Mad Men is set against the backdrop of 1960, and America as a whole is still caught up in maintaining an immaculate, respectable front, even in an era of misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism. If something goes missing during an office party, all of the blacks on the payroll are fired. When asked if Sterling Cooper has any Jews on staff to make a client feel comfortable, Don scoffs "not on my watch" and asks if he should trot down to the deli and grab one. Women are meant to stand back quietly and look pretty...objects to be exploited, even in a time where casual sex is a dirty secret kept carefully swept under the rug. The thought of a wife airing her headaches with her marriage to anyone else -- let alone divorcing him, sending property values throughout the rest of the neighborhood plummeting south -- is unfathomable.
Created by Sopranos writer/producer Matt Weiner, Mad Men doesn't whitewash over the secrecy, sexism, and self-loathing that permeated the era. More than just a setting, the hypocrisies of 1960 define who these characters are and what it is, exactly, that they're struggling against. Don's wife Betty (January Jones) has never been allowed to amount to anything more than an exceptionally pretty face. Her days largely consist of dolling herself up and waiting for Don to get back from work, and emotionally, Betty is nearly as much a child as her young son and daughter. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is the new girl at Sterling Cooper. Meek but ambitious, Peggy's goal is to write copy for the agency, not just take memos and field phone calls. Peggy quickly learns that she can only succeed as much as the men in the office are willing to let her, a game her busty, condescending mentor Joan (Christina Hendricks) figured out how to play long ago. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is a young, uncomfortable junior executive determined to rise through the ranks at Sterling Cooper, frustrated that he's more useful for his name and upbringing than for any talents as an ad man. He wants to prove himself but lacks the chops or confidence to do it. Among the other characters featured throughout the thirteen episode season are Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), a Jewish, steel-willed department store heiress, Don's Bohemian mistress Midge (Rosemarie Dewitt), and the firm's two partners: the leering, sleazy Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse, in a particularly clever bit of casting), who seems more enthralled with soaking in Objectivism than the day-to-day headaches at a bustling ad agency.
Part of what's so fascinating about Mad Men is that Matt Weiner and his staff of writers treat all of its characters with such respect. There really aren't any paragons of virtue or moustache-twirling villains; everyone is deeply flawed, suffering somehow as they attempt to carve out some sort of life and identity during this particularly trying era. It's an exceptionally well-written series, deftly blending a sparkling wit in with the drama. Rather than frantically rush from plot point to plot point, Mad Men gives scenes between these characters a chance to breathe...to develop them, to explore...and that emphasis on rich characterization, coupled with a stellar cast, is why this is such an enthralling series. This deliberate pace certainly won't appeal to all tastes, but I found it to be one of the series' greatest strengths.
Mad Men is virtually flawless. As unrecognizably different as the backdrop of 1960 may be in so many ways, its characters are ultimately searching for some sort of happiness -- defined and often consumed by the way they seek what's desired -- and that transcends any place or time. The craftsmanship and attention to detail while rendering this world of decades past make for an especially gorgeous series. The production design is immaculate, and everything from the eye-catching wardrobe to a parade of vintage advertising campaigns to the way television screens flick off to a tiny white dot make for an especially intriguing time capsule. The setting of an ad agency is immediately engaging as well, from trying to sidestep growing concerns about the cigarettes everyone and everything is chain-smoking to pitching the otherworldly technological marvel of spray-on deodorant. Mad Men is one of the best written, most outstandingly acted, and all around most skillfully crafted shows on television, and for those who missed it during its initial run on AMC, the series is a rewarding discovery on Blu-ray.
Video: Mad Men is a series tailor-made for high definition, from the painstaking attention to detail in its production design to the Technicolor sparkle of much of the wardrobe. I found myself almost distracted several times by how gorgeous the series looks on Blu-ray: the vivid hues of its actors' eyes, the secretaries' and steno pool's bright, colorful clothing, and even the lipstick the women wear...the silky smooth gradients of some particularly striking lighting...an outstanding image brimming with fine detail. The level of clarity is impressive throughout much of the series as it is, but it's especially eye-catching when the camera closes in tight. This Blu-ray set can be unforgiving, highlighting every blemish and even the texture of the stage makeup. Remarkably, the CGI deftly integrated throughout and the production design -- reproducing a world left behind nearly a half-century ago -- hold up to that intense level of scrutiny. The 1.78:1, AVC-encoded video is crisp, clean, and generally boasts a fairly smooth texture, free of any compression artifacts or any of the usual hiccups. Mad Men is another in a series of very strong showings by Lionsgate.
