I was reminded of the finale of Mad Men recently — and not while watching television, or reading one of the constantly germinating recaps or blog posts or liveblogs about the show. The experience of watching television and thinking about it in terms either pedantically specific or numbingly broad has become central to our culture. One can, I suppose, find recap culture anywhere, as it’s come to strangulate everything about viewership.
I was watching sports — a rare experience for me, as I’d usually rather be watching practically anything else on TV — at a bar with some people. It was a playoff game between Philadelphia and San Francisco, and I was in Philadelphia with a couple of San Franciscans, one of whom rooted against and one for the Giants. Tension was high! Roars went up at every error, or walk, or whatever. This is maybe the sort of communal experience television was made for. I don’t think Mad Men, or anything else on TV, diverges from the crowd-pleasing, goofy-sincere simplicity of baseball all that much.
Like baseball broadcasts, a season-long narrative with jolts and twists for each team’s partisans, television knows how to give its viewer what he or she wants. For instance, when Mad Men began, Joan Holloway was a delightful supporting character whose presence alerted the viewer to all manner of uncomfortable prejudices in the 1960s. In a book or film, her evolution would have taken place in the viewer’s mind, turning over all of her complex valences, rather than at the hands of producers who turned her into something out of fan fiction. Consider the conversation between Joan and her fiancé in the season-four finale: the revelation that Joan has kept her baby says nothing more about her character. It’s just an OMFG moment, capped off with the campy and tonally bizarre “Yes, they’re bigger” comment. Whoever’s putting words in Joan’s mouth knows how the audience feels about actress Christina Hendricks’s breasts.
Books and movies are processed all at once — pausing for too long in the midst of it all (as I recently discovered while reading Philip Roth’s novel Nemesis over the course of weeks) causes understanding to suffer. But television’s sprawl leads to an investment less of intellectual energy than of emotional displacement: Mad Men’s finale, indeed, pleased few viewers, as it relegated its crowd-pleasing to Joan. In a nice instance of television’s open-ended timeline being used to develop a character, Don dumped a lovely and sympathetic woman he’d been dating in favor of a young and unformed secretary. This was of a piece with his recent erratic and isolating behavior, but viewers revolted: what a dick, how mean, was the general tenor of liveblogs and tweets, an infinite and widely registered disdain noted in a conversation that became not about what the amorphous Mad Men writers’ room intended but what each viewer, independently, wanted.
If television is, indeed, our art form, we need to start treating it as such. A reader throwing aside, say, the new Peter Carey novel because Parrot or Olivier is just so mean is not a sophisticated reader: such a thing would be kind of embarrassing to say in public. But judging by Twitter the post-Mad Men Monday, demanding satisfaction from each character’s decision, as well as a million little thrills at harmony between characters’ actions and viewers’ desire, is totally legitimate. Mad Men, with such potential to say so much about American history and its characters’ lives therein, has become as dramatic, and as manufactured, as Major League Baseball.
Movies are the product of their directors, books the products of their authors (taking into account all the compromises that must be made, all at once, to bring these products to market). Television is the product of its viewers’ desires — it remakes itself not at once, into a finished product, but in dialogue with its viewers. The Office, one of the most promisingly off-kilter comedies in years, became a show about a sympathetic couple and their two charmingly autistic overseers; Damages, a cleverly written legal drama, became Glenn Close vamping about being evil for 44 minutes a week. The examples are legion: books and films require, for all their compromises, a risk. Television requires none — the show can always remake itself into whatever the viewer is rooting to see.
As I write this, I’m watching Dancing with the Stars, one of my favorite shows. I can turn it on every week and think about who my favorite competitors are and watch some sparkly costumes move around. It’s not any deeper than that, nor is it supposed to be. It fulfills everything I want from it, and at the end, I turn it off, full of vicarious pleasure. It will constantly renew itself, and no one would call it art.