It has become fashionable over the past two years, for reasons that entirely elude me, to discount the accomplishments of what has long been, and continues to be, the best dramatic series on all of television. Mad Men is, in its sixth year, as excellent as it has ever been, if not more so in certain ways, and while many critics, myself included, have not stopped singing its praises, one cannot escape the feeling that many – Emmy voters included – have grown tired with the series, or chosen to stop giving the show the attention it very much continues to deserve. The television landscape is certainly denser than it was when Mad Men was at its peak of universal adoration, but critically speaking, the series still towers over just about every major cable drama on the air, with the possible exception of the recently departed Breaking Bad, and then only because that series happened to give us one of the all-time great final seasons (the first half of Breaking Bad’s fifth season, which recently beat Mad Men for the Outstanding Drama Emmy, absolutely pales in comparison to the latter show’s recent creative highs). The conversation surrounding Mad Men has not entirely dissipated, of course – seeing critics and fans discuss the show at length online as it airs is still one of the great pleasures of following this endlessly fascinating drama – but it has undeniably lessened, overshadowed by far lesser series.
None of this is relevant to the actual quality of the show, obviously, but I mention it because AMC and Lionsgate, in this week’s Blu-Ray release of the show’s sixth season, seem to have inexplicably given in to the diminishing levels of hype. Past Mad Men Blu-Ray and DVD releases were events, arriving with creative packaging (remember the cigarette-lighter case from Season One?), packed to the gills with extras (including one or more audio commentaries per episode), and delivering some of the very best audio and visual presentations available on the Blu-Ray format, for television or for film. Season Six, on the other hand, lands on Blu-Ray with an abject whimper, maintaining the same level of A/V perfection, but without any of the fantastic extra content that previously made these home video packages such an enticing proposition. There are no audio commentaries whatsoever. Nowhere on the set can viewers hear from a single member of the cast, nor from creator Matthew Weiner, nor from any of the show’s other writers and directors. At most, there is a conversation with the Production Designers and Art Directors, but that piece happens to be shockingly poorly produced.
In short, where Mad Men itself keeps upping its creative game year in and year out, AMC and Lionsgate have dumped it on to Blu-Ray with only a modicum of effort. As a result, this is the first time a Mad Men season has not been an immediate must-buy on home video, not because of the quality of the show itself, but because AMC and Lionsgate have chosen to do wrong by the fans.
In any case, Mad Men itself continues to be, as previously noted, a television masterpiece. Season 6 is arguably the show’s darkest, honing in heavily from the opening minutes on the themes of death, isolation, self-destruction, and interrupted actualization of identity that have always bubbled under the series’ surface, but here boil over to the top. Certain fans and critics criticized the show for perceived complacency, failing to recognize that the way in which characters continue to repeat the mistakes of the past is, in truth, the fundamental thematic thrust of the season. Matthew Weiner’s view on humanity has always seemed a bit more optimistic than that of his previous boss, David Chase, whose landmark series The Sopranos was all about humanity’s incapacity for meaningful change. But as Mad Men enters its twilight years, similar themes appear to be creeping into this show, for as 1968 America continues to descend further and further down a rabbit hole of war and social chaos (at the end of a decade that once promised unbridled optimism), Don Draper and company find themselves equally unable to pull themselves out of their own destructive patterns.
In fact, if one wants evidence of how willing Weiner and company are to challenge themselves in the show’s advanced age, look no further than to how far these repetitive, self-destructive cycles push protagonist Don away from any and all realms of likability. We have seen Don cheat on his spouse before. We have seen him drink and shirk all worldly responsibilities. We have seen him lash out at those he cares for, and seen his antisocial behavior shoot himself in the foot on many previous occasions. But this year, following two seasons in which Don seemed to be consciously attempting to turn his game around, the backslide is downright difficult to watch, and the further Don descends into alcoholism and misanthropy, the more sympathy dissipates. This is intentional. Don Draper becomes an outright monster this year, an anti-hero who serves as antagonist for many of the characters around him, and that is a fascinating, painful dynamic to study.
