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Dead Tree Alert: Mad Men Returns; Plus, What Is a Spoiler?

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WARNING: The following post involves a TV critic discussing TV criticism, including criticism of another TV critic’s criticism of a third TV critic’s criticism. Surely you have better things to do with your time.

My review/preview of the season 4 premiere of Mad Men is now online. Because Mad Men generates particular sensitivity about spoilers, let me say upfront: if you are worried about spoilers, just don’t read it. If you like to go into a new season of Mad Men not knowing what is coming up, just don’t read it. I won’t be hurt. I didn’t include anything that I wouldn’t want to read in advance, but I am not you.

There’s been so much controversy recently about Mad Men and spoilers, in fact, that I want to take a (nonspoilery) look at what’s a spoiler, who gets to decide, and why Mad Men ignites so much spoiler-versy.

The blog era in general has both made spoilers more ubiquitous and created forums for fans who vocally loathe spoilers. (Some of whom define a “spoiler” as any plot information or concrete detail in advance of airing.) Most of us have probably been burned by having shows spoiled for us accidentally; but there wouldn’t be so much spoilage out there if it weren’t for people seeking it out on purpose. As for Mad Men in specific, creator Matthew Weiner is especially adamant that critics not reveal anything–anything–about upcoming episodes, a vehemence that has trickled down to some, but not all, of the show’s fans.

Now, Weiner and AMC could deal with this by simply not sending out review copies. Or they could send them, but say, thanks, but we’d rather you just not review our show until after it airs. And I might not like that, but I’d agree to it–just as I agree, when receiving advance copies of weekly episodes, not to blog about them until they air.

But they don’t. AMC sends out screeners and courts advance reviews. The implicit request: thanks for all of your rave reviews of our show. We want you to write about the new season in advance. Preferably positively! But without any detail, quotation or concrete substantiation!

Uh, no. Criticism doesn’t work that way. Journalism doesn’t work that way–you don’t just make assertions without evidence. Suppose I panned the first new episode of Mad Men. (I actually liked it a lot.) Suppose I said it stunk on ice, but sorry, can’t tell you why! Matt Weiner could justifiedly complain: who is this jackass, ripping on my show without giving any substantiation? I wouldn’t do that to any other show, let alone Mad Men.

But I also don’t believe in being a jerk. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day or reveal juicy info for its own sake. (It’s not like getting mailed a DVD by a PR department is a coup of investigative reporting.) I wouldn’t blow a big cliffhanger (see my thoughts on previewing BSG’s final season.) So I spoiler-alert, and I use only that information which I think is necessary to producing a review I would want to read myself.

And I try to respect requests, within reason. When I got ready to write my review, I e-mailed the AMC PR department asking what was absolutely off-limits. The first response: Basically, everything. I replied that that would make the episode unreviewable, and they agreed to specify a few data points that are out of bounds. Fair enough; I left those out of my review.

Another controversial data point is the specific time–month and year–that the new season starts. Matthew Weiner hates critics mentioning it, as do some fans. Frankly, I don’t get it. Time passes on TV shows. We can assume (spoiler alert!) that Mad Men is not going to jump ahead to the election of Barack Obama. I’ve been covering TV for over a decade; I don’t remember the same degree of sensitivity over the time elapsed between seasons of The Sopranos, say, or (to take another historical drama) Deadwood.

And guess what? My review doesn’t mention the date. Not because that’s beyond the pale. Because it’s not actually important. If it were thematically important, I would have mentioned it, and spoiler-alerted. (I mentioned dates in my reviews of both season 2 and season 3. I never received a single complaint.) You might be able to guess the date contextually, but you can’t really write about a show without indicating that time has, you know, elapsed.

Yeah, I said it: Time has elapsed on Mad Men. Hope everyone’s cool with that.

Now, the other question: how safe is all the other stuff that we see in the episode? Things about where the characters are in their lives, what the conflicts are, what premises are set up–things, again, that I would mention for any other returning show?

I include them, leaving out anything I personally would consider egregious. But apparently other people have a much lower bar for egregious. Last week, Brian Lowry of Variety excoriated Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times for her Mad Men review, which he said gave too much away. (Among his arguments: that she must have ticked off the AMC PR department, for whom I was not aware we worked.) Honest to God, I reread her review several times and still could not figure out exactly what she revealed that crossed the line.

One of the “spoilers” Stanley was criticized for, for instance, concerns information that has already been revealed, repeatedly, not just by other journalists but by Mad Men cast members, AMC promotional clips and by Weiner himself in interviews. Apparently it’s a spoiler anyway. But I mention it in my review too.

All this is to say: I cannot possibly guess what you consider a spoiler. I’m clearly not as spoiler-sensitive as other people; I don’t want to know who was eliminated on Top Chef before I watch, but I’ve rarely felt learning a plot point in advance ruined anything for me—sometimes it enhances the experience. I saw The Crying Game knowing the twist. Loved it!

Some fans disagree. Some want to know nothing. And that’s great—but they don’t get to set the standard for everyone else. Other critics disagree with me, very good critics, and you’re welcome to read them instead.

I love Mad Men, but in the end, I don’t work for Mad Men. I write for my readers. When I write a review of the first episode of a new season, I am writing for that subset of readers who want to read a review of the first episode of the new season. For them, I apply to Mad Men the same standards I would to any other show I review.

With the exception that, if it’s Mad Men, I also write a blog post twice as long as the original review, explaining why I did so!

In summation, I endorse the first episode of season 4 of Mad Men, debuting Sunday on AMC. And if you’re worried about spoilers, ignore the review linked above and leave it at that. (Or read it afterward! It’ll be new to you!)

And I’ll see you back here after the episode airs. I can’t wait to talk about it with all those damn spoilers*—or nonspoilers—out of the way.

*Since I want to keep this post a non-spoilery zone for discussing what’s spoilery—no plot info in your comments, please.