A Phantom Menace: Weiner’s Mad Men Spoiler War Misses Target

A Phantom Menace: Weiner’s Mad Men Spoiler War Misses Target

July 27th, 2010

Last week, I wrote at length about how Matthew Weiner’s concerns regarding spoilers speaks to the awkward place of pre-air reviews, which are forced to avoid spoilers, in a climate in which post-air analysis is far more successful and prevalent in the online critical community. My basic point was that the real value of critical analysis came after the episodes aired, which is why I was looking forward to the reviews of the episode (which were great) and the subsequent reviews throughout the season.

However, those reviews have been handicapped by a decision from Weiner and AMC, covered by Variety, to no longer send episodes to critics early, which is an enormously frustrating decision. It’s not a question of entitlement: I’ve never received screeners from AMC, and screeners are ultimately a privilege which networks are not required to offer critics in general, so that is not my point of concern. It’s also not a question of whether all critics should be punished for one person who didn’t adhere to Weiner’s spoiler guidelines: that was that critic’s call to make, just as this is Weiner’s call in terms of pulling the screeners. Rather, what frustrates me is they’re entirely ignoring how online criticism actually operates: no mainstream critic does pre-air reviews of individual episodes beyond the premiere and perhaps the finale, which means that Weiner’s concern about “spoilers” is woefully misplaced in this instance.

Critics use these screeners in order to prepare their post-air analysis ahead of time, meaning that the discussion regarding the episode is able to begin as soon as it ends, and critics are able to do the proper research for cultural references or series continuity ahead of time rather than rushing to meet a deadline either to grab their slice of the SEO pie or to allow their community of readers to start the discussion of the episode. Rushing leads to reviews which fail to capture the nuance of each episode: critics could often watch an episode twice if necessary, and their reviews reflected their dedication to offering an informed perspective that helped create discussion. Now, it’s possible that my concern over this would suggest that Mad Men is a show which confounds that post-air analysis review structure, but the fact is that there are more critics than ever reviewing each individual episode, and it’s both an issue of the quality of the show and the demand from the show’s audience to have these sorts of discussions. And considering that demand, people are going to keep writing about the show, but it’s going to come late, and it might likely lack the sort of depth which critics were able to offer when they had a number of days to prepare their articles.

This likely seems like a bit of a strange argument for me to be making, since I’ve only rarely received screeners from networks, and have been watching each episode of Mad Men “live” with everyone else since the beginning. However, it’s maddening to see how much Weiner and AMC don’t understand the critical community they’re limiting in this instance. It’s entirely logical to no longer send out review copies for season premieres or season finales: not only is there some value to critics experiencing them with the general audience, but they would also likely be writing season previews, or season-in-review pieces surrounding those episodes in which the spoilers Weiner so fears may emerge. However, on a week-to-week basis, those same expectations don’t exist, and writing about the series is confined to post-air analysis and perhaps a harmless “This episode is really great” tweet or something like it. Instead of fixing the actual problem they had (a problem which I am also concerned about), they’ve fixed a problem which has never really existed, a phantom menace fabricated in order for Weiner to send a message to those critics who dared cross his path.

The way in which Weiner sent this message, attaching a note to copies of the second episode saying that the screeners are being nixed due to “inevitable spoilers,” communicates a message of distrust: critics are no longer capable of upholding his strict desire for no future details to be revealed, and so they will no longer be receiving episodes in advance. I almost respect Weiner for being so willing to come right out and say that this is entirely reactionary: he could have easily made a note about how he wanted critics to experience the episodes with the rest of the audience, a legitimate point, in an effort to limit the bluntness of the message. That he chose not to indicates that this is less about a legitimate concern over week-to-week spoilers, which I’d argue have never existed for the show to any degree beyond what AMC’s cryptic promos reveal, and more about sending a message.

And considering that this message means that the real Mad Men criticism which matters has been impacted negatively is a real shame. I should be excited, really: suddenly, I’m on the same page as everyone else, which means that my reviews will no longer be as “late” as they have been in previous seasons. However, I don’t just write about Mad Men for the stats: I write about it because I am a fan, and so I love reading others’ thoughts on each episode after finishing my own review. To know that those reviews may no longer be there when I finish, for no real reason beyond paranoia and spite, is an unfortunate state of affairs.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “A Phantom Menace: Weiner’s Mad Men Spoiler War Misses Target

  1. mike

    If it will decrease the chances of spoiling the show, then I’m all for it.

  2. Hayley

    I think is pretty easy to avoid spoilers. If people don’t want to read spoilers then don’t look for pre-air recaps. I think Matthew Weiner decision is childish. Mad Men isn’t a sci fi top secret show. I watch it because I like the story, the writing and performances which still have an impact even when If I read spoilers.

  3. Someone who works on the set

    Spoiler: Bert Cooper dies in episode 9.

  4. Criterion Kid

    Real art is defined by the “how,” not the “what.” If Weiner wants his show to be deemed real art, why is he placing so much emphasis on the “what”?

