Mad Men is everywhere: multiple features in New York Magazine, merchandising tie-ins with Banana Republic. After 26 episodes on cable channel AMC, this historical dramaâ€”yes, weâ€™re talking a setting almost 50 years back, before cell phones, credit cards, ATMs, seat belts and health warnings on packages of cigsâ€”starts its third season. Season Two was just released on video, in a fancy four-disc package designed like a box of crisp, starched dress shirts.
If non-stop smoking, drinking, anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, Republicans and general meanness to oneâ€™s fellow persons do not amuse you, Mad Men is perhaps not your thing. More than once in the 611-minute run of Season 2, not to mention during Season 1 which I also viewed last week, I just had to pause the DVD and leave the room.
But the show kept sucking me back with its gorgeous cinematography, pitch-perfect evocation of mid-century New York, and the fact that at heart, under all the soap-opera plotting and extra-marital sex, Mad Men is about work. We see inside the operations of an ad agency, and inside the day-to-day tasks of raising a family. We see how being tall helps you get ahead professionally. We watch the dawn of celebrity culture; the seriesâ€™ evocation of the death of Marilyn Monroe eerily prefigures our recent paroxysms over Michael Jackson.
Thereâ€™s no underscoring in Mad Men, just the very leisurely unfolding of its storyline, its multiple simultaneous events interlaced with flashbacks. The scripting is practically in real time, with Season Two beginning as the agencyâ€™s first copier is delivered, and ending a few months later with the Cuban missile crisis. Each episode concludes with a single song playing under the credits as they roll, commenting slyly on the scenes completed and to come. Long takes, with the camera lingering on the handsome faces of cast members Jon Hamm and January Jones, and the fraught emotions of Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks (not to mention the butt of the latter, a kind of in-house Monroe figure), try the patience of a contemporary viewer, but contribute to the authenticity of the film-making.
In the early 1960s, which I was privileged to have lived through, it was still possible, to live in the city on $35 a week, to simply disappear, to run out of cash. The boxed set includes many fascinating special features on the history, politics, and design of the era. Iâ€™m not much of a television watcher, but I guess Iâ€™ll set my DVR to record Season 3 of Mad Men, and skim through it when our contemporary crises get to be too much to bear.