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Mad Men: Season Three(TV) (2009)
What you are, what you want, what you love doesn't matter. It's all about how you sell it. Mad Men delves into the lives, loves and ambitions of a group of ruthlessly competitive men and women working in a 1960s advertising agency. Set on and around Madison Avenue - home of New York's ad agencies at the time, and the "Mad" of the title - the series was created by Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner and has gained rave reviews in the US. The series revolves around the complicated world of Don Draper, the biggest ad man (and ladies' man) in the business, and his colleagues at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. As Don makes the plays in the boardroom and the bedroom, he struggles to stay a step ahead of the rapidly changing times and the young executives nipping at his heels.
For more about Mad Men: Season Three and the Mad Men: Season Three Blu-ray release, see the Mad Men: Season Three Blu-ray Review
Starring: Jon Hamm, January Jones, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, Aaron Staton, Christina Hendricks
Director: Matthew Weiner
» See full cast & crew
Mad Men: Season Three Blu-ray Review
'Mad Men' achieves that very rare television hat trick with an unusually compelling third season.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, March 25, 2010
Interview Magazine happened to be the one and only piece of reading material on my naturopath's waiting room end table a week or so ago when I had a check up visit. I had never opened the magazine previously, and so had no idea what to expect. I was immediately assaulted by some of the frankly most shocking and ugliest looking advertisements I had ever seen, most for supposedly high fashion items. These were layouts full of "heroin chic" models, most with such heavy black eye makeup they resembled raccoons. Most of them sported absolutely bizarre hair styles, frizzed and shaped into all sorts of outlandish shapes, and a great many of them wore virtually nothing, despite many of the ads ostensibly being for clothes. I silently wondered to myself what future generations would think of the 2010 era if they happened upon this issue and glanced through the ads. Of course that same "time capsule" mentality is applicable to any era.
I used to collect Saturday Evening Post magazines, and frequently would roar with laughter from ads from the first decade of the 20th century which featured such unforgettable tag lines as "The first toilet tissue guaranteed not to have splinters!" The Post in fact remains a treasure trove of vintage advertising, especially for the early 1960's timeline. If you've never read Otto Friedrich's absolutely riveting tale of corporate intrigue at the Curtis Publishing Company (owner of the Post), Decline and Fall, I highly recommend it. His chapters dealing with the radical overhaul of the Post in the early 1960's to attract more ad dollars and a younger demographic read like a primer for the office machinations on display throughout much of Mad Men, the vaunted AMC series dealing with the personal and professional lives of the advertising personnel at the fictional Sterling Cooper Agency in New York City. The first two seasons of the series took us from circa 1960 to the end of 1962, and this third season picks up in 1963, an era already fraught with change, much of it still subliminal. That subtext was about to be thrust into full consciousness with the seminal events leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a plot arc the third season brilliantly exploits as various characters come to grips with their own secrets and issues.
Just as any good advertisement, Mad Men is a dialectic between illusion and reality. As I discussed in my review of the first season of the show for another site, the first season of Mad Men gave us a nice visual glyph of this dichotomy with regard to the show's main character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Repeatedly throughout that first season the camera would track in to the back of Draper's head. Here was our main point of focus for the show, and yet we were repeatedly shown the enigmatic back of the man's head, something that revealed nothing about the character, his thoughts, feelings or motivations. Draper remained a glyph, a shiny, surface deep image as alluring (and about as profound) as a male model in a magazine ad. As you longtime fans of Mad Men know, Draper turned out to be something other than merely an ultra successful executive at Sterling Cooper. In fact, he turned out to be something more (and in a way, less) than the womanizing stereotype of the day, By the time the first season ended, Draper had been revealed not even to really be Don Draper (I'll refrain from posting any major spoilers here for those of you who haven't yet experienced the show). While the mystery of Draper's existence continued to be mined for at least tangential plot lines in the second season of Mad Men, the sophomore year of the series (for me, anyway) seemed to be much more about the mad women of the ensemble, chiefly Don's conflicted wife, Betty (January Jones), the secretary cum copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), and office manager Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). While the going in the second season got a bit melodramatic at times, the series still very artfully wove actual historical events in and around the personal stories of its characters, as well as working in actual real products and ad campaigns, lending an unusual feeling of verisimilitude to the proceedings.
The third season of Mad Men pivots back largely to the story of Don and Betty, with Don's "secret identity" rearing its Freudian head from the first images of the premiere episode, when his memory, or at least his imagination, literally plays out right in front of him as he fixes Betty a late night cup of warm milk to aid her insomnia. The gentle friction between the married couple becomes something less than gentle as the season progresses, a study not only in Don's duplicity on any number of levels, but Betty's continuing battles with depression and feelings of "something more" than motherhood and housewife-dom being her call in life. Adding to the emotional pressures are the buyout of Sterling Cooper by an imperious English company, leaving senior partner Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) to only half-jokingly complain about having to work "under British rule." In fact the British subplot fills out a whole series of sidebars to the main thrust of this season, including a fun cat and mouse game between nemeses Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), both of whom are appointed to a shared Accounts Manager position.
