Following the demise of The Sopranos and The Wire, the mantle of best American television drama has been picked up by this superb show, a smart, alluring and totally engrossing take on 1960s ad men on Madison Ave — those sharp-suited, long-lunching, serial-shagging masters of consumerism who helped shape the American Dream. Or, at the very least, sold it to the masses.
Although set in the offices of fictional Manhattan advertising agency Sterling Cooper, Mad Men isn’t so much concerned with the business of selling product as it is with its characters selling themselves — to each other and to themselves. And the undisputed master of them all is Sterling Cooper’s resident creative genius Don Draper (Jon Hamm) who, with his matinee idol looks, highflying career, trophy Betty (January Jones) and perfect family, appears to possess everything a man could aspire to. But, in a business based on appearances and image manipulation, there’s more to Don than meets the eye. Smooth and successful on the outside, conflicted, ruthless, unfaithful and full of self-loathing on the in, by the end of 13 episodes, as his past is slowly revealed, he’s developed into one of the most fascinating and complex characters on TV. Part of what makes Mad Men so compelling is that he’s not the only one, and, over the course of this season, characters you think you know reveal their true selves with frequently shocking effect.
There is, too, a delicious sense of irony — the show’s set against the Nixon/Kennedy presidential campaign and for a supposedly forward-thinking bunch they don’t see Kennedy coming — that comes with the hindsight of forty plus years. In depicting the sexual, social, political and racial mores of the period, Mad Men positively revels in the differences between now and then, when a woman’s place was said to be at home (or on her back), where drinking at work, being openly anti-Semitic, or harassing your female co-workers was considered acceptable. Or where Don’s demure new secretary Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) is actively encouraged by the office vamp (the curvaceous Christine Hendricks) to make herself more desirable if she wants to get on. And then there’s the incessant smoking. So much so that the show should carry its own Government Health Warning.
On his commentary to the pilot, series creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner — who wrote the script in 1999 as a writing sample and earned himself a job on The Sopranos as a result — tells of having made everyone audition, even his guest stars, and laying down a decree that there’d be no English actors playing American on his show. “Because I’m sensitive to accents,” he says. His resultant, impeccably dressed ensemble is impressively top notch, as is the writing throughout, the season ending with a bombshell that should have been obvious to anyone paying attention, and setting up all manner of complications for season two.
Of the smattering of extras, the short but sweet Advertising The American Dream is arguably the best, providing some historical context and more than a few laughs as former ad folk remember the era fondly (“by far the most fun you could have with your clothes on,” says one), but it’s a pity this release doesn’t come in Zippo-shaped packaging like its Region 1 counterpart. Nor on Blu-ray for that matter. For a show whose glorious retro visuals cock a shop full of hats to Hitchcock, and where the atmosphere’s so thick you can almost cut it, that’s a crying shame.
Extras: Commentaries by cast and crew, Scoring Mad Men featurette; Advertising The American Dream’ featurette; Subtitles
* originally published in DVD & Blu-ray Review