Monday, July 07, 2008

Monday Not-Movie Review: "Mad Men" Season 1

Mad Men Season 1 (2007) 10/10
It's 1960 and Don Draper is the Creative Director of Sterling Cooper, a mid-sized Madison Avenue advertising company. The series follows the lives and uncovers the secrets of Don, his secretary Peggy, the staff of Sterling Cooper, and their families.

Okay, so I haven't watched a movie in two weeks. Has that ever happened before? But my Mad Men DVDs came, and I'm obsessed with this show. Yes, so obsessed I've got a blog.

You're probably not watching Mad Men, even though it was on everybody's "Best of 2007" list and won awards and shit, because it wasn't well-promoted. But season 2 starts on July 27 (AMC, 10pm Eastern), and there's a season 1 marathon on July 20 (AMC, noon-1am), and you can watch the first episode of season 1 online. But why do you care?

Each Mad Men episode is constructed like a movie. The strongest influences on th show are The Apartment and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. (If the opening credits don't remind you of Vertigo, and Saul Bass in general, you're not paying attention.) I was noticing that episode 3 pulls a trick that Notorious is famous for; it folds in on itself. In Notorious, it's a back-to-front reflection, with the final scene echoing the first scene, the penultimate scene echoing the second, until it meets in the middle. In the Mad Men episode Marriage of Figaro, it's divided in two; the first half in the city on a Friday, the second half in the suburbs the next day. Each half begins and ends similarly, with similar events happening throughout. You don't really notice it cognitively (unless you study it obsessively) but it gets under your skin, building the sense of claustrophobia in the second half.

I could choose any episode to discuss its imagery and motifs. Episode 5, Babylon, is about exile, and we see people isolated from each other, strangers in their own lives, romances that cannot be, and the longing for a promised land. We see that simply, in scenes of home life, extramarital affairs, and advertising pitches.

Much has been made of the pitch-perfect depiction of the era, complete with smoking, drinking on the job, rampant sexism and sexual harrassment, and routine racism and anti-Semitism. Yet Mad Men is one of the most feminist shows on television. One episode focuses on female desire, and two female characters discover masturbation; one of whom is even able to discuss it (albeit with an enormous amount of hemming and hawing and blushing and shuffling). These are women discovering whether or not they can be free, and can succeed, and can have their own lives, and desire is an important part of that.

On Mad Men, no one behaves predictably, and everyone has a secret self they dare not share. They hide desire, they hide rage, they hide mistakes. And, like real people, the things they say are not the things they think; words are masks; they are advertising pitches, not truth.

The DVD package is robust. The first release is a limited edition box that resembles a Zippo lighter. Some people have reported trouble fitting the DVDs back into the fancy but perhaps impractical box (I'm not having trouble). The extras are top-notch, including commentary tracks for each episode (often more than one), and several high quality additional features.

If you watch the first episode (which I strongly recommend), you may be irked by a couple of coy jokes (like the line about how there's "no magic machine that makes copies"). That's not what the show is about, and the winking is pretty much gone by episode 2. Other than that, I think the first episode is an excellent representation of the series.

(Where the cross-post lies)