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TV on DVD: "Mad Men: Season One"

I'll admit it: I joined the Mad Men party late.

The reason? I was less than impressed by the original pilot episode I saw about two years ago and then, try though I might, just couldn't get into the series when it launched last year on AMC. Beautiful, yes, though I felt the first few episodes left me absolutely cold. But lest you think that I am a complete philistine, I'm beating myself up now because, having watched the DVD box set for Mad Men, I can see what I had missed out on all along.

Created by Matthew Weiner, Mad Men ostensibly tells the story of ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a brilliant creative director of ad agency Sterling Cooper in the year 1960; while Don may be the focus of much of the series' action, he is arguably the entry point to a complex cast of characters who reflect the era's shifting ideological, socioeconomic, and gender politics during the birth of modern, post-WWII consumerism. It dares ask the eternal question as to whether advertising has created the American Dream... or destroyed it.

Mad Men's lure comes in part from the naturalistic and moving performances of its talented crew of actors, from Jon Hamm to Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, and the entire cast, all of whom bring an understated elegance to their roles, playing their parts as though they'd lived in them all their lives; you truly believe that these people actually exist and never for a moment doubt their veracity. That in a nutshell is the magic of Mad Men: aided by a painstaking detail to recreating 1960 Madison Avenue (and the era's suburban gilded prison of its housewives) from set design, costume, and hair and makeup--all of which can be learned more about in the DVD set's fantastic bonus features--the actors are allowed to embody their roles in a way that exceptionally rare in television today.

Hamm himself grounds the action in a sophisticated and debonair elegance that's at odds with the way he casually cheats on his loving but naive wife; his is a carefully constructed persona that hides a deeper mystery: the true identity of Donald Draper. In an era where material goods defined a person's status, Don discovers that the biggest product of all is one's own identity and, as an ad man incarnate, sets out to reinvent himself as a commodity, transforming himself from neglected whore's offspring Dick Whitman into the suave man's man we see before us at the start of Mad Men. It's a tough performance to pull off but Hamm manages to play both Don's innate self-loathing and his ambition to obliterate his previous life to fine effect, offering a tour de force performance that should be required viewing for all would-be thespians.

If Draper tries to be the calm at the center of the storm (and, sadly, fails at sublimating his temper, desires, and vices), Sterling Cooper is itself a dangerous sharkpool of activity, which strongly contracts with the sunny, almost upbeat vibe of its offices. Here, recent secretarial school graduate Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) finds herself facing down a pack of hungry sharks in the form of the firm's account executives, copywriters, and, well, anyone having a Y chromosome. For all of their differences in terms of their current status, Peggy and Don are startlingly similar; both come from humble beginnings, are looking to transform their lot in life, and, while Don stumbled into the means to achieve that metamorphosis, poor Peggy slips further and further into self-hatred as the first season continues. Her doughy form and prim nature are a sharp contrast to the curvy, flirtatious Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the only woman at Sterling Cooper with any semblance of power, who tries to take Peggy under her wing. The scene in which Joan offers her advice about her weight--and Peggy realizes that for all of Joan's sharp comments and hurtful criticisms, she is actually trying to help--is a brilliant crystallization of the sometimes-combative relationships between women.

As for the men, they are a boozy, womanizing, and rowdy bunch, each jockeying for power amongst themselves as they look to conquer and humiliate every woman in the office in turn. They are wholly believable in their pursuits and each is brilliantly cast, from the bosses, including John Slattery as womanizer Roger Sterling and Robert Morse as eccentric company founder Bert Cooper (love the touch of him forcing visitors to his office to remove their shoes). Vincent Kartheiser is pitch-perfect as Machiavellian Pete Campbell, so hungry for Don's approval that he seeks to denigrate him at every opportunity in an effort to avenge Don's slights against him. Aaron Staton's Ken Cosgrove is a study in complexity, seemingly charming and smooth, he's a vicious misogynist even as he nurses a desire to become a writer. Rich Sommer's married intellectual Harry Crane victoriously beds another secretary at the office only to realize everything he's thrown away, in a beautiful scene during which Don pitches Kodak their Carousel slide projector. Finally, Michael Gladis' Paul Kinsey tries to rise above his fellow men, putting them down at every opportunity, even trying to humiliate Ken after his story gets published in The Atlantic Monthly. Despite the passage of more than forty years, we all know men like these today.

