To Each Their Own: Thoughts on Mad Men and the State of the Pre-Air Review

To Each Their Own: The State of the Pre-Air Review

July 19th, 2010

There’s currently a stir of controversy around reviews of Mad Men’s fourth season, which was sent to critics in the past few weeks – as always, Matthew Weiner has expressly requested that critics avoid talking about anything in specific terms, which has created some discussion surrounding just how much critics show bow to his wishes (especially considering that many are ignoring them to varying degrees).

For me, this is less an issue of Mad Men and more an issue on the state of pre-air reviews, something which used to constitute the large majority of television criticism but which has now been forced to share the spotlight with the post-air reviews and analysis which have blossomed in the internet age. In a discussion on Twitter, I raised the point that I struggle to see why anyone would really need (or want) to read a pre-air review of Mad Men’s fourth season, and there was rightfully some pushback from Dan Fienberg, who pointed out the role that critics can play in letting viewers know their opinions on a series and whether it’s worth watching.

I didn’t mean to suggest that the critics were part of the problem here, or that their views have no value; rather, I was suggesting that the medium is very much the concern. While new series which represent an unknown quality, or series which are reinventing themselves in a new fashion, are ideal subjects for pre-air reviews, shows which have become as established as Mad Men feel as if they confound this particular method of critical analysis. This isn’t to suggest that critics are unable to have negative opinions about the series, or that they should be forced to bow down to Matthew Weiner’s demands, but rather that there are other mediums through which those opinions will be better represented, and other ways to express this opinion which doesn’t require tiptoeing around plot details in order to communicate with the reader, or not bothering to tiptoe around plot details and potentially angering spoilerphobes like me.

I may be particularly wary of spoilers, and thus steer far clear of pre-air reviews as a result of my stance on this issue, but I think that the diversity of approaches makes pre-air reviews a nebulous medium which seems less and less relevant in the age of outright spoilers and indepth post-air analysis.

Personally, I read pre-air reviews about series which are either new, entering their second season, introducing some sort of element which could potentially upend their existing balance, or about a series in which I have no personal investment. If there is a show which I watch and enjoy, and about which I have no substantial reservations, I won’t read a single pre-air review out of fear of spoilers and a desire to experience the episode on my own terms. Others, meanwhile, will read every pre-air review, and read every spoiler, and know every detail possible before going into a season: everyone has a different approach, and pre-air reviews must contend with that.

Now, let’s get it out of the way: as I don’t received screeners in advance, I am only capable of reviewing in a post-air capacity, which means that I am likely biased towards that sort of analysis. However, this preference is less about my role as a critic and more about my role as a viewer: I don’t like being spoiled, and would rather know nothing about an upcoming season of Mad Men beyond what I was able to extrapolate myself from the previous season finale (which, frankly, is quite a lot). On a personal level, I simply can’t imagine wanting to know about certain scenes, or hear about a character’s direction, or learn things which I think I would want to discover on my own when we’re dealing with a show that is such a known quantity. Mad Men doesn’t deserve special treatment from critics because of its established “quality”, but as a viewer I do think that pre-air reviews become personally less important when a series reaches a certain point of development.

The problem, for me, is that pre-air reviews represent half an argument: it’s the opinion without the evidence, presenting a critical response to the episode in question without being able to actually discuss the nuance of that opinion. Many critics have developed clever ways of speaking in vague terms about plot developments, but the cleverness of this approach doesn’t make it any more satisfying, or any more final: in order for that opinion to really connect me with as a viewer, I’m waiting for that post-air review to explain it more thoroughly. A pre-air review of a lame summer series or a new pilot could potentially stand as a final judgment, but the opening episode of a heavily serialized show in its fourth season like Mad Men is going to be incomplete, especially when AMC sent only a single episode for review (which means that critics will not have seen more than viewers will on Sunday evening).

