Watching TV while on Twitter can be an interesting thing. Twitter is a place for snap-judgement, in-the-moment reaction, and passionate solidarity with fellow viewers, and a (literally) virtual snark magnet.
So, on a episode of television like tonight's Mad Men, you see lots of comments popping up about how the show is overhyped, boring, "couldn't be more terrible if it tried", etc, and how moments like Megan's "Zou Bisou Bisou" are mortifying creative misfires. And in the moment, I come close to agreeing with them. I don't do this overtly, but with my patented defensive smirk and little "ugh, these Cretans don't understand" commentary in my head.
However, the episode, like most episodes of Mad Men, finished with a series of cathartic moments culminating in a sly, artistic bookend scene. And thus, as the entire episode recontextualizes in my head, the subplots gel together and find their endpoints, and the themes emerge, I remember why Mad Men is the best show on television.
Because it plays a game that other shows are terrified to play - it lives for the long game.
Mad Men thrives on total immersion. It doesn't believing in staging drama, it insists on building it around the audience. It has assembled a cast of such fine actors that writing and acting bleed into one and our audience reaction is just part of the scene.
Take "Zou Bisou Bisou" for example. Twitterland was immediately embarrassed to be watching the show because of it. Don was sure as hell embarrassed. But the show didn't let us off the hook with an acknowledgment of the intention until a good 20 minutes later, and then used the office's reactions to it to fuel a good Megan storyline. THAT culminated in a patented Mad Men style scene where we think we're watching one thing and know what the hell is going on, and then the subtext propels the thing into a completely different world and we're sitting there on the sofa with that "ummm...WHAT IS HAPPENING" look on our faces. You then look back on the episode and marvel at the construction that brought everyone where they ended up.
Part of what makes this show so provocative and beloved by its fans is precisely this quality. Mad Men is not a series of entertaining moments culminating in a standard climax, it's an hour-long (in this case two-hour) painting, where seemingly meaningless and ugly brushstrokes start forming a masterpiece.
To be fair, Mad Men has never done a two-hour episode before, and the assembly took full advantage of that extended arc, which may have been the source of lingering moments of boredom for some or discomfort for others.
Not me, though. Even with my doubts during the show, I am a carefully cultivated Mad Men audience member, and I remember learning this whole "how to watch" mentality back when I was plowing through season 1 just before the season 2 premiere. I would watch one of the first couple episodes in my standard, half-paying-attention kind of way, finding myself very fidgety, but growing more interested with more attention. By I think the fourth or fifth episode, I had learned to put away the computer and step away from the phone, and just focus like I was watching a movie. I didn't pause the DVR. I would only grab a drink at a commercial break. And it was night and day.
In short, it became the best drama on television. It also has separately unique appeals on first- and second-viewings: the uncertainty and surprise on the first, the admiration of craft on the second. It's episodic TV magic, where you learn the trick at the end.
What premiered tonight was a one-hour magic trick stretched to two, which had the momentary effect of feeling like you were heading down the stairs and missed a step. For a millisecond in midair, there is panic as you're hovering longer than you expected, but your foot does land, and all you can do is chuckle at the overreaction.
Tonight, I was happy to welcome this excellent show back, and look forward to spending the next 11 weeks seeing where Matthew Weiner, Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, and all the lot of them take me this year. I do fancy some good art to hang on the walls of my brain.