Audio: Backed by a set of DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, Mad Men sounds wonderful on Blu-ray. Its dialogue-driven nature roots the bulk of the audio across the front channels, although the surrounds are teeming with color and do a particularly nice job fleshing out the hustle and bustle at Sterling Cooper. The music -- an expansive mix of licensed songs and original compositions by David Carbonara -- also fills every channel. There's not a flicker of hiss or distortion anywhere in the mix, and the cast's line readings are consistently reproduced cleanly and clearly throughout. The nature of the show doesn't lend itself to swirling split-surrounds or a thunderous low-frequency kick, but the sound design is more spry than I'd expect from this sort of series: there's a very strong sense of stereo separation up front, and one particularly vicious flashback to Don's days kneedeep in the Korean War make it impossible to forget that this is a full-fledged 5.1 mix. It's appreciated that Lionsgate opted for lossless audio on Mad Men, and the detail and clarity apparent throughout the season stand above what I'd expect from a traditional DVD set.
Subtitles are optionally offered in English and Spanish.
Extras: In nearly nine years of reviewing and obsessive DVD collecting, I can think of only one other season set offhand -- Freaks and Geeks -- that can match the sheer volume of audio commentaries on Mad Men. Not only is every single episode accompanied by optional commentary, but the overwhelming majority have two commentary tracks. There are 23 commentaries in all, and that coupled with the length of the episodes themselves and the other extras on this set means there are somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-three hours of material. Not bad at all for a series with a street price just north of $30. Here's a breakdown of the commentaries by episode:
The honesty in the series itself -- Mad Men's relaxed attitude towards racism and antisemitism at the dawn of the 1960s, for instance -- extends to the commentaries, such as how director Tim Hunter notes that Matt Weiner didn't think much of his first cut of "Red in the Face". There are also slews of movie references: Les bonnes femmes, Red River, La Dolce Vita, The Apartment, and a parade of Hitchcock films (with Psycho having its own unique familial connection to the series). Other scattered highlights include an explanation why production moved to Los Angeles, the symbolism of trains to Don Draper, cans of carrot juice passing for beer, Mad Men's insistence on spelling out the consequences of overindulgence, January Jones' record-breaking fourteen costume changes in "Shoot", and the war wounds (almost literally as the finale approaches) that Jon Hamm racked up throughout the course of the season.
Even though many of the commentaries are peppered with lengthy gaps of silence -- particularly January Jones and Rosemarie Dewitt's quiet, polite chat about "Ladies Room" -- they're all bolstered by so much passion and insight that the slower stretches are still worth wading through. The discussions with Elisabeth Moss and the witty, personable Tim Hunter stand out to me as the most detailed and thought-provoking of the set. From technically oriented tracks with the talent behind the camera to the cast's breakneck quipping on "Red in the Face" and "Nixon vs. Kennedy", Mad Man features so many commentaries from such a diverse selection of participants that there's something here for all tastes.
Fans with more of a casual interest will probably be content with the featurettes elsewhere in the set, but for those with a deep, abiding passion for the series, these commentaries are a rewarding listen. The way they highlight things I hadn't really thought about while watching the season proper -- the only way for a woman to be respected in the workplace in 1960 is to be desexualized, the unavoidable sense of modesty inherent to the period even after a drunken, adulterous fling, and how one tiny item in the background of the final shot of the season carries such an impact despite not overtly drawing attention to itself -- really makes me eager to watch these thirteen episodes yet again.
Although the audio commentaries clearly make up the bulk of the extras on this Blu-ray set, there are a few others worth noting, and every last one of them is presented in high definition.