Let’s take, for example, Heather Havrilesky’s essay on the “Stillbirth of the American Dream” at Salon – the piece is a thematic investigation of the season’s beginning, as she argues how the premiere “hammers home the gap between glossy fantasy and our mundane, angst-ridden reality.” From the looks of it, it’s a really compelling essay, and yet I can’t help but feel as if that sort of analysis would be of greater value after watching the premiere, adding to my own experience rather than influencing it beforehand, and able to really delve into the episode rather than scattering bits and pieces of character information into the article. It’s frustrating to me that this is all that Havrilesky will write about the premiere, that the pre-air nature of her coverage means that her ideas will be taken no further than the largely spoiler-free (and yet still too spoilery for my personal tastes) analysis she puts forward in this essay until the point when she checks in with the series later down the road.

Now, of course, this is very much my own personal response to this article, and others would find it to contain no spoilers and see the value of such analysis heading into the premiere. You’re likely wondering how I’d suggest we solve my particular dilemma, and I don’t really have an answer: for me personally, I’m satisfied when a critic expresses their basic opinion in a pre-air tweet, and then follows up on that opinion with a post-air review. This allows for their opinion to enter the public record before the episode airs, but also allows for their statement of that opinion to focus on thorough analysis rather than vague evidence. For others, a perfect world might be one where critics can discuss spoilers in pre-air reviews, not bothering to wait until the episode airs before going into the kind of detail that I’m looking for.

However, pre-air television reviews are forever trapped in the same liminal position as film reviews, not able to “ruin the experience” while still wanting to offer something of substance. They will always exist, as media outlets want to benefit from the hype surrounding an upcoming premiere and because writing about a show like Mad Men is something that critics enjoy doing, but they will always exist in a fashion which for me seems strikingly incomplete (and, for those who push into spoiler territory, potentially dangerous for spoilerphobes like myself, especially when they’re unmarked). It’s likely that others love pre-air reviews for their favourite shows, just as there are many who actively read spoilers and rumours ahead of a season’s premiere, but for me this whole Mad Men kerfuffle is all a bit strange: the real Mad Men coverage, at least from my perspective, will be posted in the hours after Sunday’s premiere.

And so, in writing this, I’m curious: if you do read pre-air reviews, or are willing to be spoiled ahead of watching a series, why do you do it? I’m not puritanical about this, suggesting that those who watch television this way are “wrong” for doing so, but I am sort of confounded by why someone would want to know details about a show like Mad Men ahead of time, and so I’d love to hear from others with different perspectives on this issue, furthering the discussion beyond this particular series to the phenomenon in general.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “To Each Their Own: Thoughts on Mad Men and the State of the Pre-Air Review

  1. Andrew

    Personally, I read pre-air reviews about series which are either new, entering their second season, introducing some sort of element which could potentially upend their existing balance, or about a series in which I have no personal investment.

    Wouldn’t the events of last season’s finale constitute introducing a new element?

    I actively seek out spoiler for many reasons. One reason is that I’m weak and 9 months between new episodes is too damn long. But the main reason is that don’t think it negatively affects my enjoyment of the series, but rather, it builds anticipation. Last season, AMC accidentally released the video recap of “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” a week early for a few hours, so I knew going in that the guy was going to lose his foot, but it didn’t make it any less hilarious to see it actually happen. Hell, anticipating it might’ve made it funnier for all I know.

    It all comes back to one of Ebert’s favorite phrases: “Don’t judge a film by what it’s about, but by how it’s about it.” A brief summation of events will never approximate what it’s actually like to invest an hour and view the episode.

    • I’d argue that the events of the third season finale so clearly choreographed the show’s future plans that there was no room for uncertainty: not only was it fantastic, but it very clearly created the structure for the season to follow, and its tone was so infectious that it created absolutely no uncertainty (personally speaking) about the series’ direction.

      I see where you’re coming from with Ebert’s phrase there, but I really value the uncertainty: I want to be surprised, and in those instances where I have been spoiled I usually retroactively wish that I had been able to experience it fresh (which is certainly how I would have felt if I had been spoiled as you had, considering how much the shock, more than the humour, of that moment defined the episode’s impact for me).

      I’ve yet to find an example where being spoiled has resulted in a better experience for me personally, but you’re right that it’s not going to ruin an experience in any capacity (if I get spoiled by accident, for example, I’m not going to stop watching or anything so silly). I just find it quite easy to avoid spoilers, and so I’m very curious to see why others can’t resist – accordingly, thanks for sharing your thoughts, really appreciate it.

