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Ten years ago, just as network TV was devolving into the pre-conscious slime of reality programming, America got caught up in new dramatic cable series in a big way. Matthew Weiner's Mad Men scooped up a huge audience that had no idea it would become fascinated by a show about Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Now mostly forgotten, the 'organization man' subgenre of dramas was a slightly earlier trend. It began with ethical-problem winners like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Executive Suite and Patterns, and eventually became comedy material in the musical and movie versions of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. None of those shows dealt specifically with Madison Avenue, but ad agencies were an easy target for tepid satires and critiques, especially on Television.
Mad Men nails the high tension big money Ad Game just as the cornball '50s became the 'hidden persuader' '60s. Some of America's best researchers and most creative minds labored not to produce products but to create illusions to sell products. To shape and direct consumer desires, ad men need special insights into the psychology of the customer base. The character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is brilliant at identifying the essence of what makes a product attractive and desired. That Draper is dangerously unsure of his own identity makes him a classic American character. Few people know Don's secrets. He has reinvented himself several times and is technically a criminal to the U.S. Armed Forces. His charismatic 'Man of Mystery' pose is a winning strategy for a guy whose business is to show people desires they didn't know they had.
The culture was transformed in the 1960s, and Mad Men charts some of the major changes, starting with women's role in the workplace. Men still wear hats in 1959, and almost everybody smokes. Historical accuracy and period detail is a big part of the show's appeal -- it's an "I was there" experience for Baby Boomers. This period's clothing, cars and furnishings now seem refreshingly nostalgic. It's more than just cars; I remember seeing a set of kitchen drinking glasses in Mad Men exactly like a set we had when I was a child. The same goes for a simple dish-like ceiling light fixture, with a faux-etched pattern. I stared at one just like it every morning when I awoke. To some degree this Boomer Nostalgia fades as the late '60s turns the world into a more familiar place of rock music, business deception and political assassinations. Nobody can claim an Eisenhower-era innocence; we were all becoming part of the big American rip-off.
Mad Men: Season Six is 4/5ths of the way through the saga of Don Draper and associates. A rundown of the full cast list and story progression isn't needed, but there's no harm in admiring the series' distinctive characters. Copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is the cautious self-made woman that we've seen grow from abused secretary to a creative dynamo to rival Don. At the end of Season Five Peggy broke free of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) to join Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) over at Cutler Gleason & Chaough (CGC). When the two firms merge to compete for a big car account, Olson finds herself working for Don again. Blueblood Pete Campell (Vincent Kartheiser) has serious frustrations with his marriage, and still has not secured the power he so desperately seeks; he gets thrown out of his home and continues to make serious mistakes. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) practically saved the company through a humiliating personal sacrifice in Season Five, and is trying to find her footing as a partner in the new merged company. Don's wife Megan (Jessica Paré) gets her desired acting career but falls into the same trap suffered by her predecessor Betty (January Jones) when Don spends most of Season Six in a professional and personal tailspin. Don's womanizing gets so out of hand that he carries on a brazen affair with Sylvia (Linda Cardinelli), the wife of his neighbor and friend Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson), a respected surgeon. Don's magic touch turns sour at work when he allows his personal demons, particularly memories of growing up in a brothel, color his client pitches. At one point Don loses control and sabotages a major sale.
Season Six sees Peggy trying to live in a slum area, for personal-political reasons. The hotshot young copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) remains socially awkward even as the quality of his creative input rivals that of Peggy and bests that of the distracted Don. Betty gets her weight under control. Her husband, the politician Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) considers running for the State Senate. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) has problems when he loses the big account that has held the agency together for so many years; he tries to support Don on a drug-soaked trip to Hollywood. Roger also carries on a hot affair with Megan's adventurous mother Marie (Julia Ormond).
The merger throws the agency's pecking order into chaos, as Don and Ted jockey for position and other personality conflicts break out. An opportunistic climber from upstairs, Bob Benson (James Wolk) rudely insinuates himself into the creative group, and succeeds in gaining Joan's trust. Pete finds out that Bob's résumé is a fraud, but can't get him fired. Don and Betty get back together, just for one night. Already seriously affected by her parents' divorce, young Sally (Kiernan Shipka) witnesses something that threatens to blow Don's second marriage out of the water. Sally puts what she's learned about devious manipulation to use, and gets into big trouble at boarding school. All in all, it's a violent year. People are stabbed and shot, and Don almost drowns.
This being 1968, the topical intrusions run thick. Lives are disrupted in the wake of the Martin Luther King assassination. In a warm, memorable scene, Don connects with his son at a matinee of Planet of the Apes. An extended psychedelic episode at a Hollywood party comes off surprisingly well, even with retro-subjective hallucination visuals. Perhaps the most inspired event of the season is a crafty burglar's invasion of Don and Megan's apartment at the worst possible time. The 'responsible' adults have left Sally in charge of her two younger brothers, and she's unequipped to deal with the con-game tactics of the intimidating Ida (Davenia McFadden). For a while it looks like the episode might turn into a horror movie, but the real fireworks hit when Betty finds out that Don and Megan have been derelict in their duty.