Much of the first season's action takes place in a series of boardrooms and bedrooms, many of them involving Don Draper. Trapped between beautiful, poised, perfect wife Betty (January Jones)--who develops a case of nerves early on, following the death of her mother--and several other women, Don uses each of his relationships for various means. Betty provides a sanctuary away from Manhattan, from work, and from the professional sphere. She is the consummate housewife even as she begins to come apart at the seams, leading Don to reluctantly agree to her getting psychiatric help, a plot point which plays off brilliantly at the conclusion of the first season when Betty realizes that Don has been cheating on her. Jones plays Betty with such elegance and wide-eyed wonder, that it breaks your heart when she realizes that she's been had by the man she loves so dearly and has no one to turn to, sobbing to a neighbor's child in a parking lot. (That Jones, nor any of Mad Men's talented female cast, didn't snag an Emmy nomination yesterday is a real injustice.) Don's affair with Midge (Rosemary DeWitt), meanwhile, offers the ad man the opportunity to enter the bohemian demimonde of artist Midge, with her anti-materialistic streak (remember how she casually chucked that television out her window?) and beatnik friends. But the real threat to Don's marriage comes in the form of Jewish female executive Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), a Manhattan woman who not only understands business but thrives in the ultra-competitive environment it fosters; it's to her and her alone that Don unburdens himself, telling her about his secret past, a confession that he can't even bring to tell his wife Betty.

While Mad Men begins on a slow note, it quickly transforms itself into a slow burn series of deft plot maneuvering involving Don's double life, Betty's emotional disintegration, Peggy's awakening resolve, Pete's unquenchable ambition, Roger Sterling's health and his longstanding affair with Joan (more was said in his simple "honey" to Joan in front of a stunned Don and Bert than in some entire seasons of other series), and the quest of all parties for the Good Life, whether that be in the form of money, power, sex, or booze.

I found that by around episode five ("5G") or six ("Babylon"), I had become completely hooked, having fallen under Mad Men's lush spell; not so coincidentally, it's when various story threads begin to pay off in meaningful ways, with Pete pushing his new wife to contact the man to whom she lost her virginity in an effort to get his story published, Roger and Joan's secret affair being revealed, and Peggy being asked to write copy for the agency's Belle Jolie lipstick campaign. The second half of the season moves a relative breakneck speed, as these storylines and several other ones (including a hell of a shocker involving Peggy, if you're not paying careful attention to her burgeoning waistline) pay off in abundance.

With Mad Men's second season about to launch on July 27th, there's no better time to travel back to 1960 with Draper and Co., thanks to this divine DVD box set, which collects all of Season One's thirteen episodes, as well as several fantastic features about the flawless production design, music, hair and makeup, and costumes of the series. My only complaint is that the discs' promised "teaser" for Mad Men Season Two didn't offer a second of any original material, just repurposed scenes from the first season. Any ad man knows that you've got to follow through on the promise of your pitch. But maybe the producers are hoping that Mad Men speaks for itself as a product and a brand, enough that you'll tune in to its sophomore season even without a peek behind the curtain. And, funnily enough, I know I will.

Mad Men's second season kicks off on July 27th at 10 pm ET/PT on AMC.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Ghost Whisperer
(CBS); Most Outrageous Moments/Most Outrageous Moments (NBC;); Friday Night SmackDown! (CW; 8-10 pm); Dance Machine (ABC); The Animal (FOX; 8-10 pm)

9 pm:
NUMB3RS (CBS); Dateline (NBC; 9-11 pm); Duel (ABC)

10 pm: Flashpoint
(CBS); 20/20 (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

9 pm: Doctor Who on Sci Fi.

Season Four of Doctor Who continues tonight with "Turn Left," in which the established timeline begins to unravel after Donna meets a fortune teller and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) returns with some dire news about Donna and the fate of the universe. Can Donna and Rose stop the approaching darkness? Find out tonight.

Comments

Anonymous said…
I may be wrong, but I think it's Paul Kinsey who tries to seduce Moss' character, not Harry Crane. Crane is pretty much the straight married guy all the way through until near the end of the season.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for this wonderful, thoughtful review! I also came to the series late but have completely fallen in love with it and can't get enough. I'm thrilled that the show and Jon Hamm were nominated for Emmys but the women were certainly overlooked. January Jones' performance is so beautifully subtle that you can't imagine anyone else in the role. The entire cast is pitch perfect and I like that even the minor characters get meaningful stories and I hope that continues next season.
Spike said…
I'm also new to the party. Bought the DVD set and have only watched the first two episodes, so I had to skip a lot of your review to avoid spoilers.

I worked on Madison Avenue in the 70s and have remained with large corporations for most of my career. From what I can see so far, I think that one of the points this series may be making is that as far as we think we've come, we really haven't. I haven't read any interviews with the creator of the show to know his intent, just a few reviews here and there.

But as well as seeing it as an excellent depiction of an era from our recent past, I'm also seeing it as a metaphor for our present. The backstabbing, corporate politics, sexual politics, addictive behaviors are all still very much with us today.
Anonymous said…
I'm glad you've gotten in to this excellent show - I'll look forward to reading your always interesting and insightful reviews for season two, can't wait.

I know what you mean about leaving you cold initially - it definitely takes a few episodes to warm to the characters (the lead man is a bit of a cold fish, the main arena full of people who are at face value not especially likeable). For me the moment when I realised how brilliant the show is was episode seven I think it was, when Draper takes revenge on Stirling for making a pass at his wife in the previous episode. The moment with the lift operator was so subtle you could miss it, and that low key moment speaks volumes for the producers' confidence in their own material.
Anonymous said…
I am glad you finally saw the light.

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