Mad Men has learned, perhaps the hard way, that being a critical darling isn't enough in the rough and tumble world of television, even niche television like original dramatic series on AMC. While its ratings have generally been on the upswing after a rather dicey first two seasons, the show strangely hasn't really broken through to a mainstream audience, despite unusual acclaim and a bevy of awards. That seems especially strange considering the pseudo-chic setting of the early 1960's (something perhaps somewhat hilariously attractive to Gen-X'ers), a setting which Mad Men recreates with almost obsessive compulsive virtuosity. (There are occasional missteps, as I noted in a previous review of the series, notably temporally misplaced source music cues, which have been, at least at times, years out of place from where they really should have been). This show is a triumph of production design, where every element works seamlessly together to effortlessly recreate an era. Everything, from the natty suits and thin ties of the men, to the flowing dresses and Capri pants of the women, screams "early sixties", as do the wonderful "rocket modern" furniture and even the modern art adorning the walls of Sterling Cooper. Even relatively minor details, like the running gag of the office intercoms which make secretaries sound like something akin to Charlie Brown's mother in the Peanuts television specials, are wonderfully and lovingly recreated. More importantly, though, the ensemble captures the strange, surreal quality of the era, when hope and idealism were colliding with the remnants of the lethargy of the Eisenhower age, as well as the unseemly realities of sexism and racism. If Mad Men has dealt only tangentially with the latter (it does actually rear its ugly head in several episodes this season, at least in the background), the former is fully on display throughout the series, and in fact remains one of the recurring motifs of the show, as various distaff characters have begun to explore their own Feminine Mystique, Friedan-style, and started to literally rage against The Man (or The Men, as it were).
Performances continue to be top notch throughout this third season. Hamm brings a nice touch of subtlety to Draper's inconsistencies, as well as a sort of jaded persona that is perfectly in keeping with someone with too many conflicted emotions roiling around his subconscious. One of the stronger performances this season is Bryan Batt's Sal Romano. The closeted gay character could have become a camp classic in lesser hands, but Batt offers such a full blooded portrayal, one full of self loathing and also a certain nobility, that Sal becomes instantly sympathetic, especially as the machinations of the third season's plot arcs play out in sometimes devastating ways. Catch how Batt's doleful eyes completely reveal everything you need to know about Sal's miserably repressed life when Draper catches sight of him with a young male bellhop in the season's premiere episode.
Playing out against the very real death of JFK are the figurative deaths of several other entities in the show's framework, including the Draper marriage, and by the season's end, Sterling Cooper (or at least its main characters) itself. The first three years of the 1960's are probably incorrectly remembered now as a quasi-Camelot. Mad Men has rather forcefully shown us at least part of the reality behind those retrospective rose colored glasses. It will be fascinating to see how the series progresses through the much more tumultuous mid- to late-1960's, an era for which the Kennedy assassination seemed to be nothing other than a horrific overture. Mad Men continues to mine this particular time capsule with a more or less pitch perfect ear. Hopefully that in tune quality can continue through what is sure to be a much more notably cacophonous few years, years that in fact saw a much more aggressive and at times even subversive quality to both print and broadcast advertising. The illusion has definitely more than started to crumble as we reach an end to the third season of Mad Men. My hunch is the gritty reality lying (in both senses of the word) beneath will be at least as riveting as the show moves into its fourth season this summer.
Mad Men: Season Three Blu-ray, Video Quality
To put it simply, there is no finer looking series on television right now than Mad Men. Unfortunately, my satellite service does not include AMC HD (yet, anyway), so watching these episodes in full 1080p glory (yep, 1080p, despite their television heritage), via an AVC encode, the glories of the 1.78:1 image are truly spectacular. This is a series which revels in production and costume design and the wonderful palette of 1963 is fully on display throughout all of this season. The finely tailored suits of the men and often elegant apparel of the women reveal a host of fine details, so that you feel at times you can almost reach out and touch the very fabrics they're wearing. The sometimes muted pastel colors of the offices and backgrounds are then shattered, figuratively speaking, by unbelievably bold primary colors which dance across the screen, but never devolve into blooming. I noticed absolutely no artifacting throughout this season, and constrast and black levels remain very strong throughout. If you want to see just how excellent a "mere" television series can look, look no further than this sterling (and cooper?) Blu-ray release of Mad Men: Season Three.
