The latest season of Mad Men is another reminder of why it is one of the outstanding TV shows of the past decade.
Depicting the fictional New York advertising agency Sterling Cooper during the early 1960s, it explores lives of those that work there and the quality of the writing puts it on par with landmark shows such as The Wire and The Sopranos.
Created by Matthew Weiner, it centres around creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm), his wife Betty (January Jones) and and various characters at the agency such as Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) and Bert Cooper (Robert Morse).
It has deservedly won huge critical acclaim along with consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Drama since it first premiered on US cable channel AMC in 2007.
Season One introduced us to the world of Madison Avenue in 1960, a place filled with surface glamour and backward social attitudes where many of the characters struggle to deal with their professional and personal lives.
Season Two explored the enigma of protagonist Don Draper, his mysterious past and professional ambitions, as well as examining the changes during 1962 for various female characters in the office.
Season Three is set during 1963 and explores tensions at the agency with the new British owners, the ongoing personal conflicts (and infidelities) in the office and the gradual changes in US society as it entered a tumultuous decade.
One thing that distinguishes Mad Men from the mediocrity of contemporary televison is just the intelligence of the writing but the fact that it somehow manages to highlight contemporary uncertainties through the prism of history.
Much of the early appeal of the show was the excellent period detail, but the show’s astute probing into emotional issues (divorce, social attitudes) against the backdrop of famous events has proved to be a killer combination.
The first two seasons touched on events such as the 1960 US election and the death of Marilyn Monroe, but this series manages to gradually combine the serious social changes of the era with the complex emotional situations facing the characters, culminating in brilliantly orchestrated season climax.
Although the period details are excellent, the show mines a lot of dramatic irony out the way in which characters often seem initially oblivious to seismic events: characters flirt whilst the March on Washington can be heard on the radio; a man turns off the TV just before Walter Cronkite is about to make an important announcement.
This series picks up soon after the events of Season Two and Don is still having fidelity issues (taking a special interest in a local teacher) whilst Betty has her own dalliances, despite recently giving birth to a son.
Meanwhile, at the ad agency, tensions continue with the new British bosses and many of the staff have to face big changes in their working and personal lives.
Perhaps the biggest development this season is the way in which the changes in American society closely mirror those of the main characters. In the hands of less skilled writers this could have been clunky but Weiner and his team pull it off with taste, skill and intelligence.
With its detailed period look, costumes and production design it is perfectly suited to the high definition Blu-ray format. On a purely technical level, it is one of the best looking shows I have ever seen on an HD television.
The 13 episode box set has is supplemented by various featurettes and audio commentaries on key episodes, with insights from the show’s creator Matthew Wiener, cast members and directors.
Over the three discs the extras include the following:
- Audio Commentaries: On the Blu-ray there are several commentaries from cast and crew (a lot more than is usual for a TV series) with two for each episode. Matthew Weiner is a ubiquitous presence on the tracks with some insight and context for the creative choices in each episode, but the commentaries from actors are also insightful and witty. The sheer amount of commentaries might seem a bit much, but for a show as layered as this, they are a welcome addition for aficionados.
- Mad Men Illustrated (HD, 14:01): One thing you may have noticed about the popularity of Mad Men is the various avatars fans use online (especially Twitter) based on characters from the show. (The official website has a section where you called MadMenYourself). These drawings are the work of illustrator Dyna Moe who knew an actor on the show and was initially recruited to do Christmas cards for the cast and crew. When she put them up online they were an instant hit and her subsequent illustrations of characters and scenes from the show have become something of a phenomenon. This short featurette is an extended interview with her alongside her work.
- Clearing the Air (HD, Part 1 25:28 & Part 2 19:58): This lengthy two-part documentary is a fascinating exploration about the history of how tobacco companies advertised cigarettes to the American people. (Fans of the show will remember the pilot episode featured a plot line about a tobacco company and this season also features a key plot strand involving Lucky Strike) It features several academics, historians and experts who discuss the often ingenious ways in which tobacco companies sold the myth of tobacco, from recruiting Hollywood stars, to downplaying research and how various different companies targeted different demographics. For instance, we find out that Marlboro initially targeted women despite later becoming famous for the image of the ‘Malboro Man’ and an eye-popping revelation about Philip Morris brands.
- Flashback 1963 (HD): This is an interactive photo feature that charts the big historical and cultural moments of the year.
- Medger Evers: Unsung Hero (HD, Part 1 39:13 & Part 2 31:15): Another two part documentary, which explores the life of civil rights campaigner Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary who was assassinated in his driveway in 1963. Told through lengthy interviews with Medgar’s brother, Charles; his widow, Myrlie; and daughter, Reena. A moving portrait of a one of the key figures in the battle to end segregation.
- We Shall Overcome: The March on Washington (HD, 16:56): A simple but powerful feature in which the full audio of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” in August 1963 is accompanied by images from the March on Washington.
Mad Men Season 3 is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 26th April