It is also a dangerous creative line to walk; I have written previously, in my reviews of Breaking Bad, about how I felt that show’s fifth season (the first half, from 2012) pushed Walter White into such monstrous territory that we not only lost any remaining sympathy (which was never necessarily important), but all levels of understanding and empathy, which made the 2012 episodes difficult to access. Mad Men completely avoids this problem, because the writing and arcing is so precise, so richly detailed and deftly laid out, that even as sympathy disappears, our empathy does not (much credit to Jon Hamm as well, who probably turns in his best work to date navigating that incredibly challenging line). We understand Don Draper even as we grow to loathe him, and that means that when Weiner is finally ready to hint at a possible path towards redemption in the season’s stupendous closing sequence, the moment feels entirely earned.
All that being said, Mad Men Season 6 is more of an ensemble drama than ever before; Jon Hamm and Don Draper are still arguably the center, but more attention is given to the characters around him than in previous years. Peggy has long since attained co-lead status – and Elisabeth Moss’ performance continues to be my personal favorite part of the show, even in a year where she appears in a slightly diminished capacity – but Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), Roger (John Slattery), and Joan (Christina Hendricks) each rise to a similar level this year. All three have been fantastic throughout the show’s run, but in expanded capacities (especially for Roger, who has always begged to have more screen-time) with rich, fascinating, and entertaining arcs, these three go a long way towards making the season what it is. The same can be said for a welcome influx of new characters – or, in some cases, old characters in a greatly expanded capacity, like rival creative chief Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) – with special mention given to the wonderfully enigmatic Bob Benson (James Wolk), and Don’s latest fling, Sylvia, played by the terrific Linda Cardellini. Even Betty Draper (January Jones), a character the show has had no idea what to do with for the past two seasons, gets some truly excellent material to play in several standout episodes.
And as dark as Season 6 can be at times, Mad Men, often by virtue of this excellent cast, remains one of the funniest and most purely entertaining shows on TV. It speaks volumes to the quality of the writing and direction that darker subject matter need not rule out all moments of brevity; for even in its bleakest hours, Mad Men still plays host to some of the snappiest dialogue, warmest/funniest character exchanges, and best ensemble interaction on all of television.
When all is said and done, I don’t know if Season 6 packs the sheer number of master-class episodes as the previous two seasons did – and that is a ridiculously high bar to surpass – but I do believe this is the most elegantly and powerfully arced season the show has had since its second year, with the amount of cumulative impact imparted in the tremendous season finale also matched only by the second and third seasons. If Mad Men is anything, it is a qualitatively consistent show, and that remains the case here in year six; we can debate endlessly about each season’s relative strengths and weaknesses, but at the end of the day, Mad Men is Mad Men, and Mad Men is, for my money, the best show on television, and likely will be until it goes off the air in 2015.
As for the Blu-Ray release, the only substantially positive comments I have are directed towards the stupendous A/V presentation. Mad Men continues to be one of the best-looking shows on television, with incredible production design and cinematography, and the Blu-Ray, as always, shows off every minute, splendid detail. Color reproduction is dazzling, with warm, rich hues and thoroughly realistic facial tones. Textures are uncannily vivid and palpable, while fine detail and depth are always strong. On-location shooting, such as the portions of the season premiere set in Hawaii, are nothing short of dazzling, and both interior and nighttime shots are just as flawlessly rendered. One may notice slight digital noise from time to time, but otherwise, Season Six looks as flawless as its predecessors.
The same goes for the soundtrack. Mad Men is not an overly busy show aurally, but the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track does a tremendous job presenting all the subtle, nuanced aspects of the sound design, like background chatter and movement. Directionality is exquisite, even if the surround channels rarely receive a hefty workout, and music – always a highlight of Mad Men – sounds excellent whenever it comes in. Dialogue, the show’s most important aural element, sounds natural and refined, and is perfectly balanced in the mix. Mad Men may not reinvent the sonic wheel, but no one would mistake this track for a ‘lossy’ offering; it sounds great in ways only Blu-Ray can deliver.
