Why I’ll miss staying up to ridiculous hours to review ‘Mad Men’

NOTE: This is going to be the most inside-y of inside baseball columns, but so many people over the years have asked me what it’s like to write about “Mad Men” – particularly in these later, screener-less seasons – that I wanted to put together some personal memories of the experience. If you understandably just want to read about the show itself, I’ve written a ton, including reviews of every single episode (the first three seasons on my old blog, everything else here at HitFix), picks for the best episodes, an essay on the distinct moment in TV history in which “Mad Men” debuted, recent interviews with Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm, and even an entire chapter of my book (which will have an updated version in the fall to discuss the end of this show and “Breaking Bad”).

This Sunday night should be the last time for a very long time that I am up at a ridiculous hour on a Sunday writing about an episode of television. Starting next weekend, I get to sleep again.

But if the trade-off is more sleep for no more “Mad Men,” I’m not sure I’m ready to do that. In my career, there is no show I have enjoyed writing about more than this one, even as the circumstances under which I wrote about it became increasingly difficult as the years went on.

I didn’t always have to stay up late to write about “Mad Men.” For most of its first three seasons, my working relationship with it wasn’t too different from a lot of other shows at that time: AMC would send me DVDs, sometimes with one episode at a time, sometimes with several, and I would have as much time as I could spare to prep and write those reviews. It was time that I needed, not only to research the period (the story of “Mad Men” began 13 years before I was born, and at the start tended to cover less-chronicled portions of the ’60s), but to figure out how to write about it in a different way than I had covered any other show but “The Sopranos.”

At the time, most of my episodic reviewing was an extension of the thumbs up/down model: I liked this, I didn’t like that, I wish that had been more like this, etc. Though “Mad Men” would occasionally do stories or even whole episodes I would question (say, the amphetamine haze of “The Crash,” which I enjoyed much less than the LSD-flavored “Far Away Places”), I quickly realized that I was much less interested in discussing the quality – which was so readily apparent in the dialogue, the performances, the costuming and every other detail that Matt Weiner and company obsessed over – than in looking at the deeper meaning of both character arcs (why was the otherwise odious Pete Campbell always smarter than everyone else on social issues?) and the themes and symbols Weiner would use to tie each episode together, whether the mirrors of “Maidenform” conveying the episode’s interest in duality and outside appearances, or how the picnic litter of “The Gold Violin” demonstrated how rotten Don’s superficially beautiful life really was.

Eventually, I came up with a system that served me well: when a new DVD arrived, I would put everything aside, close the laptop, and just watch the episode with no distractions, including note-taking. That night, I would go home, watch it again with my wife (the unsung hero in all of this, and not just because the later years made me useless on Monday mornings) while taking notes, and we would discuss it until I felt I had identified the themes and images I wanted to highlight from that episode. Then I would devote all of the next work day (and, if I had time and wasn’t done yet, part of the one after that) to writing and rewriting that review.

It was a lot of work, and ate up a disproportionate amount of my schedule, but it always felt worth it. There were other shows of the period that I loved as much as (and at times more than) “Mad Men,” but none challenged me nearly as much as a writer, and none gave me greater pleasure to unpack each week.

Early in the series, Weiner was relatively open (at least compared to now) about things we might expect down the road, or at least things he might like to include on the show at some point. (Like the night he talked to me about getting to the end of the ’60s and having Don listen to “My Way” on the radio.) As time moved on, he became far more guarded about spoilers – and about what exactly qualified as a spoiler. Starting with the second season, he began sending out letters accompanying the premiere screeners listing things he didn’t want us writing about in advance. The year in which the new season took place was usually one, as was the state of Don’s personal life. The list of redacted items could get very specific and idiosyncratic, like the time he didn’t want anyone to mention that the SCDP offices now had a second floor.

