Mad Men: Season One (Lionsgate Maple, 2007) Creator: Matthew Weiner, w/ Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss. Rating: NNNN; DVD package: NNNNN
Mad Men gets better as it goes along and you realize that it isn’t about a murder and does not lampoon the American advertising industry in 1960.
The former is an easy misreading of the show’s incredibly elegant opening credits. The latter misconception stems from creator Matthew Weiner’s desire for cheap laughs and a cheaper sense of superiority. Everybody smokes, and they’ve got no idea that photocopiers will be invented – wow, they sure are primitive, nyuk nyuk. Weiner mistakes simple hindsight for irony, but if he lives long enough, he’ll see his own world view revealed as ignorant superstition. So will you and I. It never fails.
Those two little flaws are done with by episode three. By then it’s clear that the series is about a man’s life crumbling around him. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is living the American dream, and it isn’t working. He’s head of creative at a Manhattan ad agency. He’s charming and smart but secretive and aloof. He’s got a loving wife, Betty (January Jones), and a big house in Connecticut, but he’s screwing a commercial artist downtown and putting the moves on a new agency client.Don isn’t alone; one way or another, everyone is dissatisfied. Betty is in therapy for psychosomatic hand cramps. The new secretary, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), can’t handle the constant come-ons from the men, who are all perpetually working hard to screw any girl they can.
That’s “girls,” not “women.” Casual sexism and racism are as unthinkingly rampant as smoking and booze. They create an interesting and unusual dramatic dynamic in the man-woman scenes and in the strategies the women use to cope in a male-dominated world. They also provide wicked little thrills for viewers unaccustomed to seeing characters not merely flouting, but blissfully oblivious to political correctness. Call it manners porn.
The entire series (currently being broadcast on CTV) is purely emotion-driven – no outrageous plot twists. Things move forward slowly. This weakens the what-happens-next factor, but it gives the writers space to create complex characters and the actors time to explore them. Hamm walks a fine line between sleaze and guilt, film-noir-style isolation and an aching need to belong. Moss brings intelligence, vulnerability and concealed steel to frumpy Peggy. The rest of the cast is just as good, and even the secondary characters get well-developed stories that move in unexpected and ever-darker directions.
Ten of the 13 episodes have two commentary tracks, some quite good, some not. The making-of is almost an hour long and concentrates on writing and casting as much as the problems of creating 1960 Manhattan in contemporary L.A.Don’t skip the section on costumes. They’re vital to the show, and the female actors are funny about wearing foundation garments. The disc-two doc on the ad business is worth checking out before the series. It supplies vital context on the industry’s glamour status and advertising’s imminent creative explosion.
EXTRAS All discs: episode commentaries with, variously, creator, actors, writers, producers. Widescreen. English, Spanish subtitles. Disc one: scoring doc, music sampler, season two sneak peek. Disc two: advertising industry doc, interactive costume, hair, production design galleries. Disc three: making-of doc.