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.