And that is where my praise for the Blu-Ray release ends (though I suppose I was impressed by the disc art, which is unexpectedly stylish, though that is a factor that hardly matters). The bonus feature selection is embarrassingly paltry, limited to a mere three bonus features total, one for each disc.
Let me repeat that: Mad Men Season 6 swaps out the dozens upon dozens of audio commentaries and wealth of featurettes that defined previous releases for a mere three bonus features, none of which are very good. The first disc offers the “Summer of Love” interactive gallery, which is a strange, mostly forgettable offering that takes viewers through a faux-collage of pictures, audio, and short newsreel clips from 1968, all with a bright, cheery, psychedelic tone that is completely out of keeping with the themes and atmosphere of the season. Disc 2 presents a 30-minute featurette titled “Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out,” a decently produced piece about Timothy Leary and the psychedelic drug movement, but contains little discussion of Mad Men itself (and does not include any interviews with the Mad Men cast or crew). Disc 3’s feature at least pertains to Mad Men itself, as the 26-minute “Recreating an Era” interviews the Production Design and Art Direction crew members about the season’s most significant new sets. I found it mildly interesting, but the piece is horribly produced, featuring amateur-grade audio quality on the interviews, and setting all the discussion over unremarkable production stills (and constantly padding the length of the piece with unnecessary clips). And again, we don’t get to hear from Matthew Weiner, the writers, the directors, or the cast, and no discussion is had whatsoever about the narrative or themes of the season.
And that’s it – three pieces, only one of which has to do with the show itself. That’s awful. There is no other word for it. This is a dismal Bonus Feature package, and the lack of Audio Commentaries is especially egregious. I understand that the average fan probably didn’t sit down and listen to every single commentary on previous sets (I certainly didn’t), but they were always nice to have, and going from multiple commentaries per episode to none whatsoever is not a solution to the possible oversaturation of audio extras. Those commentaries were the core bonus feature that made previous Mad Men sets so desirable – if a viewer wanted to learn more about any given episode, all they had to do was hit the “audio” button on their remote, and they would be treated to great, insightful discussions from those who worked on the series.
Here’s the problem: In this day and age, physical media like Blu-Ray is not actually obsolete, but there is a perceived obsolescence due to the presence of downloadable media services like iTunes and Amazon. Long before the Mad Men Season 6 Blu-Ray arrives on shelves, fans could theoretically own all the episodes through these and other services. If that is the case, the Blu-Ray release has to offer something those services cannot. Otherwise, what is the point of having a physical release in the first place? Yes, the video and audio quality of the Blu-Ray far surpasses of that of digital download, even those purporting to deliver a full 1080p experience, and while critics like myself may be able to recognize that, those differences will be largely imperceptible (or simply a non-issue) to the majority of fans. Bonus Features, however, are a tangible incentive to buy physical media, because digital downloads do not offer things like audio commentaries or making-of features.
In years past, this is what made owning Mad Men on home video essential. You could get the episodes elsewhere, but not with all the great bells and whistles that really enhanced the experience of following the show. This year, the only real advantage to owning the Blu-Ray release is to have the best possible A/V quality, and while that is a meaningful benefit, I suspect that for many consumers, it won’t be enough. Certainly, those who already own the season on iTunes or through other digital services need not both – the uptick in A/V quality probably isn’t enough to compel a re-purchase of what is essentially the exact same content. If you already own the previous five seasons on Blu-Ray, I see no reason to stop collecting them now – at least you will have a full physical collection of the episodes when the series is over – but you may find yourself buying this latest release a bit grudgingly.
In the end, Mad Men deserves better. Television’s best show deserves more than a nearly bare-bones release, and so do the fans who have been loyally following it (and buying Blu-Ray releases) from the beginning. With the seventh and final season split into two halves, AMC and Lionsgate have two more chances to get this right; let us hope they take the time to put some actual effort into the show’s final releases, because Season 6, it appears, was mostly ignored.