  5. lylebot

    Lost didn’t send out screeners for its last season, right?

    Not to sound callous, but why should Weiner (or any showrunner for that matter) care about the online critical community? Why should he put any effort into understanding what you guys do? You and Sepinwall and VanDerWerff will write (and I will read) a combined 15,000 words about every episode regardless…

    • Mad Men’s entire success rests on its critical reception: very few people are watching it, and so award shows and critics are largely the reason it is considered a “hit” by AMC’s standards. It is in AMC’s best interest to cultivate that: now, as I say, it’s not an issue of entitlement, but AMC HAS to care about the online critical community, and has in the past been far more cognizant of its actual form than they’re showing in this instance.

      Also, sadly, Todd isn’t writing about Mad Men for any outlets this year last time I checked (which some outlet out there should change, by the way).

  6. Nail on the head (as always), Myles.

    When have you received screeners?

  7. Well stated.

    At Basket of Kisses, we struggle to provide excellent, original material to Mad Men fans. Screeners have made that a lot easier.

    This decision really hurts fan sites like ours. A paid critic can stay up all night on Sunday after the show airs; writing, viewing it a second time, checking quotes and references. I have a day job at which I am supposed to be relatively fresh on Monday morning.

    In addition, I think any good critic wants to have his or her own reaction and thoughts, and mull on those, before leaping into the clamor of fan reaction. Those few days of lead time were valuable for us in making sure our work was truly original.

    FYI, no one received screeners for last year’s season finale. It was a frustrating but understandable decision. Frustrating because Basket of Kisses has a tradition of hosting finale parties; so we were nowhere near our computers (the wireless in the venue wasn’t working out for us) when the episode aired.

  8. Good post. If not sending out screeners makes Matthew Weiner more comfortable, that’s what he should do, and it’s fine by me. I’m not entitled to them.

    But Myles is right. This will not prevent spoilers. Because critics don’t write about regular weekly episodes in advance anyway. Did anyone learn about the big scene in “Guy Walks In…” from an advance review? No, because no one wrote them.

    If AMC/MW wanted to prevent spoilers, what they should do is not send out *premiere* episodes of the season. But they do send them out. And I am betting they will in season 5. Why? Because monetarily, advance pre-season coverage is worth more to them.

    So what they do instead is send out the season opener and solicit coverage–but insist that that coverage contain no concrete detail. It bears repeating: No other TV show does this. Breaking Bad doesn’t. HBO series don’t. Shows that are much more plot-centric don’t. Sometimes shows do send out screeners asking us not to mention *specific* points. Almost invariably, critics respect that. It’s reasonable.

    A few shows, like Lost, don’t even send the season premiere. Also reasonable. But I can not overemphasize: no other show except Mad Men has ever sent me a premiere episode, asked for an advance review, and asked that that advance review mention *no* detail.

    When I did my review, I went back to AMC and asked them to clarify specific points they felt were out of bounds. (I’m surprised more critics didn’t do that, honestly.) They did, and I respected those requests. Even the ones that seemed weird or trivial to me didn’t cripple the review. And I think AMC/MW would avoid this whole mishigas if they did what other series do and made specific requests.

    Anyway, leaving aside whether Alessandra Stanley is History’s Greatest Monster for mentioning details about the Draper marriage that MW “spoiled” in his own interviews, this isn’t going to stop spoilers henceforth. Those will come, as they always do midseason, not from critics but from insiders, friends, etc.–they’re already out there.

    But, whatever: critics should cover shows the way they think best, and AMC should promote its shows the way it thinks best.

  9. Essentially AMC has been navigating between a rock and a hard place. They want their show to be promoted (obviously), but are dealing with an artist who won’t allow ANYTHING to be revealed about the upcoming season. This is why the promos for Season 2, 3, 4 contain NO scenes from the upcoming season. I’m sure it wasn’t AMC’s decision to not send out screeners, it was Weiner saying he doesn’t want to see that happen again.

  10. Andrew

    Hmm, a critic for the Orlando Sentinel (Hal Boedeker) just wrote a blog post that spoils quite a bit about episode 2, basically validating the reasoning behind Weiner’s decision to nix the screeners. It’s easily worse than anything Alessandra Stanley gave away about the premiere.

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  12. I already know what happens in 1963! We shouldn’t worry about spoilers! but on a serious note it does suck that a small percentage of people ruined it for the rest of us. Everyone is benefiting from the advance copies. AMC gets free publicity, writers have the ability to write a well informed post, and readers are getting the information when they want it.

    And who loses out now that they stopped this.. everyone. Honestly they shouldn’t care about spoilers, if people want to look for spoilers – they’ll see them. I don’t read anything until after the episode airs so it doesn’t matter. And if someone leaks something particularly dramatic, it might make people tune in more in order to see it! If I had known about the lawnmower incident I would have watched the episode on the air date! Not later ‘on demand’! anyway no spoilers on this recap I promise! its s4e2 🙂 http://ology.com/screen/mad-men-recap-season-four-episode-two

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