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Much like the “Wild West” or the “Roaring Twenties,” there’s an extreme amount of nostalgia associated with a period of American History that took place at the end of the 1950s and into the ’60s. Films like Back to the Future and American Graffiti almost seem to portray the period as some sort of utopia, when the country was prospering and had its bright future ahead of it. It’s because of this perceived look at the era that a series like Mad Men packs such a wallop of cold reality. With its gorgeous visuals of tailor made suits and skyscraper offices, the look the show is like a postcard of the age, but digging deep within its flawed characters shows a world rampant with misogyny and bigotry of many forms, giving us a brilliant look at that time period, as well as a distorted mirror into our own.
Much like the age itself, you have to look much deeper than surface level to figure out what Mad Men is really all about. While outwardly the show is simply about the lives of Madison Avenue Ad Executives of the period, trying desperately to sell products to the public that would today be considered evil in many circles (smoking, Nixon) in reality a lot of the series deals with men and women simply trying to connect with each other, despite having to live in this world where appearances and reputation mean more than real happiness. Men cheat on their “perfect” wives, secretaries sleep with their bosses, and homemakers wonder why they are filled with an infinite sadness even though the house about them seems to sparkle.
This is the real world these people live in, and at the center of this world is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a star on the rise when amongst his co-workers, but after the time clock is punched he’s a man who is barely holding his life together. He loves his wife, but is desperate for a real emotional bond, and keeps looking again and again trying to find it. Deep within himself are other secrets he is desperate to keep hidden, and as they slowly start to reveal themselves the carefully crafted veneer of Don Draper, Ad Exec, is peeled away, and we start to see the real man underneath.
Hamm won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series for his role as Draper, and to say that it was deserved would be a gigantic understatement. Hamm brings a terrific moral complexity to this role, so much so that its tough to really get a hold on what he’s doing at times. For instance, take the episode “Red in the Face,” in which Hamm’s Draper makes you hate him a bit after he scolds his wife Betty (January Jones) for what he sees as baiting his boss into coming onto her. Yet, by the end of the episode, Draper completely redeems himself with a subtle and brilliant plot to try achieve a bit of revenge on his boss.
Hamm works his magic through several story threads during this season, whether it be any number of important accounts for his firm, terrible secrets about his identity, or one particularly passionate affair, all of which serve to either make you admire his masculinity and crafted personal during his triumphs and then shock you with startling humanity in his failures. Draper as a character seems to hit a certain wavelength that is usually reserved for TV criminals like Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey, but its very similar flaws in each that seem to make him so fascinating. Hopefully, with those two monumental characters leaving the airwaves, Hamm’s Draper can fill the void for many seasons to come.
Hopefully, the show’s creators can live up to the promise of this first season. One of the best aspects of Mad Men seems to be how the series is able to stay away from being either dogmatically serialized like many of today’s most popular shows (Lost, 24), yet never feels episodic in the way that Crime series like CSI or Law & Order tend to be. Instead, for these first 13 episodes we just sort of get to live in this world and experience it in an intimate way that TV has never really provided before. Free from having a huge overarching plot, we instead just see how these different characters live and try to survive their own faults.
This would go especially for the emotional struggles of terrifically realized female roles such as the overachieving, but emotionally stunted Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) or the voluptuous sensuality of Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks). Each woman on this series has to make it in a sexist nightmare of a world, and each has to find their own way of handling it to reach some modicum of success, even if it means giving up much of themselves in order to do it. Perhaps the most sympathetic character of all is January Jones’ Betty Draper, who has to deal with the growing distance between she and her husband, all the while trying to keep up the same illusion of perfection that her spouse shares with her.
Mad Men – The Complete First Season is a grand achievement as a character study and as a look into a bygone era that is as familiar as an alien planet. The show pulls no punches as to the emotional toll this world takes on its characters, and the series is more and more captivating with each episode because of it. Off to such a rousing start, Mad Men hopefully can keep up its momentum and maybe be the defining document against the nostalgia of this period.
Brought to us in 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, the gorgeous photography on this show completely shines on this DVD set. This is a real bang up job and this gorgeous transfer is a testament to this series.
Establishing Mad Men – This hour long documentary is a very entertaining look at the creation of the show and how its themes were worked into it. Jon Hamm remarks just how realistic the show is, making it easier to be able to really play these roles. Everyone working on this series really seems to love it, and it absolutely comes across.
Scoring Mad Men – Composer David Carbonara talks about how he came onto the series and how he goes about creating the mood for the show.
Advertising the American Dream – This is an interesting look at the advertising industry and how it drives us as a society to keep buying and trying to achieve this ideal of the American Dream. There’s a really interesting made early on in this featurette which talks about how the industry helped us try and build this dream after WWII, desperately trying to recover from the Great Depression. There’s really interesting stuff here and makes a terrific tie-in to some of the themes of the show.
Mad Men Music Sampler – On disc 1, there’s a sort of jukebox where you can sample some of the music used in the show.
Commentaries – You get a ton of different tracks on this set, from creators to different cast members.
Both as a series and a DVD set, Mad Men – The Complete First Season is a terrific achievement. The eye-catching “Zippo” DVD case contains an astounding TV season and a lot of really informative and entertaining extras. This is a winner all the way.
Lionsgate presents Mad Men – The Complete First Season. Created by Matthew Weiner. Starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis. Running time: 616 minutes. Released on DVD: July 1, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.