Is Social Media the Enemy of Greatness?
If so, too late. How instant analysis could be making it harder to achieve brilliance in a series.
This column contains spoilers about Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
If you’re online at all, perusing television sites or participating vociferously on Twitter, nitpicking the beautiful elements of truly great series, then you are part of a phenomenon that few people saw coming.
You are the people who make the pursuit of brilliance more daunting than it already is.
When Breaking Bad finished its midseason finale on Sunday, amateur pundits (and paid critics) were out in force with their findings. Now, remember that these people are, by and large, enormous fans of the series, so dedicated to it that it’s almost unhealthy. And a significant number of them were unhappy. They wanted more bang for their eight episodes. They didn’t want Hank to put the pieces together about Walt while sitting on the toilet. They didn’t want AMC breaking up the final 16 episodes into two eight-episode seasons one year apart. In the next breath, they proclaimed its brilliance, tacking on a nitpick here and there.
That’s life in the instant-analysis online world. And with proof from a multitude of showrunners that they actually read what’s being said about their shows, you have to wonder how much Xanax they have stored in the honey jar.
The Wire – the best television series ever created -- nevertheless suffered the slings and arrows of die-hard fans when season five rolled around. The problem for series creator David Simon was that the bar had been set ridiculously high. In that context, extremely loyal fans were underwhelmed by a season that was, in hindsight and separated from what came before it, exceptional. The problem is, viewers don’t separate.
Now, was season five of The Wire the best of the run? It was not. McNulty's dubious actions were the source of much anger. Others were bored by the journalism angle. But it was still great television. And lost in the complaining at that point was either an understanding or an appreciation of exactly how difficult it is to make one brilliant season, let alone four in a row. Simon was lucky that the Internet agitprop of hyperfocused fans wasn’t yet at the level it is today.
Matthew Weiner, however, is right in the mix of social-media fueled viewership that demands, well, everything. His own brilliant series, Mad Men, also walked into season five with enormous expectations. I think it’s a much more difficult task to evaluate where season five of Mad Men stands in connection to the previous four than The Wire. Which means that season five of Mad Men was still exceptionally great, despite prodding about Megan Draper’s value (singing or talking), the diminished roles of certain characters and a number of plot decisions by Weiner and his staff.
What’s happening these days is that social-media has essentially decapitated contemplation. So few loyal viewers are letting the episode sink in or even revisiting it with another watching before going online to praise or complain. That in some way devalues the effort of the particular episode and in some way robs people like Weiner or Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan of having their work judged as a whole.
Granted, we don’t live in a time when judging a season based on all 13 completed episodes is ever going to happen. Well, sure, it can happen after the fact – when people later concede that they liked the season more than they had, ahem, bitched about it earlier. You can still see these contrite admissions online periodically. Fans revise their opinion, and it’s often like a weird kind of public apology for things said online in the heat of the moment a year (or more) earlier.
With Breaking Bad, Gilligan is in a tough spot because of the decision to break the 16 episodes in half, separated by a year. By the very construct, the storytelling was changed. Season five opened with a flash forward to one year in the future of Walter White. His hair is back. He’s got a car with out-of-state plates. He’s bought a very powerful gun. He looks to be on the defensive. It was a wonderful device, but – predictably – people complained when episode eight did not address that scene in some way, much less wrap it up. Some people voiced concern that the first eight episodes were too slow. Others said it was clear Gilligan and his writers were rushing too fast in an effort to make it all work.
All of this chatter while no one knows anything about, much less has seen, the final eight episodes.
I have a feeling Gilligan and Breaking Bad will be just fine in the end. Like Mad Men and The Wire, the series is already first-ballot Hall of Fame material. In fact, it could be that Gilligan is the lucky one. Weiner likely still has two more seasons to go. That’s a potential for 26 more episodes to be combed over and picked at by hard-to-please (but loyal and loving) fans. It could be a social media bloodbath, however. Voices of dissent and displeasure mixing in with choruses of praise and unfiltered do-no-wrong adulation. It could drive Weiner insane.
At least when he was a writer on The Sopranos – a series already in the Hall of Fame -- he didn’t have to listen to all the complaints that the series was going on too long, going nowhere with its plot and then having the most controversial ending imaginable. That was David Chase’s problem. And he ran off to Europe to get away from the din.
It’s kind of quaint to think about that now. That Sopranos shocker was June 2007. Twitter was in its infancy. Facebook, too, was barely open to everyone by then (2006). Imagine if The Sopranos ended last night? Internet = broken.
Any plea to have patience with real greatness and not rush to judgment (particularly if the end hasn’t come) is likely to go unheard. But it’s a strange phenomenon when viewers who adore a show and are fanatical about it – particularly on the powerhouse platform that is social media -- are often the quickest ones to tear that show asunder.
Maybe the best advice to those series creators who put their souls into trying to create brilliance is to focus on the work, keep their heads down and don’t peek at what the world is saying.
Like asking for critical restraint, that too will never happen. When the whole world is talking about your show, it’s hard not to listen. But maybe it’s harder still not to be affected by it.
Sundance: On the Scene