I spent my college years buried under the weight of a crippling secret. No, it wasn’t that my parents paid my tuition. Most of my friends shared that same secret, and at least I covered my own rent. Was it that my first real sexual encounter was with a prostitute in Acapulco (who may or may not have been a man) when I was 16? Nope. I told that story at parties, and it killed. My shame was of a much more severe and sacrilegious variety, and to this day, I have trouble discussing it openly.
I never watched The Sopranos.
There, I said it. And look, I’m still standing with my cultural capital largely in tact. And while some of you may be thinking, “Big fucking deal,” just know that I rolled with a very specific posse of pop culture snobs and junkies, young men and women who devoured anything that was Pitchfork-approved, and who measured a man not by his actions, but by how big his Criterion collection was.
“I’ve never tasted Moltisanti,” I’d say, after mistaking talk of Tony’s erratic nephew’s latest hijinks for a discourse on Calabrian wine.
Determined not to be left out of the conversation for one pre-drink longer, I binge-watched episodes in and out of order, whenever I could. In my head, Jackie long outlives Christopher. But this made my friends vitriolic. “Dude, you’re totally pissing on David Chase’s grand vision!” they’d bark.
So instead of playing Sopranos catch-up, I turned my attention to other members of Television’s Academy of High Art. The Wire, Oz, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood. If it had even an ounce of critical acclaim, I watched it.
Soon, mere critical acclaim wasn’t enough. If people were discussing a show, I wanted to be part of the conversation. As social media loomed larger and larger, it became very clear, very fast, which shows were cracking the zeitgeist, and which weren’t. NBC’s beleaguered superhero saga Heroes lacked HBO’s prestige, but people talked about it online, so yeah, I watched. The Shield, although beloved by critics, aired on what network? For how long? Starring that dude from The Commish? I’ll pass, thanks. On the other hand, the answer was always “duh” when asked if I watched buzzy shows like 24, Dexter, Lost, Nip/Tuck or Friday Night Lights, and “you’re crazy,” when you told me that you didn’t.
So in 2007, when a network called American Movie Classics—once the graveyard for ’60s B-movie schlock like Beach Blanket Bingo and Ski Party—premiered its first original series, a period piece about ‘60s era Madison Avenue ad sharks created by a former Sopranos writer (that HBO passed on), I was ready to dismiss it for its lack of network pedigree alone. After watching the first episode and deeming it way too languorous for my ADD sensibilities, I had visions of writers at the New York Times scrambling to get a headstart on its obituary. “Mad Men, AMC’s ambitious but misguided attempt at relevance, died on Sunday…”
Clearly my critical eye needs a monocle.
Last week, Mad Men returned from a year and a half hiatus for its sixth and penultimate season, and as anyone with a twitter account, or an internet connection, or a pulse will tell you, it was in a word: huge. I honestly can’t recall a scripted show of any kind, not since Seinfeld anyways, that’s managed to so heavily influence different pockets of culture the way Matthew Weiner’s meticulously crafted epic has. Bespoke suits and smock dresses dominate runways, old fashioneds are like, everyone’s drink of choice, and marketing has become the sexy major for undergrads all over the US, all thanks to the men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. If this is indeed the Golden Age of Television, then Mad Men is its flagship. And once again, I’ve got my face pressed up against the window, looking in.
But this time, it feels different, lonelier. Much like The Sopranos, Mad Men is dissected by obsessives and recappers who attempt to imbue every frame with deeper meaning. Because of Weiner’s HBO pedigree, his current reliance on proto-literary symbols that demand endless analysis is to be expected. But back when The Sopranos was must-see TV, social media had not yet fully come of age, so geeking out over your favorite show was something you did in person, with your friends and colleagues, preferably in close proximity of a water cooler. If you did feel the need to debate and predict key plot points online, it was most likely done in remote corners of the Internet, on message boards and discussion forums, with fellow diehards.
Those days are over.
Though television has always been a social medium, the ubiquity of digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter means that now more than ever, shows air in a public sphere. Just hours after the closing credits, dozens of in-depth recaps are already floating online. Twitter users have taken that immediacy one step further, making the social network ground zero for real-time responses to whatever it is they’re watching. Live-tweeting a show means we no longer have to wait until the next day to comment on the latest water cooler moment. At last month’s SXSW, Jenn Deering Davis of the social media analytics firm Union Metrics, held a presentation centered on how Twitter is changing the way we watch TV, and revealed that 1 in 3 users have tweeted about television at one point or another, and that 76% of those people do it while watching the show they’re tweeting about.
So last Sunday at 10 o’clock, after a week in which all of my go-to sites went extra heavy on the Mad Men content, the show premiered to expected universal praise, and blew up my Twitter feed in the process. None of the dramas in my current lineup—not Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire or Breaking Bad—inspire the same kind of Internet-based hysteria that Mad Men does. So as a self-professed Internet junkie, and someone who prides myself of keeping up with pop culture (it’s kind of my job), a little part of me dies every Sunday night. The thought of starting from season 1 and trying to catch up before next year’s series finale has crossed my mind, but that still won’t alleviate my week-to-week Mad Men induced FOMO.
Am I a Joan, Betty or a Peggy? Sadly, I may never know.