In a bizarre way, the new TV-watching experience has returned the medium to its early-fifties roots, when live TV dramas aired in prime time and earned next-day headlines. Nowadays, most of the shows aren’t live (except for news and sports) and everyone’s a publisher; the headlines appear on the Internet in 140-character bursts. But because you’re watching a consensus form like iron filings being drawn toward a magnet, the feeling of immediacy can be electrifying. The late Rod Steiger once told me that he knew his life had changed when he went to breakfast the morning after playing the lead role in the original, live production of Marty on The Philco Television Playhouse and heard strangers calling out on the street, “Yo, Marty! Whaddaya wanna do tonight?” Paré must have felt something similar the morning after Mad Men’s fifth season premiere, during which she performed a slinky rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” a 1960 song by yé-yé girl Gillian Hills. The scene prompted YouTube clicks, blog posts on the history of the song, and a tidal wave of tweets, many asking if it was possible to have a tune surgically removed from one’s brain.
Such thunderclap moments are more self-contained now, thanks to the niche-ification of television, but they’re just as thrilling if you’re inside the hive mind when they occur. The tenure of James Spader’s Robert California on The Office; the arguments over whether 2 Broke Girls is racist and whether Smash and The Killing were overhyped or stupid; the backlash-to-the-backlash that followed the premiere of HBO’s Girls; the horrifying deaths of Ned Stark on Game of Thrones and Jimmy Darmody on Boardwalk Empire: These were seized on, dissected, criticized, and debated within hours of their airing, with a thoroughness that might have unfolded over days not too long ago. The online record of people’s instant reactions may be critically incomplete, but it has personal and journalistic value. It shows us how people reacted to television moments when they happened and tells us about the changing culture and the technology that increasingly shapes it. One could say that these online discussions occur, to quote the title of The New Yorker writer George W. S. Trow’s landmark essay, within the context of no context. But one could also argue that the discussion itself creates context. The hive mind has become the context for television, and for the entertainment industry itself: the rhetorical infrastructure of a once-formless popular culture.