Mad Men [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Pat Pilon (21st July 2008).
The Show

Look at these.

Pall Mall adLucky Strike Ad

The pictures show two different cigarette companies advertising the same product, using the same words. Now, if you were a new smoker, looking at these, which one would you choose? There obviously isn't any advantage one cigarette seems to have over the other. Both promise smooth taste your throat will enjoy. Why choose one over the other?

Now, look at these two ads.



These cigarettes are much more exciting! They're 'toasted', and 'air-freshened'! Now you have a choice. These are completely different beasts now, worthy of a second look. This may not seem like much now, but back in the 1950s, this is the kind of subtle, but creative, idea that went into making your product new and different.

'Mad Men' is a termed that referred to the Madison Avenue ad execs that started a new trend in advertising in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This series focuses on some of those men. Starting in March 1960, the start of a new decade, where great changes are about to happen, creator Matt Weiner chose to look at how advertising affected and was affected by these changes.

In the first episodes, you learn of the ban on cigarette advertising by the government. The government doesn't want cigarette ads claiming cigarettes are healthy, and so these ad men decide to go a different route, saying their cigarettes are 'toasted', making their cigarettes different from all the others. This prompted other companies to try to differentiate their cigarettes in the same way ('air-freshened' and such). On the verge of the Kennedy era, and the sexual revolution, everything is poised to explode, leaving the 1950s behind.

Before that happens, the change has to occur. From the first episode, you're slapped in the face back to 1950s mentality. Men smoke everywhere, drink any time they want and make derogatory remarks towards women. Even women tell other women to show more leg if they want to get ahead in the company. The company in question is the Sterling Cooper Ad Agency, and the focus of the series is Donald Draper (Jon Hamm), their top guy. One of the best advertising minds in New York.

As the series opens, we see new secretary Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) going up in an elevator, with a trio of men commenting on her. She's shown the ropes by Joan Holloway (Catherine Hendricks) as she starts her new job, secretary for Don Draper. Don has a girlfriend, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), a slew of buddies at work (three of which were in the aforementioned elevator), and a wife, Betty (January Jones), and two kids.

He's an expert at balancing his private life in Manhattan and his family life in Connecticut, and has no trouble wooing the women he wants to be with, or the clients he wants Sterling Cooper to represent. He's got irresistible charm, but he's also got secrets. Not only him, but everybody else. Amid secrets and lies, consequences and confusion are found. On the surface, everything is nice, clean-shaven and crisp. Under this, though, there boils a moral vacuum as deep as an abyss. Men may rule, but where men rule, power is not far behind, and power struggles are at every turn.

The show has many subplots complementing the journey Don Draper goes through, and all of these intertwine in interesting ways. Pete and Peggy have business throughout the season, as do Don and Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), one of the company's bigger clients. While the men have their own business affairs to take care of, so do the housewives. Betty Draper has her own affairs, in her life in Connecticut. Her dealings with Helen Bishop (Darby Stanchfield), and older friends, lead to her own realisations. The season finale has some very nice cliffhangers, leaving the second season ripe with possibilities.

The intelligence of this show is astounding. The writing reveals so much if you look for it. Events unfold in their usual way, but there are hints and tips throughout the episodes about the future. Episode '5G' probably has the easiest one to see, in the horseshoe award. Every scene has more than one meaning, and it's a sharp reflection of the world we now live in. Power may make people feel they're invincible but power comes at a price.

The solid performances help cement the intelligence. Jon Hamm gives a terrific performance. He has the confidence and charisma to pull off the audacious moves he does. Vincent Kartheiser is perfect at playing the cad seemingly out of his league, Peter Campbell. He treads a fine line, and pulls it off very expertly. I also liked Christine Hendricks as Joan Holloway. You know there's a lot of scheming going through her head just by looking at her eyes, and it's a very subtle but effective performance. She's not always nice, but she's the way she's supposed to be. January Jones also gives a fine performance of the wife trying to keep up appearances while being all torn up inside. It's a tough performance to pull off to do but she makes it very touching.

To be truthful, I wasn't around in 1960, but I have the feeling a tremendous amount of research went into the show. All the sets, props and, for example, beer cans seem to have been meticulously picked out. The same goes for the costumes, jewelry and advertising ideas. (The series does have a few anachronisms I noticed. In 'Babylon', Joan says 'You know what they say: "The medium is the message".' The source of this quote is a book released 4 years after the show takes place, Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book, 'Understanding Media'. I doubt the researchers missed this, but it fits into the character of Joan perfectly, and the makers decided to let this mistake slide. By the same token, all the ads above are from before 1960, which again, the creators knew about, but used to prove a point.)