      • Tausif Khan

        Spoilers for television series have different impact on viewers than movie spoilers do on viewers (unless the movie is a part of a series… thank you Homer Simpson). People have to come back to a television series for more. Movies are revisited.

  2. Karen

    Excellent post Myles.  You’ve highlighted here, much like your Fiske conference paper, the changing nature of criticism in the age of social media.  My personal relationship with spoilers, reviews, and post-episode commentary is very context dependant. 
     
    For new shows or shows that have significantly changed course I absolutely look to critical reviews from an ‘is this show worth my time’ perspective.  When I was in grad school or teaching (college) I usually tried to watch every pilot I was remotely interested in anyway.  But, when I started working 40 hours a week in an office I definitely used critical reviews to pick and choose.  (Looking forward to reviving the old habit this fall.) 
     
    I’d say it’s the same for shows that were, for me personally, on the bubble for me at the end of the previous season.  I’d pretty much said goodbye to House but watched Broken because the reviews were so strong.  (And of course, once the season started and it was back ‘to your usually scheduled programming’, I officially quit.)  
     
    As for spoilers, there are only a few shows I actively avoid spoilers for.  For most television shows I can see exactly where the story is going so far in advance that plot ‘twists’ aren’t surprising.  The pleasure, for me, is less about the plot revelations and more so about the journey and consuming spoilers has a pleasure to it as well.  I do make exceptions though.  If a show can genuinely surprise me then I don’t read spoilers, Lost and Fringe are two such exceptions. 
     
    I also quit Supernatural spoilers last season, in part because the show can surprise me on occasion, but more so because the uneven 5th season wasn’t living up to my spoiler influenced expectations.  The pleasure of the spoilers was not outweighing the disappointment of actual viewing.  (I did end up getting more pleasure out of the show sans spoilers though the season was still a disappointment overall.) 
     
    I do feel that, as a courtesy, critics should include a spoiler warning at the top of a review.  I also know with an unfamiliar critic (or Lost which virtually everyone was a spoilerphobic about) I can’t necessarily expect it. 
     
    The Mad Men example is an interesting one.  Disclaimer: I haven’t watched the series (though my pending unemployment will provide me the time to finally do so) so I’ve followed the show only in the sense that I read a lot of television criticism and I know most of characters and the general trajectory of the series arcs.  I read the ‘offending’ review and I think, had it been a Lost review for example, I probably would have wanted a spoiler warning.  Had I written it, I definitely would have included one.  If I was writing a review of a breezy USA summer series I wouldn’t bother, but a critically acclaimed series like Mad Men with a rabid fan base of televisionistas?  I’d take great pains to warn. 
     

  3. Devil’s advocate? I think that Heather Havrilesky’s fantastic essay is an example of a kind of piece you don’t often get, even from very good critics, in post-viewing reviews of episodes (or even whole seasons). It did what a preview-review encourages you to do, which is to step back from the minutiae of individual episodes, look at where the show is now and where it’s going, but also take a high-altitude view of the themes of the entire series. I think her essay did that extremely well, using a reasonable amount of details from the premiere episode.

    On the other hand, I think that post-viewing posts on individual episodes, even by very good critics, tend to focus on unpacking individual scenes and plot developments, to the detriment of this kind of bigger-picture view.

    Now, those individual-episode posts, as I hope ours do, can develop and expand on the themes of a piece like HH’s. I expect HH will do that herself over the course of the season. But I actually think her essay does something different, and valuable, that you don’t get from morning-after writeups.

    • I don’t think there needs be a devil involved: in rereading that section of the post, I seem to suggest that the content of HH’s piece should in some way change, but that doesn’t make any sense. As you point out, James, there is a clear place for this kind of analysis which often gets lost (or truncated) when a specific episode is analyzed, and I would never suggest that Havrilesky abandon this mode of analysis for the post-air perspective considering how successful her writing is on average (and how strong the introduction to this piece was).

      However, I would ask this: is it necessary for this to function as both preview and review? For me, the idea of discussing key themes and ideas which govern the series to this point in order to orient the viewer for the season to come is great, but is it necessary to reveal or discuss details of the upcoming season in the process? If the goal is to get the viewer to reconsider their experience to date, the details from Season Four seem superfluous; if the goal is for them to consider the premiere in a particular light, is there any reason that it needs to be posted in advance of the premiere? The former would be better served, I feel, without the S4 details, while the latter would be better served if the reader could engage with her argument using their own interpretations of the premiere – other than traditional notions of pre-air reviews, is there any reason this analysis straddles the preview/review line?

