Remember when television was dismissed as a passive medium? I do, and every time I write a next-day review of a new episode, I grin as I recall those bygone days. Watching TV used to be a mindless experience to be shared with only those in the room (often just oneself); thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, it has become a group activity, practically a hive mind. On Sunday, TV’s blockbuster night, I decide which of the evening’s notable shows to watch live and which to DVR for later: This spring, the prime pickings included Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time, Girls, Veep, The Killing, The Borgias, and The Good Wife. I keep my laptop open to see what other people have to say about them as they air; for a TV critic who can’t be everywhere at once, social media is like an amateur wire service. Then I settle in to watch Mad Men, a drama I review each week for New York’s Vulture, and any lingering doubts that I’m living in TV’s most exciting, engaged era dissipate like cigarette smoke.
Consider the May 6 episode of Mad Men, “Lady Lazarus.” At the end, the show’s aging hero Don Draper (Jon Hamm) played the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver at the behest of his young wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), just when my young son got out of bed to tell me he needed another blanket. I missed Megan telling Don to listen to the album’s last song, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” first, and noted on Twitter I thought it was weird that a man who’d never heard Revolver would start at the end. Within minutes, I got multiple replies informing me of the line I’d missed. When my review went up the next morning, I entered the most satisfying phase of the recapping process: watching people debate assertions I made and mention things I didn’t address. One commenter noted that the Sylvia Plath poem referenced in the episode’s title was partly inspired by Plath’s experience with electroshock therapy, which tied it in with the “little deaths” felt by characters throughout the season. Another viewer speculated that this season’s episodes are modeled on songs from the Beatles’ follow-up album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and offered a combined track listing and episode summary; this was followed by another comment suggesting that Weiner’s former boss on The Sopranos, David Chase, “based the final season on William S. Burroughs’s ‘Seven Souls’ from his novel The Western Lands.”
Granted, not every episode of scripted TV inspires such smart commentary, but there’s more of it than you might think if you don’t watch TV as part of the hive mind. The continual, real-time buzz of reactions, observations, and jokes turns TV into a fully participatory experience. I’ll never forget watching the season-four finale of Breaking Bad last fall: When a startling act of violence decisively altered the show’s narrative, my Twitter feed became a ticker-tape record of awe and horror. “I call it a big old virtual pajama party,” says ReBecca Theodore-Vachon, TV and film writer for The Urban Daily.
The social-media viewing experience is the most effective argument against piracy, and against so-called “time-shifting” in general. DVRs can ease your packed Sunday viewing schedule, but if you’re not watching live, you’re giving up that intimate connection with other people who are watching with you even though they’re someplace else. There is new value in watching a show as it happens because of the ad hoc community that pops up in cyberspace every week.
I once scolded my Twitter followers that anybody who tweets while watching a TV show in real time isn’t really watching it. But I changed my mind after numerous followers asked me to explain how live-tweeting was more inattentive than jotting down notes while reviewing a movie in a theater (it’s really isn’t, I admit).
Some of the same people who work on the shows are part of the hive mind themselves. “I get to see what 160,000 Twitter followers have to say about my work while it’s airing,” says Shonda Rhimes, creator of ABC’s Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy. If they like it, it’s great, but if they don’t, it’s like having hate mail delivered right to your face.”
“If you want to read what happened on any show, there are a thousand people who can tell you,” says Michael Schur, co-creator of NBC’s Parks and Recreation. “I don’t think any of us in the industry ever anticipated this level of involvement.”
But now that it’s happening, TV producers seem to be intentionally creating shows with Internet-enhanced viewing in mind. There’s NBC’s Thursday lineup, with hashtag-ready memes like Community’s Imaginarium, 30 Rock’s fake Leap Day holiday, and Parks and Recreation boss Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness, a prop that was improved before shooting when Schur realized people were going to be freeze-framing and deconstructing it. (“These days, you can’t half-ass it,” he says.) Then there’s Mad Men, a moody, slow-moving drama that’s nonetheless spiked every week with grist for the Internet mill, from spectacular moments (the lawn-mower scene; Pete and Lane’s fistfight) to tiny, period-appropriate design touches such as Pete reading The Crying of Lot 49. A moment in season four even seemed to tease the audience for reflexively Googling its Easter eggs: Adman and Pacific war vet Roger Sterling, enraged that his firm would do business with a Japanese company, snarled, “Why don’t we just bring Dr. Lyle Evans in here?” There was no real-life Dr. Lyle Evans, as countless next-day blog posts explained.
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.