Second season of AMC series ‘Mad Men’ released on DVD

[13 July 2009]

By Bruce Dancis

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)


MAD MEN: SEASON TWO Cast: John Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery Creator: Matt Weiner Various writers and directors Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Not rated

The cringe-worthy news: This week’s release of the Season Two DVD set and the forthcoming third season premiere of “Mad Men,” the brilliant AMC cable drama about a fictitious Madison Avenue advertising agency in the early 1960s, has been accompanied by a major marketing campaign involving Banana Republic, Clorox, Vanity Fair and Variety.

On the one hand, such hype, including “Mad Men”-inspired men’s suits and ads for bleach extolling its value in “Getting ad guys out of hot water for generations” by removing lipstick from collars, seems entirely fitting for a series about marketing and promotion. But it also could have the unintended effect of undermining the series itself by making it seem more shallow and less serious than it is.

That would be almost tragic, for in its first two seasons “Mad Men” has managed to turn the ad business and the people in it into something akin to a valuable and utterly entertaining historical/cultural lesson. With the end of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” “Mad Men” may be the best television series on the air today.

So, in spite of the marketing maelstrom engulfing the show, here’s a look at “Mad Men: Season Two,” a four-disc box set on sale this week (Lionsgate Home Entertainment, $49.98, not rated), just prior to the Aug. 16 debut of the third season.

The second season begins in 1962, two years after Season One ended. “Mad Men’s” main character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), has to confront new challenges as the head of the creative department at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency — the usual challenges to win over new clients and retain old ones, plus internal struggles for control of his agency — as well as new problems with his marriage to Betty (January Jones), caused in part by his philandering.

Other key characters are also dealing with major changes in both their personal and professional lives. For one, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) begins to emerge as an independent, modern woman as she moves away from her conservative, Catholic roots after being promoted from secretary to the first woman junior copywriter at the agency. And in the case of both characters, we learn crucial information about their hidden and mysterious pasts.

The skillful dialectic of “Mad Men” is played out between home life and office life, between integrity and duplicity in both, and between the adroit marketing communication skills of the ad people and their woeful lack of communication with their loved ones. If this resembles the way in which “The Sopranos” intertwined the worlds of Tony Soprano’s nuclear family and his mobster Family, that may be due to Matthew Weiner’s role in both. An executive producer and writer on “The Sopranos,” Weiner is the creator and executive producer of “Mad Men” and writer or co-writer of 10 of the second season’s 13 episodes.

“Mad Men” remains beautifully in tune with the social, political and cultural currents of its time. Episodes are filled with references to events ranging from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Space Race to the death of Marilyn Monroe and “The Defenders” TV series taking on the previously taboo issue of abortion.

The special features included in the Season Two DVD set help make these historical connections. A series of “Time Capsules” explain these events, often featuring some of the actual people involved in them, such as Robert and Helen Singleton, participants in the Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom Rides, and Tom Hayden and Richard Flacks, among the authors of the “Port Huron Statement,” the founding document of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Audio commentaries for most of the episodes by Weiner, the writers, directors and cast members are also included. These vary widely in quality and informativeness, with Weiner and the writers demonstrating the most insight and the actors the least — with the exception of Hamm, who seems to have a very clear perspective on the entire series and its characters.

If there’s one subject central to “Mad Men” that Weiner and his team understand best, it is the changing role of women in American society. From Betty Draper’s frustrated suburban housewife to Olson’s naive but smart up-and-comer to Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the wily, vindictive, but ultimately frustrated office manager of Sterling Cooper, these are women who had been trapped by society’s expectations about their “proper roles” but are beginning to question the 1950s-era standards. In 1962, the changes are only fleeting; by the end of the decade, they would turn into a wave.

These issues are explored with intelligence and depth in a two-part DVD documentary, “Birth of an Independent Woman,” featuring scenes from “Mad Men” interspersed with comments by scholars and social critics about the role of women at home and in the work place in the early 1960s and the rise of the women’s movement during the latter part of the decade.

The only false note in “Mad Men,” and I admit it may be that its falsity is only in the eyes of this beholder, is the character of Paul Kinsey (Michael Gaddis), a young copywriter at Sterling Cooper and the house liberal. He wears a beard, smokes a pipe, has an African-American girlfriend and is prone to pompous spouting off. I can accept all that — such limousine liberals are fair game for social satire, and “Mad Men” skillfully portrays both the overt and subtle forms of racism that existed in the early ‘60s.

But in Season Two’s 10th episode, Paul joins his girlfriend and a group of African-American civil rights activists from the North on a freedom ride bus to Mississippi to help register African-American voters. First, the freedom riders of the early ‘60s were attempting to desegregate bus stations and other public accommodations in the South, not register voters. But more importantly, these individuals, who were often met with KKK-inspired violence and police indifference and/or hostility, and suffered terrible injuries at the hands of racist mobs, were among the most courageous people I’ve ever met. Shallow types like Paul, who (fictionally) joins the freedom ride largely to appease his girlfriend, wouldn’t have had the guts to make such a hazardous journey.

Yet in every other respect, “Mad Men” is television at its best. The stories are always compelling, the acting subtle and true. And I can’t wait for Season Three. Weiner has been careful to reveal little about the forthcoming season, other than to hint (in an interview with Rolling Stone) that Los Angeles may play a greater role in series’ future. But he wouldn’t even say if Season Three will take place in 1964, following the pattern of two-year intervals between seasons.

But if it were set in 1964, that could lead to many possible story lines. These might include the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Or the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which set the stage for the U.S. escalation of the War in Vietnam, and “Freedom Summer,” when thousands of Northern college students went South to help register African-American voters. Or the Beatles’ triumphant appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Cassius Clay’s (soon to be Muhammad Ali) defeat of Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship.

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