      I’m not closed to the idea, but it’s the first question that came to mind.

  4. djones01

    I’m generally in the camp who avoids spoilers where I can, to the point where I don’t watch previews of upcoming episodes and closed my eyes during the “flash-forward” bits of the BSG intros, though I did look to see what year the new Mad Men season takes place in. I do end up having things spoiled in cases where I’m catching up on a series, but it’s a real crapshoot as to whether that changes my enjoyment. I caught up with Lost during season 6, knowing a fair bit about the time-travelling flashback/forward/sideways structures, but I knew nothing about the individual characters so it never really took much away from the experience. On the other hand, I knew in advance how the halfway point of season 4 of BSG ended, and that really destroyed the impact in a way that knowing how the series as a whole ended didn’t.

    In terms of the responsibility of a critic, I do think that it’s inappropriate for them to go against the wishes of the show creators in revealing details. If the people who create it feel that not knowing certain information is important to the experience, then revealing those things is essentially a slight form of sabotaging their artistic vision. It might not be a reasonable demand for secrecy, and the revelation in a review might have no tangible impact on the experience, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for the critic to decide that for their audience in a pre-air review at least without spoiler warnings. I’ll read pre-air reviews for new series, and Alan Sepinwall’s reviews of returning shows I like because he’s so responsible about spoilers that there’s no real chance anything will be “ruined”.

    • Andrew

      If the people who create it feel that not knowing certain information is important to the experience, then revealing those things is essentially a slight form of sabotaging their artistic vision.

      Doesn’t that go both ways, though. AMC/Weiner asked critics to not reveal “any storyline details.” In my mind, to ask critics to review your show, but to not give even the most rudimentary description of what they’re reviewing is its own form sabotage. It’s sabotaging the critic’s ability to his/her job competently.

      • djones01

        I think it would go both ways if we consider an artistic product like a television show on equal footing with a review of that show that’s produced as a decision aid for consumers. I don’t think that pre-airing reviews have anywhere near the value that the shows themselves do, however, so outside of explaining the underlying concepts prior to a series premiere I think the reviews should defer to the wishes of the show creators. It’s a flawed comparison, of course, but do celebrity gossip sites have a right to follow celebrities around against their wishes because their job is to provide as much info on celebrities as possible? It’s ok from a legal standpoint apparently, but definitely not from an ethical one.

        AMC and Matthew Weiner in this case don’t want the specific year and plot details revealed. A review intended to give a thumbs up or down to the new season doesn’t need those details because it isn’t an in-depth analysis, it’s a product review. If changes made cause problems or improvements, they can be mentioned without directly referencing what the changes are. That might not make for the most attention getting reviews, but for an industry built on responding to the work of others I think it’s an absolute ethical necessity to respect their wishes as to what you reveal.

        • Speaking as a critic who’s dealt with them: I emailed AMC to try to clarify what specific elements they prefer to keep secret. The response: “Basically, everything.” That’s not particularly specific.

          They could ask that critics simply not review the show in advance. They don’t. They want coverage. And they want it unsubstantiated with any factual reference to the episode being reviewed. But if I were, say, to pan the new season or new episode, without citing evidence, one could (justifiably) complain that here’s this critic, ripping on Mad Men, with no substantiation to back it up–just bald-faced assertions.

          I believe in respecting reasonable requests and I tend to err on the side of not spoiling, but I’m also going to apply the same judgment I do to any show. I love Mad Men, but ultimately I don’t work for AMC or Matthew Weiner. I write for my reader–in the case of a pre-season review, that is a reader who wants to read a pre-season review. A reader who doesn’t want to read a pre-season review is best advised not to read it. By all means, stay away from mine! I won’t be offended!

          But I don’t think that those fans should, essentially, get to determine for everyone else the “right” way to be a fan.

          The irony: my advance review doesn’t even mention the year. Because it’s that unimportant!