Mad Men: Season Three Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Mad Men's DTS HD-MA 5.1 mix is perfectly wonderful, though surround channels are really rather sparsely utilized throughout the series. This is of course to be expected in a show that is almost entirely indoors, and which frequently plays out in relatively intimate scenes between just a few actors. That said, there's nice attention paid to directionality in dialogue sequences, and that dialogue is always crisp and clear and completely easy to hear. The frequently used source music does fill out the surround channels when it's utilized, and some of the outdoor Manhattan scenes have some nice ambient moments. This is simply not a show that calls for knock your socks off aural hyperbole, so don't approach the show with a summer blockbuster mentality. What is here is a very finely detailed and nuanced soundtrack that is certainly heads and shoulders above most series television's rather paltry efforts.
Mad Men: Season Three Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Mad Men: Season Three follows in its first two seasons' footsteps by offering a plethora of excellent extras. Each of the episodes has at least one commentary, and several have two. I frankly did not have time to listen to each and every commentary in full, wanting to get this review up sometime before the end of 2010. I did spot check almost all of them, and listened in full to several featuring Matthew Weiner. The Weiner commentaries are especially interesting, as he discusses his intentions for the show and the historical background of many of the events playing out throughout this season. All three discs also offer at least one bonus featurette. The extras include:
"Out of Town": 1) Vincent Kartheiser, Aaron Staton, Bryan Batt, Rich Sommer
2) Matthew Weiner, Phil Abraham, David Carbonara
"Love Among the Ruins": Matthew Weiner, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gladis, Jared Harris
"My Old Kentucky Home": 1) Elisabeth Moss, Janie Bryant
2) Matthew Weiner, Dahvi Waller
"The Arrangement": Matthew Wiener, Kiernan Shipka, Ryan Cutrona
"The Fog": Matthew Weiner, Dan Bishop, Phil Abraham
Mad Men Illustrated (14:01) looks at the work of the wonderfully named Dyna Moe, whose illustrations mimic the opening title graphics look of Mad Men.
"Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency": 1) Christina Hendricks, Jared Harris
2) Matthew Weiner, Lesli Linka Glatter
"Seven Twenty Three": 1) Andre and Maria Jacquemetton
2) Matthew Weiner, Robert Morse, Josh Weltman, Bob Levinson
"Souvenir": Matthew Weiner, Vincent Kartheiser, Lisa Albert
"Wee Small Hours": 1) Jon Hamm, Bryan Batt, Chelcie Ross
2) Matthew Weiner, Scott Hornbacher
Clearing the Air: The History of Cigarette Advertising is split into two parts, Part 1 running 25:28 and Part 2 19:58. As any aficionado of this series will tell you, smoking occurs virtually nonstop by almost all of the characters, and this fascinating documentary ties that all in to the history of ads for tobacco products.
Flashback 1963 is an interesting photo gallery which can be accessed via either a "Play All" mode or an "Interactive" mode which allows the viewer an overview of images from which to select.
"The Color Blue": 1) Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gladis, Jared Harris
2) Matthew Weiner, Mike Uppendahl
"The Gypsy and the Hobo": 1) Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Jennifer Getzinger
2) Jon Hamm, Matthew Weiner
"The Grown-Ups": 1) Vincent Kartheiser, Alison Brie, John Slattery
2) Matthew Weiner, Blake McCormick, Brett Johnson
"Shut the Door. Have a Seat.": 1) Jon Hamm, Robert Morse, John Slattery
2) Matthew Weiner, Erin Levy
Medgar Evers: An Unsung Hero runs over 70 minutes, split into two parts, and details the pioneering efforts of this largely forgotten civil rights hero.
We Shall Overcome: The March on Washington (16:56) chronicles the epochal events of the summer of 1963, culminating in Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech.
Mad Men: Season Three Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Sometimes we lowly (if not especially humble) critics are actually right (I know, I know, hard to believe). Mad Men really does deserve much more attention from the public at large for its brilliantly realized recreation of an era that really is not so distant, despite seeming awfully archaic to modern eyes and ears at times. With possibly the strongest production design in current television, and unerringly strong work from a crackerjack ensemble, Mad Men is riveting television. This Blu-ray release of the Third Season will hopefully attract a bevy of new fans to the show, while keeping its current aficionados completely satisfied. And that ain't no advertising hype.
Mad Men: Other Seasons
Mad Men: Season Three Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Mad Men Season 3 Blu-ray Dated and Detailed - December 23, 2009
Specialised site TV Shows on DVD has the scoop on the release date and edition details for 'Mad Men: Season Three', which explores the "glamorous and ego-driven Golden Age of advertising, where everyone is selling something, and nothing is ever what it seems." ...
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