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Nussbaum: Do We Want Too Much From TV’s Creators?

TV super-brains Aaron Sorkin, David Simon, Joss Whedon, and Matt Weiner.

Last Sunday, the night of the Mad Men finale — thrilling! brilliant! eight thumbs up — was a great one. But by Monday morning, we were craving more, because we couldn’t stop talking, and luckily it was out there, a heaven of fodder online: those Vulture Q&As with the actors, the point and the counterpoint on Megan and Betty, a column in the New York Times with a “real life Peggy.” And best of all, quotes from the man who built the show, Matt Weiner.

It’s what we expect these days. The membrane between the people who create TV and those who watch it has grown more porous every year, punctured, like the shower curtain in Psycho, by fan websites, DVD commentaries, leaked scripts, blogs, discussion-board threads, cut scenes, “webisodes,” wild feeds, spoilers, YouTube videos of Comic Con panels, and now Twitter. It's no wonder that we-who-love-TV have become so “entitled,” that popular catchword for the youth of today. But hey, I’m old. I remember feeling this sensation a generation ago, when technology was first ramping up, during (of all things) the televised O.J. Simpson car race: If I can see that Bronco crawling live through L.A., why can’t I hear O.J. talking to A.C. Cowlings?


At the very least, I’m old enough to remember when the people who created TV were rarely heard from, apart from the occasional magazine profile of Steve Bochco. We might have gotten some minor access when a show was a hit, but nothing immediate, nothing unmediated, certainly no week-to-week, inside-the-writers’-room, tweeted-on-set-photos excitement, no glimpses of a writer’s response to the audience’s response to their response to the audience response. (Sally Draper may have been onto something with that whole Land O’ Lakes metaphor in the penultimate Mad Men episode.)


Then came usenet newsgroups, and Television Without Pity (née mighty big TV, formerly Dawson's Wrap) in 1999, and the Great Psychodynamic Shift began. The surgical screen dropped; we could feel every cut. Which sounds painful, but was (mostly) a great thing. I don’t think loving an art form with a critical, informed eye is a contradiction; I’ve always relished the democratized academia that is today’s TV fanhood — the mob-solving professoriat of Lost and Mad Men (and earlier, The Simpsons and The Sopranos and Buffy, and even earlier, Star Trek). It's no accident that concurrent with this phenomenon, TV itself raised its game, becoming so much more worthy of obsessive debate: If online access means show-runners are celebrated and critiqued, it may also makes them eager to impress — and for the best ones, eager to challenge and to provoke.


But (and I’ve said it before) powerful drugs have side effects. One of them is that we now have opinions about the people who create the shows: Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, David Simon, Matt Weiner. So when we read on Vulture that Weiner said, off the cuff, at a party for his show’s finale, that “We all have mothers like this” (and that critics of Betty Draper wouldn’t hate her so much if she weren’t so beautiful, and that those who hate her are projecting their own issues — a cunning combination of the Just Jealous! thesis and the I'm Rubber, You’re Glue school of thought), we chew on that, and we psychoanalyze Weiner himself, and it all gets at once deeper and shallower, Land O’ Lakes–style.


I’m endlessly curious about the perspective of TV creators on this developing dynamic, especially those, like Weiner, who have come of age during the Great Shift, and need to sell their show as well — who are required to alternately rile and tame the commentariat, and to answer the nosy questions of skeptical, possibly one-legged journalists: “Who is Matt Weiner?”


Unsurprisingly, their opinions vary widely. Aaron Sorkin was famously combative about web response to the West Wing (in 2002, he battled TWOP commenters, used his network platform to satirize them as chain-smoking mumu-wearing basement-dwellers — and eight years later, turned that venom into gold with The Social Network). Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, in contrast, has a hilariously breezy, welcoming Twitter feed for her viewers online: I’ve never been a fan of her show, but Rhimes’s feed fills me with admiration for her avatar.


Earlier this year, the brilliant TV writer David Mills (The Wire) spoke to me about these questions on the set of Treme, where he tragically died of an aneurysm in March. A close friend and collaborator with David Simon, as well as a mentee of David Milch, Mills was a tremendous advocate of online fanhood, and he kept a great blog himself, Undercover Black Man. A TV nerd from his early years as a Hill Street Blues buff, he’d observed the rise of the web from the writers’ room and regarded online critics (of all stripes) with bemused appreciation:


“If you are going to heed it when it's good, you've got to heed it when it's bad. When you're in it, making it, your perspective is not the authoritative one. Whatever piece of art you create, it's up to the people: If you're a musician and you make an album, it's not up to you to decide what's your best album, it's up to the people who bought it and listen to your music. They can tell you more than you know.”

And then there’s the perspective of my hero Joss Whedon, whose sorry/grateful show-runner's lament “Heart, Broken” makes the case for putting that curtain back up. (Of course, the Whedon number comes from the "Commentary!" soundtrack from "Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog," which is itself a DVD mini-musical commentary analyzing an Internet mini-musical — the butteriest Land O’ Lakes imaginable.) “Heart, Broken” is an old-fashioned lament from a new-fangled creator, struggling to reconcile his love of narrative with the demands of the audience. And of course, Whedon, like Weiner, knows from cultural analysis: Both men are the products of the Wesleyan film-studies program.


Here’s the song, sung by Whedon himself:

(And please also listen to the original track off the DVD, which includes a hilarious vocal rebuttal explaining that if he retreated from his audience, he'd be "ignored at Comic Con.")

A sample of the lyrics:


Homer's Odyssey was swell
A bunch of guys that went through hell
He told the tale but didn't tell the audience why
He didn't say, "Here's what it means"
And "Here's a few deleted scenes"
"Charybdis tested well with teens"
He's not the story!
He’s just a door we
open when our lives need lifting.

Your thoughts? I'd particularly love to hear from TV writers about your experiences with the online horde.

Photo: Patrick McMullan, Friedmann Vogel/Getty Images, Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Michael Buckner/Getty Images