HTF Blu-ray Review: MAD MEN: SEASON THREE

Discussion in 'TV on DVD and Blu-ray' started by Michael Reuben, Mar 23, 2010.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    Mad Men: Season Three (Blu-ray)


    Studio: Lionsgate
    Rated: NR
    Film Length: app. 611 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: AVC
    Audio: English DTS-HD MA
    Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
    MSRP: $49.99
    Disc Format: 3 50GB
    Package: Keepcase
    Original Airdates: Aug. 16-Nov. 8, 2009
    Blu-ray Release Date: Mar. 23, 2010



    Introduction:

    The modern era gate-crashes the party in the third season of AMC’s Mad Men. It’s 1963. The civil rights movement is roiling the nation; the military is gearing up for activity in a faraway place called Vietnam; and late in the year shots ring out as a presidential motorcade passes a Dallas book depository, with reverberations that are still being heard.

    It is against this background that series producer Matthew Weiner and his creative team faced the daunting task of returning to Sterling Cooper and picking up the many plot strands left dangling from the first two seasons. They continued the old stories, added new ones, and wove everything together so brilliantly that the season concluded on a pitch-perfect note for the time – the sense of one era ending and a new one beckoning, the latter rich with unknown perils and infinite possibilities.



    The Episodes:

    WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! Familiarity with Seasons One and Two is assumed. I will do my best not to reveal major plot developments of Season Three, but if you haven’t seen the first two seasons, you shouldn’t read further.

    Six months have passed, and the denizens of Sterling Cooper are still adjusting to life under the ownership of Putnam, Powell & Lowe. The new British owners have installed a resident overseer, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), who has been jauntily cutting costs and laying off a third of the work force. A model of cheerful British efficiency, Pryce seems to be the perfect company man, but there’s more to him than first appears, and his arc is one of the season’s most intriguing.

    Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is finding it more difficult than ever to remain a maverick under the new regime. The pressure increases when Don lands the biggest client of his career after a chance meeting at a summer party thrown by Roger Sterling (John Slattery). For those who haven’t seen the episodes, I won’t give away the client’s identity, but he’s a genuine historical figure, an American original and a larger-than-life character played to perfection by veteran actor Chelcie Ross. Everyone at Sterling Cooper falls all over themselves congratulating Don, but the coup comes at a cost. The client takes over Don’s life, and the management of Sterling Cooper becomes newly concerned about Don’s lack of a contract. For a man who famously hates to be tied down, these are serious issues.

    Don’s personal life is no more settled. For one thing, his secret past won’t stay buried. In the opening scene of the first episode, Don stands over the kitchen stove preparing a glass of warm milk, haunted by visions of his dubious birth. Such flashes from his former life recur throughout the season, always at moments when Don is under pressure. A more concrete manifestation is the box of photos and mementos delivered by his late brother in Season One, which now resides in a locked drawer in Don’s study and still has a crucial role to play.

    Don’s marriage to Betty (January Jones) was delicately reassembled at the end of Season Two, after Betty discovered she was pregnant with their third child. As Season Three opens, Betty is struggling through her third trimester, and Don is making all the gestures and noises of an attentive husband. But the cracks are still there. Tensions escalate when the couple has to deal with Betty’s father, Gene (Ryan Cutrona), whose health is failing. When Betty goes into labor in episode 5 (“The Fog”), the anesthetics unleash bizarre hallucinations, the precise meaning of which could be debated at length, but which clearly indicate one thing – she isn’t happy. In episode 8 (“Souvenir”), Betty accompanies Don on a business trip to Rome. It’s a few days of magic, but they only serve to reinforce her dissatisfaction with life as a housewife in suburban Ossining.

    Then there’s Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley). A counsel in Gov. Rockefeller’s office, he meets Betty at the same party where Don meets his new client. Later she enlists his aid in connection with civic activities for the Town of Ossining. He falls hard for Betty, and this is no mere boy with a crush, but a grown man capable of planning and acting on his plans. For the first time in the three seasons of Mad Man, Betty is presented with a genuine alternative to Don Draper, and by the end of the season, she will have cause to entertain that alternative. Sometimes it’s dangerous to have options.

