The second season of Mad Men, to my mind, the best series currently on TV, leaps two years ahead, dropping the advertising executives of Sterling Cooper into the changing world of 1962. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the suave, successful, supremely confident creative director, is sliding so precipitously into depression and distraction that he goes AWOL from a business trip and his once fragile wife (January Jones) has become a steely suburban princess with her own wandering eye. The season touches on the rise of youth culture, the civil rights movement and the frustrations of modern women in the chauvinistic business culture holding on to the fifties (see the mirrored efforts of token female copywriter Elisabeth Moss and head secretary Christina Hendricks), but as with the debut season it’s about identity and self-definition in a culture ready-made with labels and expectations. The surface details of fashion and design are dead on and all the more convincing in that the creators never draw attention to them. No mere exercise in nostalgia, this beautifully written show a richly drawn look at the social roles, sexual identity, and disenchantment with the façade that is the American Dream. Mad Men: Season Two features all thirteen episodes (each with commentary) and various documentaries and featurettes, all well produced, and hits DVD and Blu-ray weeks before the third season begins on AMC.
I like to think of Leverage, the lighthearted new TNT original series, as the American answer to Hustle with action-movie flair. In Leverage: The Complete First Season, Timothy Hutton is a former insurance investigator who leads a team of colorful thieves (Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, Aldis Hodge and Beth Riesgraf) in missions of poetic justice. They’re high-end heist experts with the souls of con-artists, loners by nature who discover that they like being the good guys for a change, Merry Men (and women) under the direction of an alcoholic Robin Hood who steals from the crooks, give back to the victims and takes a little collateral payment on the side to keep up expenses. (This latter dimension is played down as the series goes on, as if the show wants to pretend that they aren’t really crooks.) It’s a tough genre to pull off and this show does it pretty well, thanks to snappy writing, likable (if eccentric) characters and lots of complications.
[REC] uses the same first-person camera conceit as The Blair Witch Project by way of Diary of the Dead, but this time locks it in a building quarantined by the authorities because of a possible viral outbreak – the zombie virus, for lack of a medical term. The camera is courtesy of a documentary TV series that follows the lives of nocturnal workers and the host is Angela (Manuela Velasco), a bubbly TV reporter who accompanies the midnight shift of a firefighter squad on a routine call in an old apartment building, where they are suddenly quarantined in an apartment building by ominously unseen authorities while a viral infection tears through the dwindling population. Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, rising stars in the Spanish horror scene, create a buzzing urgency in a familiar premise with their combination of real-time style of raw footage shot on the fly and the claustrophobic environs where we have only as much information as the victims. It was remade in the U.S. as Quarantine. Here’s your chance to see the original Spanish horror.
For the rest of the highlights (including New Releases The Haunting in Connecticut and The Edge Of Love and the Blu-ray set Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / House of Flying Daggers / Curse of the Golden Flower Trilogy, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.