Starting with the title, 'Mad Men' is a deep, thoughtful show, with many levels. The writing is stellar and the acting is strong. The success of these ad men may be very high, but their personal lives are not as clean cut as they'd like them to be, even if they are the men of the house. Don Draper is a very interesting character, with a past that can keep him mysterious for a while, and a head that can keep him on top of the game for as long as he wants.

Here is a breakdown of the episodes by disc.

Disc 1:
1. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (48:39)
The crux of the series’ opener is about Don Draper trying to figure out a new ad campaign for Lucky Strikes cigarettes after the government puts a ban on advertising that says cigarettes are healthy.
(w/ commentary by creator Matt Weiner)
(w/ commentary by episode director Alan Taylor)

2. Ladies' Room (47:02)
Peggy learns the ropes of the jobs, and Don's wife seems to have troubles and worries about her family.
(w/ commentary by actresses January Jones and Rosemarie DeWitt)
(w/ commentary by actors Michael Gladis and Elisabeth Moss)

3. Marriage of Figaro (44:14)
Draper looks closer into the Menken’s store, and he also has to prepare for his daughter's birthday party. Rumours circulate among the housewives.
(w/ commentary by actors Jon Hamm, Maggie Siff and Darby Stanchfield)

4. New Amsterdam (45:11)
Pete tries to find a place for him and his new wife, and Helen’s life comes steps into Betty's life. Pete and Don go head-to-head over a new ad idea.
(w/ commentary by actors Vincent Kartheiser, Allison Brie and episode writer Lisa Albert)

5. 5G (47:03)
Don Draper's younger brother comes into the picture, and brings up some old memories that may want to stay forgotten. Don's private life away from his family also brings up secrets.
(w/ commentary by actors Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and Aaron Staton)
(w/ commentary by episode director Lesli Linka Glatter)

Disc 2:
6. Babylon (46:57)
Representatives from Israel come to the agency for an ad campaign to bring tourists. Roger Sterling and Joan spend some time together. Also, Peggy wows some ad guys during brainstorming for a new lipstick ad. This episode is more about the characters than the actual plot, and this makes it one of the better episodes of the season.
(w/ commentary by actress Christina Hendricks and episode writers Maria and Andre Jacquemetton)
(w/ commentary by episode director Andrew Bernstein)

7. Red in the Face (47:04)
Sterling feels lonely, and has dinner with Don. Entitlement seems to be the focus of the episode. More talk of the looming election is brought forward. Pete's also in trouble with his wife, and Helen makes a reappearance. I love the last scene in this episode. Two men striving to climb the stairs, almost killing themselves to get to the floor they have to.
(w/ commentary by actors January Jones, John Slattery, Jon Hamm and Vincent Kartheiser)
(w/ commentary by Episode director Tim Hunter)

8. The Hobo Code (48:03)
Pete and Peggy talk about her print copy opportunity. Questions about Salvatore start (the answer can be guessed by watching the very first episode of the series). Peggy gets the results from her print copy. Don has flashbacks of his childhood.
(w/ commentary by actors Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss and Bryan Batt)
(w/ commentary by episode director Phil Abraham)

9. Shoot (47:35)
Don gets courted by a bigger ad company. Thanks to a little push, Betty wants to return to modeling. Bringing back the election, Pete has a plan to help out his company's client.
(w/ commentary costume designer Janie Bryant and creator Matt Weiner)
(w/ commentary production designer Dan Bishop)

Disc 3:
10. The Long Weekend (47:57)
Sterling Cooper loses a big account. Sterling and Draper go out to find some new clients and Sterling ends up in the hospital.
(w/ commentary by actress Christina Hendricks and creator Matt Weiner
(w/ commentary by episode director Tim Hunter and composer Don Carbonara

11. Indian Summer (47:58)
Peggy get an assignment testing out a new product. Sterling may have to think about retiring, putting Draper into position to get partner. Draper has to think hard about what he wants.
(w/ commentary by actress Elisabeth Moss and creator Matt Weiner)

12. Nixon vs. Kennedy (47:50)
As it may be gathered, this episode brings the backdrop to the front. Also, Don's past comes back again, in a big way this time.
(w/ commentary by actors Jon Hamm, Vincent Kartheiser and Rich Sommer)
(w/ commentary by episode director Alan Taylor and creator Matt Weiner)

13. The Wheel (51:54)
The gist of this episode focuses on the new Kodak account the company has, and Don's realisation of what he wants.
(w/ commentary by actors Jon Hamm, January Jones and Elisabeth Moss)
(w/ commentary by creator Matt Weiner, writing assistant Robin Veith and episode editor Malcolm Jamieson)