What's missing is the 'defining inspired moment' found in several previous seasons, situations that perfectly expressed Mad Men's peculiarly insightful spirit. The first was a straight-up episode highlight. Don's client pitch for the Kodak Carousel conveyed the idea that a home slide show could be a magic memory machine that makes one's family whole. The scene carries a heavy nostalgic charge for anybody who remembers old early-'60s Kodak TV ads, particularly the one with the "Turn Around" song. The ad suggested that the fleeting cycles of our lives could be captured forever on Kodak film. I remember being touched by it, and seeing my mother touched by it too. The Need Fulfilled: a meaningful family.
The next Mad Men moment that hit like a brick was a Draper family picnic, at a time just before the final Don-Betty breakup. The kids play on a grassy green hill until it's time to put the picnic basket and the ground cloth back in the trunk of Don's Cadillac. They simply whip the cloth skyward, sending the picnic trash in all directions, and leave behind a shameful mess. The point couldn't be expressed better: in the carefree years when America was at the top of the 'consumer curve" nobody worried about things like littering or pollution.
The third incident, in Season Four, I believe, is even more tangential and disconnected. Living on his own in an older building, Don is fumbling for his keys when he sees an older couple coming home from the market. The old man talks meekly to his wife, as if trying to atone for some grave error. He's obviously done the wrong thing again. The unforgiving wife's only response is a frosty, "We'll talk about it inside." Don notes this for a moment, a mysterious bit of observation that's funny but also gives him a glimpse of how the other half lives -- people with no money, no options and few ambitions. Marriage means putting up with the person you're stuck with. Unlike Don, the old man has probably been apologizing to his missus every day of his marriage. Can Don even imagine himself in such a situation? I forget many of the details in these shows, but certain moments stick like glue.
After Season Four the Mad Men production tripped over money negotiations and endured a seventeen-month break. When the show came back in 2012 things had changed. The narrative was less dense than before, with fewer subplots working. Marginal characters being carried for seasons disappeared; people in the background became more of a blur. In the earlier years it seemed as if each major character had friends and family members outside the agency, and some of those friends had friends. Staring with Season Five we were suddenly limited to six or seven main personages. Others would seemingly disappear for weeks at a time, even major players like Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse). Many others only showed up in occasional group scenes. The scale of production seemed to shrink as well. The show still works, but now its scope has been diminished.
Season Six starts rather slowly, and suddenly picks up the old energy after three episodes or so. From then on the action becomes very involving. What with the frustrating competition between the two agencies, their eventual merger and Don's personal meltdown, we can't tell where the show is heading. Don's relapse into moral degradation and functional chaos is well done but somewhat depressing, as it makes us think that the story arc might end in his total downfall. He no longer seems capable of the expert tightrope walk he's been performing for six years; he seems to be running on auto-self destruct. Other characters hit personal lows as well, their various sins and weaknesses uncovered.
We're told that the roll-out of Season Seven will be split in two. "Season Seven A" will debut in 2014, and a "Seven B" in 2015, each half with seven episodes. Apparently Lionsgate has plans to milk the last season for all it's worth.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray set of Mad Men: Season Six continues the branded line with another 3-disc set looking even better than it did on AMC. The lack of commercials is a big plus for disc viewing. Even given the improved standard of TV in the HD world, Mad Men is an exceedingly well-shot and richly appointed show. The 5.1 DTS Master Audio is an even greater step upward in quality from the cable TV experience. I don't know if the responsible party is AMC, a satellite relay or my local cable provider, but our TV audio was compressed into an impenetrable wall of sound, often burying dialogue behind music. That gripe is no more. One big sales plus for this reviewer is the presence of English (and Spanish) subtitles, to catch lines only half-heard during original broadcasts.
As the extras on earlier season discs have already plumbed the inner thoughts of the creatives connected with the show, Season Six gives us only three special items. A 'Summer of Love' gallery consists of a few rather small images floating in a colorful interactive background, and isn't particularly rewarding. Disc two has Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out, an interesting 30-minute look at Timothy Leary that features a great many clips of the LSD guru preaching about a new era of expanded minds. Disc three carries a colorful, detailed production featurette called Recreating an Era, wherein the designer and art director speak over an endless procession of well researched and imaginatively designed show settings.
If it isn't obvious, Mad Men is a special case for Savant. I spend so many hours watching movies that I normally shy away from TV series commitments, if only to avoid becoming a video zombie. We picked it up in Season Three and backtracked from there; my only advice to holdouts thinking of checking out Mad Men at this late date is to start from the beginning. It's quite a ride; just stay clear of powered lawnmowers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mad Men: Season Six Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.