    Other familiar characters face new issues. The former Joan Holloway, now Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), is not finding what she wanted from marriage to her doctor husband, Greg (Sam Page). At her retirement party she sheds tears, but no one at Sterling Cooper knows the real reason why. Still, unlike her husband, who is less than he seems, Joan has always been more than people expect, and she always does something surprising. (So does the actress who plays her. Christina Hendricks steals every scene she’s in.)

    Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) are struggling to find their places in the new Sterling Cooper. Both want greater opportunity, and neither feels appreciated for their contribution (which, in Campbell’s case, includes some unusual new accounts and creative, though not always popular, new marketing strategies). Complicating the situation is the reappearance of “Duck” Phillips, now ensconced at rival Grey Advertising after losing his battle with Draper for control of Sterling Cooper. Having failed at a direct takeover, Duck tries the next best thing – he launches a raid on the firm’s talent.

    It’s a tribute to the brilliance and craftsmanship of Mad Men’s writing that each episode works effectively as a standalone mini-drama, while also contributing to the overall design. Take, for example, the pivotal seventh episode, “Seven Twenty Three”, which occurs at the season’s midpoint. It begins with three images: Betty Draper reclining on an antique sofa, Don Draper regaining consciousness on a motel room floor with his face covered in blood, and Peggy Olson awakening in a hotel bedroom next to an unknown man. Then the episode rewinds to show what led to each of these situations. The episode’s title isn’t explained until the very end. And when you reach the season finale, every storyline in “Seven Twenty Three” has provided essential material.

    Equally adroit is the series’ handling of the Kennedy assassination. In classic Hitchcock fashion, the audience is told early on (in episode 2, to be precise) exactly where that national trauma fits into the fictional world of Mad Men. Then we have to wait until the calendar catches up and the ticking bomb goes off. I won’t say which episode, but it isn’t the last one.


    Video:

    As with previous seasons, the first disc contains five episodes, with four on each of the other two discs. The image quality for Season Three improves noticeably over that for Season Two. Video noise, which sometimes cropped up in fine patterns on the Season Two Blu-ray, has been all but eliminated, while blacks remain deep and colors remain vivid and rich. As the series has evolved away from the brightly lit, TV commercial style of the first season, many more scenes occur in darkness and shadow (e.g., Don Draper’s flashbacks of childhood), and these demonstrate the strengths of the Blu-ray’s reproduction of blacks and shadow detail. The image on these Blu-ray discs is a distinct improvement over the AMC HD broadcasts and well worth watching just to appreciate the intricacy of the period decor, props and costumes.


    Audio:

    Mad Men doesn’t have an especially immersive soundtrack, but it’s a precise one, with effects that are specific to each environment placed with great care to support the story. The DTS lossless track reproduces these effectively, along with the assorted musical selections and original music composed by David Carbonara (who can be heard on an episode 1 commentary).


    Special Features:

    Commentaries. As with prior seasons, every episode features at least one commentary, and most feature two. Because the review discs arrived so close to street date, I did not have time to do more than sample them. As is generally the case, the writers tend to be more articulate about the intentions and themes of an episode, while the actors and directors focus on mechanics. Creator Matthew Weiner is by far the most voluble and enthusiastic commentator. Since there is no master listing of commentary participants, I am providing one below:


    1. “Out of Town”
    ? By Vincent Kartheiser, Aaron Staton, Bryan Batt and Rich Sommer
    ? By Matthew Weiner, Phil Abraham and David Carbonara
    2. “Love Among the Ruins”
    ? By Matthew Weiner, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gladis and Jared Harris
    3. “My Old Kentucky Home”
    ? By Elisabeth Moss and Jamie Bryant
    ? By Matthew Weiner and Dahvi Walker
    4. “The Arrangements”
    ? By Matthew Weiner, Kiernan Shipka and Ryan Cutrona
    5. “The Fog”
    ? By Matthew Weiner, Dan Bishop and Phil Abraham
    6. “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency”
    ? By Christina Hendricks and Jared Harris
    ? By Matthew Weiner and Lesli Linka Glatter
    7. “Seven Twenty Three
    ? By Maria and André Jacquemetton
    ? By Matthew Weiner, Robert Morse, Josh Weltman and Bob Levinson
    8. “Souvenir”
    ? By Matthew Weiner, Vincent Kartheiser and Lisa Albert
    9. “Wee Small Hours”
    ? By Jon Hamm, Bryan Batt and Chelcie Ross
    ? By Matthew Weiner and Scott Hornbacher
    10. “The Color Blue”
    ? By Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gladis and Jared Harris
    ? By Matthew Weiner and Mike Uppendahl
    11. “The Gypsy and the Hobo”
    ? By Christina Hendricks, John Slattery and Jennifer Getzinger
    ? By Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner
    12. “The Growns-Ups”
    ? By Vincent Kartheiser, Alison Brie and John Slattery
    ? By Matthew Weiner, Blake McCormick and Brett Johnson
    13. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”
    ? By Jon Hamm, Robert Morse and John Slattery
    ? By Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy


    Mad Men Illustrated (disc 1) (HD) (14:01). A featurette on the work of the artist and comic known as “Dyna Moe”, a member of the Uptight Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, whose best-known alum is Amy Poehler. Rich Sommer, who plays Harry Krane, met Dyna Moe when he did stand-up at UCB. During the first season of Mad Men, he asked her to draw a custom Christmas card for the cast and crew. This led to a second career “illustrating” Mad Men for the internet and other purposes, all of which is chronicled here. Dyna Moe is a facetious personality with a bone-dry wit, and nothing she says can be taken at face value.

    Clearing the Air: The History of Cigarette Advertising, Parts 1 and 2 (disc 2) (HD) (25:28; 19:58). The most obvious reason for this documentary is the pervasive consumption of cigarettes by Mad Men’s characters, but it’s not the only reason. As detailed by various scholars, physicians, anti-smoking advocates and ad men, the tobacco industry was one of the main engines driving the growth of advertising. Much of the advertising business as we know it today grew out of the tobacco industry’s need to rebrand cigarettes as something other than “coffin nails”.

    The documentary is loaded with vintage ads, both TV and print, showing a wide array of strategies to make cigarettes appeal to various demographics. Some are truly fascinating. How many people remember that Marlboro was originally marketed as a woman’s cigarette? Then one day, a copywriter invented the Marlboro Man, and everything changed.

    My favorite is a campaign I actually remember. Filters were added to cigarettes as a marketing device, and early ads claimed that filtered cigarettes reduced or eliminated the harmful components of tobacco smoke. One such ad bragged that Kent’s “Micronite” filter was highly effective in this regard. Well, maybe it was, but it was also made of asbestos.

    Flashback 1963 (disc 2). A collection of historical facts organized into categories: births, deaths, U.S. events, world events, sports, automobiles, consumerism, science, technology and gadgets. Among other things, 1963 was the year that the touch-tone phone was invented, Johnny Depp was born, and Alcatraz was closed.

    Medger Evers: An Unsung Hero, Parts 1 and 2 (disc 3) (HD) (39:13; 31:15). Medgar Evers was the field secretary of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP. On the evening of June 12, 1963, he was gunned down in his driveway as he was returning home to his wife and three small children. President Kennedy had just concluded a nationally televised address in support of civil rights. (The film Ghosts of Mississippi is based on the 1994 trial that, after two previous failures, finally resulted in convicting Byron De La Beckwith for Evers’ murder.)

    This biography of Evers is presented almost entirely through the recollections of his brother Charles, who took over his position as field secretary; his widow, Myrlie; and his daughter, Reena. The result is a personal, intimate portrait.

    We Shall Overcome: The March on Washington (disc 3) (HD; 4:3 centered in a 16:9 frame) (16:56). How many people have actually listened to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” address? Here it is, accompanied by a montage of archival photos from the August 28, 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”.

    BD-Live. There is no specific entry for BD-Live on the discs, but they are BDJ-encoded and each one gave a message on my system at startup that it was “checking for updates”. Although none were found, presumably there may be some in the future.


    In Conclusion:

    Mad Men continues to achieve new levels of excellence at every level: writing, acting and production values. It remains to be seen how long Weiner and his creative team can keep topping themselves, especially as they enter the chaotic and messy era of the Johnson Administration and the Beatles, but for now there are few more satisfying viewing experiences than watching all the pieces snap into place during the final episode of Season Three entitled “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” I envy those of you who are seeing it for the first time.




    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    SVS SB12-Plus sub
     
  2. TravisR

    TravisR Studio Mogul

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    I was going to wait until the summer for the likely sale on this that will accompany the show's return to the air but this review might make me go out and buy it this week. Thanks for helping spend more money, Michael.