          • djones01

            Fair points, I wasn’t thinking of the network as owing a duty to the critic in exchange for the free publicity, which is certainly true. I’m still of the opinion that it’s best to avoid spoiling anything, particularly when it is specifically requested, but then it’s not particularly fair or responsible for the network not to give any real clarification upon request when you’re seeking to comply with them.

            You can probably tell, but I have a strong negative reaction to things like Michael Ausiello revealing every bit of casting info, and articles full of spoilers that don’t have much of anything to say hidden behind misleading headlines. I am certainly not the target audience for most pre-air reviews (not for spoilers, but for the fact that they judge a season based on incomplete information, so it feels a bit like reviewing an extended movie trailer), and I don’t think Weiner’s level of desired secrecy makes much sense, I just am a bit uncomfortable with critics deciding against the wishes of the show creator where that line is because it has the potential to change the viewing experience even if the article is otherwise fair and contains information your audience wants.

  5. Tyler

    If I’m hesitant as to whether or consume some media, I might consult the most abstracted and general of critical opinions, like to see a tomatometer ranking, or to see if it’s “thumbs up” or “down,” or an aggregate Amazon star ranking.

    But once I’ve decided to consume something, then I am as stringent as I can be to avoid any information about the media; I don’t read the back of the book, or watch the trailer, or read the episode description on the cable guide.

    As much as possible, I want to experience the work as it was intended by the creator, and to me that means starting with (the title then) page one, paragraph one, or the opening shot, etc. Sometimes even the barest sliver of additional information can remove an element of surprise or suspense that the creator had intended me to enjoy.

    All things considered, I’d rather enjoy as much as I can.

  6. Andrew

    Just as an addendum to this, Brian Lowry, the Variety critic who called the NY Times critic for revealing too much in her review, has now posted his own AMC-compliant spoiler-free review (http://tinyurl.com/33n62aj), and it’s a useless, substance-free piece of drivel that’s straining to even achieve proper length. Out of eight total paragraphs, four of them are a single sentence.

    And the thing is, I’ve read enough of Lowry’s work to know that he’s a very good critic, but following AMC’s request has forced him to do his job in a piss-poor fashion. That’s what bothers me most about AMC & Weiner asking that they reveal nothing; they’re asking people to do their jobs incompetently. They’re disrespecting the profession.

  7. **EDITOR’S NOTE: In the spirit of the thread, I’ll be Mr. Worrywart and tell you that there’s spoilers for Lost and Breaking Bad here. – Myles**

    I’ll remark on the spoiler point, though I’m largely different from most of the population. Spoilers don’t bother me. Not in the least. I was spoiled for two of the biggest plot developments in two of my favorite shows in the past few years (Michael shooting Libby and Ana Lucia on Lost and Walter letting Jane die on Breaking Bad). Now, I didn’t go seeking those spoilers out – they found me, in both cases – but I found that being able to watch those episodes without the weight of those final scenes clouding my opinion allowed me to write about the entirety of the episode more skillfully. I could appreciate the ways both shows built to those final, shocking moments, and how they tied them in thematically.

    But when I was a kid, I always read the last chapter of the book first to know if it was worth my time, so, again, I’m weird.

  8. Tausif Khan

    I read pre-air reviews to know details about the episode ahead of time. This way I can think about deeper meaning of the episode as I watch. The other thing I like is that I am able to see how my perception of a scene differs from someone else’s perception, as I watch. This past season I would read your analysis, Alan Sepinwall’s analysis and Donna Bowman’s analysis (all post air reviews) to set my expectations for catching up on How I Met Your Mother episodes. I found that when I watched the episodes I emphasized different things than all three of you. However, I tended to agree most with Alan in terms of our frustration towards Bays and Thomas teasing towards the mother without any reveal. I believe this perspective might change if reviewing the show on DVD (after series end) because we will already know when the mother will be revealed and will be able to focus more on the journey (I believe this affected how I perceived Riley/Season 7 on Buffy because I could always just go to the next disk and find out what happened next thus allowing me to appreciate an arc as opposed to wallowing in how the show dynamic I liked has changed from the formula). I suppose what this long ramble is trying to get at is I watch to enjoy the journey knowing the plot details ahead of time allows me to do this better.

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