The DVD of the week is definitely Mad Men. I know it’s a TV show — cable TV even — but it’s eons better than any new movie released on DVD for the Fourth of July weekend. That is unless you harbor some perverse affection for Owen Wilson’ roaringly unfunny Drillbit Taylor, the thrill-free Vantage Point, or misfires from Wong Kar Wai (My Blueberry Nights) and John Cusack (War, Inc.). Your time can be more excitingly spent with the first season of AMC’s Mad Men — all thirteen episodes collected in a smashing DVD package, the better to capture the look, sound and atmosphere of Manhattan’s Madison Avenue advertising world, circa 1960, where the show is set. If you haven’t seen Mad Men yet, get busy. The Emmy nominations, to be announced on July 17th, will surely be heaping praise upon it, to go along with the Peabody award and Golden Globes for Best Drama and star Jon Hamm. The DVD set is your best chance to play catch up. If you have seen Season One, a DVD refresher course will only reinforce the show’s quality and whet your appetite for Season Two which starts on July 27th with a stunning new episode that leaps ahead a bit in time. Here are five reasons why I think Mad Men is the best new drama series on television If you disagree, fire at will:
1.The Creator: He would be Matthew Weiner. He’s also the executive producer and head writer. Known for his work as writer and producer of HBO’s The Sopranos during its fifth and sixth seasons, Weiner is a creative force in stretching the boundaries of television. He even directed the Mad Men Season One finale, brilliantly. They say Weiner is a perfectionist, that he doesn’t always handle people well. With these results, who’s complaining?
2.The Theme: Advertising was beginning its takeover of the world in 1960. Last time I looked it was still winning. Weiner invented the Sterling/Cooper Agency to show how WASP predators worked without even trying to hide their racism and sexism. Fueled by nicotine and nonstop martinis, these guys — and a few maverick women — pull off the trick of selling us things we don’t need. Even love. Don Draper, the creative director of the agency, played by Jon Hamm in a star-making performance, laughs at the very notion of love. “That’s something I invented to sell nylons,” he says. Harsh? Maybe. Weiner himself said of advertising: “It’s a great way to talk about the image we have of ourselves, versus who we really are.”
3.The Plot: The focus is on Don Draper, and his ad-perfect wife (January Jones) and family. Don is hiding something, but so is everyone on the show, including Don’s boss Roger Sterling, played with pitch-perfect wit and dry cynicism by John Slattery. Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) is a secretary who dreams of becoming the agency’s first female copywriter and who, after a one-night stand with a conniving junior exec (the superb Vincent Kartheiser), keeps denying the bulge in her belly is a pregnancy. OK, it sounds like soap opera, but Weiner’s writing raises the level at every turn.
4. The Actors: Hamm, Moss and Slattery should be definite Emmy nominees. And don’t forget Christina Hendricks as a redheaded secretary with a bullet bra who knows the ropes and invented a few herself. Or Bryan Batt as a closeted art director. Or Rich Sommer as the junior exec with a dramatic character arc between Episodes 12 and 13. Or Robert Morse, of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, as the co-head of the agency with a surprising streak of decency. I could go on. Hamm is magnificent in the scene where Draper demonstrates a slide projector with photos of Draper’s own family. The moment cuts so deep it belongs in a time capsule. What you see, week after week on Mad Men, is the best ensemble acting on television.
5. The Style: It’s not just in the production design, in the costumes, in the plumes of cigarette smoke. It’s the atmosphere that conjures up a time that seems in one moment like something from another planet and in the next second like a snapshot from the office and home next door where repression and rebellion still duke it out. As an experiment, try renting Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, a penetrating look at the business world that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1960, and compare what Wilder saw in the present to what Weiner sees in hindsight. Then look at the Mad Men episode in which the honchos at Sterling/Cooper discuss of the upcoming presidential race between JFK and Nixon. It will be hard to miss the implications concerning what’s ahead for Obama and McCain. In Mad Men, Weiner nails a issue we’re all still grappling with: the selling of dreams.