    This show (along with Breaking Bad and Lost) are the best things on TV right now.
     
  3. Hollywoodaholic

    Hollywoodaholic Edge of Glory?

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    Absolutely. And three great reasons to go Blu-ray.

     
  4. Tina_H_V

    Tina_H_V Supporting Actor

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    This show truly rocks on Blu-ray!!!!! I have the first two seasons on Blu and look forward to adding this one to my BD--and TV disc--collection in the coming weeks ahead, I am looking forward to revisiting this season--particularly the final two episodes of the year!!!! The finale, in particular, gives some hidden clues to what's ahead in 1964...and, perhaps, beyond!!!!!!!
     
  5. Sam Favate

    Sam Favate Producer

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    Great review. Looking forward to seeing Season 3 again, this time on BD. The extras on this set seem pretty thorough. I bet they have a lot of fun putting together the historical segments, which I have heard some people say are unnecessary for the show, but I think it puts the episodes in context.
     
  6. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    They may not be necessary, but they're some of the best I've seen on any DVD or Blu-ray. They're interesting in their own right, and they illustrate the depth of research underpinning the show (a subject that comes up often in the commentaries). Since writing the review, I've looked at some "official" sources, and it's stunning how careless they can be. Here's Entertainment Weekly:
    Uh, not quite. At that point, the milk has boiled over, and Don is skimming off the "skin" that's no longer drinkable. And Weiner goes on to say:
    That's why filmmakers create images: to convey things that can't easily be expressed in words. When you're watching the scene, with Don Draper in the kitchen of his fine suburban home with the beautiful wife and family, still haunted by the memory of Dick Whitman's tawdry birth, it isn't hard to understand. And as you think back to this scene after reaching the end of the season, the image just gets richer.
     
  7. Southpaw

    Southpaw Supporting Actor

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    I just finished up season 3 on blu-ray. AAAAAAA Mazing. Episode 13 is just true brilliance in every regard. I love where the characters went this season and how the story arc not only came to a close at the end of the season but a new one opened up to take us in whole new places next season.

    I'm delving into the commentaries now just like I did for each episode of seasons 1 and 2. I just can't get enough of this show.
     
  8. PaulDA

    PaulDA Cinematographer

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    This is the first "blind buy" TV series I've ever purchased and it is, by far, my favourite series of the past 10 years (among my favourites of all time). Where I have sometimes rushed through season sets of other series (usually rentals to catch up to a programme I missed at the beginning--like Lost), I have savoured each season of Mad Men like a good single malt. I never watch more than two episodes at one sitting, preferring to soak in the richness and complexity of the material. I don't have too many TV series sets, and those I do have are primarily purchased so I can re-visit favourite episodes, but I will likely revisit this series from end to end more than once, after I have all the sets. In fact, I deliberately avoid catching it on broadcast TV in order to profit from my approach to the season sets.


    Outstanding all around.
     
  9. Cees Alons

    Cees Alons Moderator
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    My wife and I finally started watching the 3 series on Blu-ray two weeks ago (ten days, actually). I must confess now that we managed to see (generally) two, occasionally three each evening, once even four. Even the night when I first had a meeting of the school-board I'm chairing.


    No need, I suppose, to tell here how brilliant we find this work. I won't try to discuss this gem in any detail here, given the fine work Michael did already.


    We absolutely love British television, from costume to period pieces, or remarkably fresh work like Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes, preferring the British LOM to the US version (the few episodes we bothered to see of that).

    But Mad Men is at the highest level among the likes of those and also: it's purely and typically American. Not even in the way the US version of The Office can hold its candle to the UK version (both equally good, so to say, and after the first season also really different), but in this case within a domain of its own.


    Sometimes you encounter a totally new type of film, either by its theme or the way it is told. Often that's an exciting experience, but it still has to be good to achieve that. US television is doing just that with Mad Men.


    Yesterday evening we watched the first three episodes of season 3, tonight we're starting with "The Arrangements". (And yes, I obviously recognized that one date, before).

    We're simply hooked, I'm even about to order the soundtrack CDs. We will hate it when (probably this weekend or else next Monday) it's over for at least a year. Seeing all of them straight after each other is a different experience, I'm sure. And a very rewarding one.


    Oh, and thanks, Mike. It was your review of the Blu-ray version of the second season that made me decide to buy the first two last year!



    Cees
     

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