Video

1.78:1 widescreen, using the MPEG4/AVC codec. As with other Lionsgate releases, this has a very smooth transfer. The colours are bright, not overly so, but accurate. The palette is quite varied, and has every colour imaginable at one point or another. The transfer never blooms during very light scenes and never looks compressed during darker scenes. Skin tones are spot-on, while black levels are very strong, if shadow detail could be slightly more accentuated. The level of detail is very good; all the suits, dresses and skirts are nicely-rendered with good form and smoothness. I believe I noticed a tiny amount of edge enhancement in a few scenes, but these had very strong backlighting. Overall, it's a very impressive transfer, strong and accurate.

Audio

The show has an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and, though subtle, it's very natural and realistic. Scenes in restaurants are abloom with clinks, clanks and people conversing around you. Whispers are very quiet, while shouts are loud and clear. All the dialogue, in fact, is crisp. The score seeps through into the surround speakers, enveloping you in its atmosphere. The volume levels are very good and this lossless track has no problem whatsoever handling the soundtrack.
English and Spanish subtitles are on the disc, as well.

Extras

Lionsgate was very nice to this show, and this set is packed to the gills with extras. As I've written above, every episode has audio commentaries. In fact, the 13 episodes have a total of 23 commentaries. Whenever possible, the episodes try to have one actor and one crew commentary. Saying these commentaries are informative would be an understatement. Now, these track aren't gap-free. Indeed, every episode, every commentary has dead time, but that time is short, and there's enough talk to make every track worth hearing. Also, not all the 'group' tracks include all participants - some tracks are edited together from a couple of different people talking about the show. The actor tracks have some behind-the-scenes talk, and a lot of talk of the various meanings in the episodes. They talk about the characters and their evolution, which is pretty interesting. It's also fun to see the thoughts complementing each other throughout the commentaries. For example, January Jones wonders why Don would marry Betty (in 'Ladies' Room'), and later, in '5G', Jon Hamm gives his thoughts of why Don married Betty.

On the crew side, the various creators, designers and writers talk more about the technical aspects, like pointing out links between episodes and little bits forewhadowing later events. They also talk about the psychology of the characters, expanding on motivations and decisions. These 23 tracks are overall very nice to hear, and even if some aren't as strong as others, fans of the show should do themselves a favour and listen to at least a few of these. My guess is, however, that after a few tracks, these fans will want to listen to all the others.

On disc two, there's the Advertising the American Dream featurette (19:51). It talks about how the American Dream came about and how advertising shaped the American Dream. Sociology professors come to talk about this and it makes for a fascinating 20 minutes. It's pretty insightful and makes you wonder just how little (or how much) commercialism would have influenced society had advertising not been so prevalent.

Scoring Mad Men (7:38) has composer Don Carbonara talks about the various themes he used throughout the season, at what time he used them and why he used them at those times. It's a very nice featurette, and expands very nicely on the meaning of the music. The Mad Men Music Sampler shows the 13 tracks available on the soundtrack. They are roughly 30 seconds each. They're an interesting mix, and reflect the time period at wanted atmosphere quite nicely. You also have the very nice opening credits theme.

Pictures of Elegance is a pretty different gallery. There are three categories here, each with three sub-categories showing three examples each. When showing the examples, the costume, hair, and production designer talk about what you're seeing. Costumes has Independent Women, Draper's Women and The Fellas. Hair Design has The Housewives, The Men and Working Girls. Production Design has Sterling Cooper, Permanent Sets and Temporary Sets. So, when looking into the production design gallery, the designer would talk about the three example of, says, permanent sets they had in the shoot. The information given is very nice and provides nice insight into the three aspects of the show.

The Mad Men Season 2 Preview is not much of a preview. It's only a minute long and shows clips from the first season, while telling you to watch the second season, starting Summer 2008.

Disc three finishes off the set with Establishing Mad Men (61:26). It's a very good documentary and everybody from the show seems to be in here. The main crew and cast all have their say in the various aspects the doc focuses on. The documentary is divided into three parts, corresponding roughly to pre-production, production and post-production. The cast and crew talk about the show's creation, casting and crew, as well as the research and planning that went into making everything authentic. The costumes and sets are talked about, as well. This is a well-structured and entertaining documentary. You hear about how everything in the episodes is grounded in reality as they give out a few funny stories. It's a great watch.

Overall

The Show: A Video: A- Audio: A- Extras: A+ Overall: A

 


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