Befitting a television show about the dark art of advertising, Mad Men boasts irresistible surfaces, from the sharp suits and Good Housekeeping dresses to the fussy production design that lovingly recreates Madison Avenue in 1960. The show inhabits a world both seductive and sinister, but what sets it apart is the substance behind the shimmering exteriors. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner imbues his ad men, suburban moms, and single gals with a depth more common to literature than television. Supporting characters that initially appear as mere sharply drawn caricatures emerge as staggeringly complex figures. The protagonist's picture-perfect trophy wife (January Jones), for example, grows infinitely more compelling once it becomes apparent that her façade masks quiet suffering and madness. At least half a dozen supporting characters merit their own spin-offs, from Christina Hendricks as an office vamp who's figured out all the angles to Vincent Kartheiser as a weasely striver who sublimates his thwarted literary desires into Machiavellian maneuvering.
Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss star as the show's audience surrogates. Hamm is the JFK of advertising, an enigmatic hotshot with matinee-idol looks, brooding intensity, and an air of ineffable sadness. Moss plays his infatuated secretary, an ugly duckling in a world of preening swans, unsteadily navigating a tricky corporate world of widespread alcoholism, casual sexism, and interoffice hook-ups.
War casts a long shadow over Mad Men. Hamm and his boss (John Slattery) are part of a generation that fought abroad—Hamm in Korea and Slattery in WWII—only to return to a world of suburbs, three-martini lunches, mistresses, and cushy but slightly ridiculous jobs marketing lipstick to housewives. Yet it's also about the end of an era and the tentative beginnings of another. The future is represented by two of Hamm's love interests, a swinging nonconformist who doesn't mind having a square daddy-o, and a Jewish businesswoman whose very existence challenges the reactionary mindset of Hamm's contemporaries. Though strong from the very beginning, Mad Men attains a cumulative power in its devastating final episodes. Any show that can transform Slattery telling Hendricks she's "the best piece of ass" he's ever had into a simultaneously funny, touching, and weirdly romantic moment, or a Kodak ad pitch into a dazzling dissertation on memory and belonging, is operating spectacularly on multiple levels.
Key features: Featurettes on advertising in the '60s and other period elements of the show join a wealth of engaging audio commentaries from cast and crew.