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Reviewed by Will Harris
t requires a deft hand and a considerable amount of restraint to do a period piece. Those who can’t exercise self-control quickly fall back on the obvious, smacking the viewer in the face with punchlines about the differences between then and now that are underlined with the biggest, thickest marker possible. Matthew Weiner, the man behind “Mad Men,” understands this, choosing to integrate these differences in a truly organic fashion, weaving them into the storyline rather than blatantly drawing attention to them.
The place is the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, and the time is the early 1960s, an era that causes most guys to puff up their chests and talk about how men were men. And, okay, given that we’re talking about a time when ad men were spending their time in the office smoking cigarettes, pouring mixed drinks, committing rampant acts of sexual harassment, and once in awhile actually writing a bit of ad copy, then, sure, maybe there is a little something to be said about those bygone days. Well, maybe not so much the sexual harassment, but still, you have to be at least a little in awe of guys with the cajones to look at a secretary’s frumpy outfit and suggest that maybe they might want to show a little more leg next time. The most impressive thing about the way “Mad Men” incorporates all of these things into the show is that they're not shown in a manner where you’re left imagining the PC Police waggling a finger and saying, "These things were bad, bad, bad." They're just shown as the facts, and they serve as threads that run throughout the remarkable tapestry that is "Mad Men," which also offers glimpses of repressed sexuality as well as the burgeoning realization by women that they deserve a fair shake in the workplace as well.
The central character of the series is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), creative director of Sterling Cooper. He’s a favorite of the firm’s partners, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse), and primed for partnerhood himself, but for his success in the workplace, he’s miserable at maintaining a happy home life. Though he puts on a façade when he’s around his wife and kids, Don’s one of the great womanizers, often claiming to be “staying in the city” for work purposes when, in reality, he’s having a fling. Meanwhile, his wife Betty (January Jones) is in therapy for reasons she can’t quite put her finger on, though it’s probably because her subconscious is nagging her to realize that her husband’s committing adultery on a regular basis.
Both sexuality and intimacy are driving forces within “Mad Men.” Young buck Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) struggles to find his manhood not only in the office, where he’s rarely treated as seriously as he believes he should be, but also in his marriage, where he finds it impossible to reconcile himself with the fact that he can’t provide for his new wife in the manner to which she’s become accustomed, having to rely on handouts from his in-laws. Meanwhile, the new secretary, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), is trying to overcome her naïveté and make headway amidst the office politics, which may be why her tale dovetails into Pete’s almost immediately, not to mention why their relationship becomes so complicated over the course of the season.
There are other plots which run through “Mad Men” from episode to episode, including Don’s mysterious history, Peggy’s immersion into copywriting, and Betty’s brief return to her earlier life as a model. The aforementioned repressed sexuality is expressed most notably in Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), who inspires memories of Dennis Quaid’s closeted character in “Far from Heaven,” and there’s also a brief storyline involving a lesbian crush, but these too are handled with a gentle touch, done an eye for reality over controversy. There's not a weak link in the cast, but the most impressive of the bunch are Moss and Kartheiser; you may remember the latter as Angel's often-obnoxious son, Connor, but while you weren't necessarily supposed to dislike him on "Angel," as Pete, he plays the smarmy office weasel to absolute perfection. Moss has done her time on various series, but her remarkable performance as Peggy shows a girl – yes, a girl – who has tremendous strength but limited confidence, and as the season progresses, the latter emerges more and more. What a shame about the finale, then, when she finds herself forced by circumstance to take more steps backwards than can be readily counted.
This review is mere gravy atop the countless compliments that have been thrust upon “Mad Men” since its premiere, but if you’re one who hadn’t yet been swayed by all the plaudits, we’d like to think that we’ve done our part by telling you that, yes, it really was one of the best shows of 2007. Clearly, we’re late to this party, since we should’ve offered this declaration last year, but better late than never, right?
Go forth and buy this set post haste. Its arrival in stores comes in plenty of time for you to play catch-up before the premiere of the show’s second season on July 27th.
Special Features: The bonuses include featurettes about the show’s music and the creative revolution which took place in the media during the 1960s, but the best of the bunch is “Establishing ‘Mad Men,’” which provides a fantastic backstage look at the creation of the show and how they went about setting the stage so precisely. In addition to commentaries on all 13 episodes, which is almost unheard of on a first season set for a new series, there’s also a very interesting photo gallery which shows the look of the show while providing commentary from the costume, hair, and production designers as the photos cross the screen.