The hour long documentary "Establishing Mad Men" (1 hr.) also touches on virtually every aspect of production, and it's intriguing to see a making-of where the talent behind the scenes gets even more screentime than the stars of the show. The first section of this three part series describes the foundation for Mad Men: the glamour of working in advertising in the '60s, casting the sprawling ensemble, assembling a crew, the sheer volume of Sopranos alums on the payroll, starting with a location shoot in New York for the pilot before setting up shop in an L.A. soundstage a full year later, the uncharacteristically intimate involvement of writers throughout the entire production process, and noting just how much of what happens in the show was nicked from the lives of friends, family, and the staff. There's an intense emphasis on accuracy, trickling from the meticulous research this sort of period piece demands down to the size of apple on the produce aisle and ensuring that ham sandwiches are wrapped in wax paper a very specific way. As its title suggests, much of "Establishing Mad Men" is directed towards the look of the series, and the research and craftsmanship behind the props and set design, the transforming aspect of the series' wardrobe, and even hair and make-up are discussed at length. Comprehensive and infectiously enthusiastic, "Establishing Mad Men" is well worth setting aside an hour to watch.
The interactive "Pictures of Elegance" gives viewers a choice of nine different galleries, each grouped by category. Costume designer Jane Bryant and hair stylist Gloria Casny narrate over turnstiles of some of the men and women featured throughout the season, and production designer Dan Bishop describes a slew of different sets that zoom to fill the screen. "Pictures of Elegance" casts a wide net, disinterested in limiting itself to just the more familiar imagery of the show, such as the Draper family kitchen and a black satin dress of Joan's. This feature is comprehensive enough to even tackle the produce section of a supermarket and the look of a few women auditioning for a radio spot in the season finale. There are around ninety minutes of imagery and narration in all.
"Advertising the American Dream" (20 min.) uses Mad Men as a springboard to discuss the impact of advertising on American life, naturally with a heavy emphasis on the era featured in this series. Propelled by a half-battalion of professors and professionals, this featurette explores how the American dream after WWII wasn't some intangible ideal but something you could order from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. Americans lusted after products, and marketing firms took advantage by glamourizing everyday mundanity. "Advertising..." explores the emergence of the creative process at this time, giving some of the same real-life campaigns featured in Mad Men another look, and it indicates that the debauchery that Sterling Cooper was sopping with is firmly rooted in reality as well. The featurette closes by briefly touching on the evolution of marketing in the Internet age. It's always appreciated to see a featurette that helps put a movie or a television series in context, and this is a nice complement to the rest of the extras.
David Carbonara takes center stage in "Scoring Mad Men" (7 min.), noting how he first got involved in the series before describing his process in assembling its score. Carbonara touches on how he sets out to enhance the story through music and how he ties specific arrangements and melodies to particular characters. The featurette demonstrates the impact Carbonara's score has through a series of examples, and he proudly points out his cameo strumming along on an autoharp in a Bohemian bar.
A sampler of thirteen songs from the soundtrack is also included, and a minute-long teaser for season two (no new footage, unfortunately) rounds out the extras.
I really like the menu design in Mad Men; it's clean, intuitive, and extremely easy to navigate. There's a 'Play All' option to ease marathon viewing, and the episode selection submenu helpfully indicates which episodes are on which disc. Another appreciated bonus is that Mad Men logs which episodes have been viewed with a yellow dot, helping viewers who might not remember the exact title of the episode they'd last watched.
Conclusion: The setting of an advertising agency at the turn of the 1960s...the backdrop of a waning era that hides its shame and depravity behind a prim, proper, stone-faced facade...that's compelling in its own right, but Mad Men is such an exceptionally well-crafted drama that it elevates that instantly engaging premise into one of the best new series to bow last season. Everything about Mad Men stands on the brink of perfection: its stellar cast, the meticulous attention to detail in reproducing the year of 1960, a keen and remarkably cinematic visual eye, sterling dialogue, and a deep respect for its characters no matter how badly they stumble along the way. Lionsgate has given the series an outstanding release on Blu-ray, bolstered by a gorgeous 1080p presentation, lossless audio, and one of the most lavish assortments of audio commentaries I've seen in nearly nine years of reviewing. While most Blu-ray releases are saddled with at least a modest premium over the standard definition version, Lionsgate has made the unconventional but greatly appreciated choice to release both the DVD and Blu-ray sets at the same price point, making the high-def collection that much more compelling. Very, very Highly Recommended.
The usual image disclaimer: the photos scattered around this review are promotional stills and don't necessarily represent the presentation on this Blu-ray disc.