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.