections feature commentary from the creative person, and are set to series music.

Mad Men: Season One
‘Establishing Mad Men’ is a pretty encompassing mini-doc that’s split into three parts. Overall it feels a bit like three very well made and somewhat informative EPKs. Basically we only learn the basic genesis of the series, a few simple hows and whys, and that every member of the cast and crew loves every other member of the cast and crew, but we do get to meet almost every major actor, producer, writer, designer, artist and director, however briefly, which is more then I can say for most EPKs. The first part mostly consists of the early development, acting and writing, while the second and third parts are more concerned with production and artistic design. The later parts are a bit more technically informative, but there are some meaty bits when research is discussed, including some video of the veritable cornucopia of visual information the writers have collected. All three parts run just over an hour.

Disc two ends with a trailer for season two, which is made up entirely of footage from season one.

Overall


Had I not had the entire season run in my hands I may’ve given up on Mad Men after a few episodes, because things don’t start off with a whole lot of melodrama, action, or song and dance. I would’ve been ashamed of myself. I recommend the series highly, and highly recommend viewers stick with it, even if they’re an entire disc in and still aren’t quite ‘getting it’. At the very least you’ll get to look at Christina Hendricks. I don’t necessarily recommend a blind buy, but a rental would probably be a good idea. If you’ve got yourself a Blu-ray player you can look forward to some really lovely high definition video, and both BD and DVD viewers can look forward to some pleasant extras.


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