A time of change is descending on the America and the men and women of the Sterling Cooper ad agency. The civil rights movement is underway, and (at the end of the season), President Kennedy is assassinated. Personal lives are also undergoing upheaval. Peggy is learning to express her sexuality, while the closeted Stan wrestles with some painful reckonings involving his own. And Don’s marriage hits a crisis thanks to his serial philandering and a huge secret from his past.
Easily one of the most acclaimed shows of recent memory, Mad Men hardly needs me to point out how strong its performances are, how intelligent its scripting is, and how beautifully it’s shot. But at the risk of being branded a heretic, I would point out a few gaps in the emperor’s clothes. The series is highly inaccessible to new viewers, assuming as it seems to that everyone watching has been doing so from the first. I had only seen a couple of episodes prior to plunging into this set, and was often frustrated by the plethora of significant glances between characters that clearly spoke volumes about past events. Not only did I have trouble figuring out what was going on, I wasn’t always certain that anything was. Yes, the writing is very smart, but it can, at times, wear that intelligence a little too ostentatiously – little bits of business involving a child reading Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to her grandfather, or executives trading quips about Balzac feel show-offy to me. (And while we’re on the topic, be wary of the knowledge you’re going to parade. At one point in Episode 1, we are informed that London no longer has fogs. That is true now, but is a very anachronistic statement to be making in 1963, as my parents can attest to.) Finally, there is a certain coldness to the affair that I found made it hard to particularly care about any of the characters. Again, none of this is to deny the program’s manifold and great qualities, but for my money, it isn’t quite in the same stratospheric heights as something like The Wire.
Did I mention this is a very handsome show? I believe I did, but allow me to reiterate that fact, and to underline that it is probably one of the most beautiful offerings on the small screen. There is a gorgeous richness to the colours that conjures the look of films from the 60s. The transfer is more than up to the job of capturing this aesthetic. On top of the gorgeous colours, we have terrific blacks, contrasts and flesh tones, and nary a trace of grain. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The music, most notably during the opening credits, is blessed by a strong, enveloping 5.1 mix. The sound design is otherwise far less immersive, however. For the most part, this is simply because this is, generally speaking, a very quiet series, but there are still some missed opportunities. Why not, for instance, have the background sounds of the office pool make some surround appearances? Having said that, the clarity of the track is beyond reproach.
Audio Commentaries: There is one for every episode, which is something I, for one, have never encountered in a TV box set before. The participants vary from episode to episode, but the best ones include creator Matthew Weiner, as his big-picture perspective on the show means he always has something interesting to say. By contrast, the cast members taking part on the Episode 1 track are sometimes at a loss for what to say about scenes that have nothing to do with them.
Medgar Evers: An Unsung Hero: (Part 1: 39:12, Part 2: 31:13) Spread over Discs 1 and 2, this is an in-depth look at the life of an important figure in the civil rights movement.
Mad Men Illustarted: (14:00) A profile of an artist whose website features illustrations inspired by events in the series. Find this feature on Disc 2.
Clearing the Air: The History of Cigarette Advertising: (Part 1: 25:27, Part 2: 19:58) Disc 3 has both parts of this documentary, which is simultaneously fascinating and chilling.
We Shall Overcome: The March on Washington: (16:56) Martin Luther King’s speech with an accompanying slide show. This is another Disc 3 feature.
An impressive package of extras adds considerable historical context to the season’s events. And yes, the show is very well done. I just find it difficult to warm up to.