Not every critic loved these requests, but there was an uneasy detente about them for a few years, and the press kept not only those secrets, but far more significant ones like the fate of Peggy’s baby and the end of Don and Betty’s marriage. Then at the start of season 4, The New York Times published an early review of the premiere which was both full of praise and fairly innocuous, but which gave away a few of Weiner’s no-no’s – the year, that the new agency was doing poorly, that Don was struggling with dating post-divorce – and a week later, critics were told that would be the end of the screener supply. AMC publicists were able to entreat Weiner to keep sending out the season premieres(*), but that was pretty much it in terms of early access to episodes.

(*) Over the years, I and a few other critics tried to argue that Weiner should have done the opposite: withhold the premiere – given that the changes in period and status tended to be the stuff he was most worried about getting spoiled (and that critics were most inclined to mention in advance reviews) – and send the later episodes (which people only tended to write about after the fact) to the press. Those arguments did nothing to sway Weiner. Sometimes, you swing and you miss.

Obviously, this era of the episodic recap featured plenty of shows where critics weren’t getting all (or in some cases any) episodes in advance. (Though that was more on the broadcast side; cable channels like HBO, FX and even AMC with “Breaking Bad,” kept their own screener pipelines open.) But those other shows we had to review live weren’t “Mad Men,” and didn’t seem to require the time and care that was more possible with screeners.

I resolved to continue the same process as before – two viewings, a conversation, then writing – but in a more condensed time frame so that I could finish before I passed out. That plan went out the window after the first week I tried it, when I realized I knew exactly how I wanted to write about the episode, only I hadn’t taken any of the notes I usually leaned on in writing these things, and had to sit through the episode again to do that. That was the end of me watching “Mad Men” episodes twice. I would watch once, take notes, and hope that a single viewing and the usual wise counsel of my wife would be enough.

I had two imperatives driving me: 1)I knew that the way my brain worked, I wouldn’t be able to sleep until the review was done, because I would just be lying in bed writing the damn thing in my head; and 2)I knew there would come a time in the night (usually sometime between 1 and 2 a.m.) where my body would get very angry with my brain and make it very hard to think or write clearly. So I was on a perverse kind of clock where the quicker the reviews got done, the better I figured they would be. I would put a loud and angry song (usually “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” by Against Me!) on a loop(**), and I would get to writing as quickly as I could. There wasn’t the time I had in earlier years to go over and over various thoughts to phrase them as artfully as possible, but I found myself writing from the gut even more. Those impulse observations – like the way that Ginsberg’s dark interpretation of the familiar Cinderella story informs so much of the nightmarish “Mystery Date” – at times felt more direct than when I had time to overthink everything in the first three seasons.

(**) When I finish the first pass through the review and want to look for things I missed or could have articulated better, I tend to switch from Against Me! to the Judy Collins version of “Both Sides Now” (from the season 6 finale “In Care Of”), which changes the mood enough for me to look at things I wrote only minutes earlier with fresh eyes, even as the song keeps me tethered to “Mad Men” itself.

And the show didn’t make things easier on reviewers as it moved into the post-screener era. The series’ second half was more stylistically and thematically ambitious and experimental than its first, which made trying to decode the episodes an even more daunting task as the hour grew late. But it was also a more exciting one, and when my fatigued neurons were able to connect the lyrics of “Father Abraham” with all the other doppelgangers in “The Better Half,” it felt even more satisfying than when I had eureka moments after days of thinking.

So I’ll do this one more time on Sunday (and get a later start than usual, since the episode’s scheduled to end at 11:17 p.m.), and that will be that. End of an era. It won’t be the last show I ever have to review without screeners, or even the last Sunday night show. The very next weekend, I’m back on “Game of Thrones” duty, and it’s unclear if HBO will ever make another episode of that one available in advance. But that show and other Sunday dramas that I sometimes have to write live aren’t such tough nuts to crack. “Game of Thrones” is consistently one of TV’s better dramas, and “Walking Dead” (where I never get the finales, and sometimes not the episodes leading up to the finales) can elevate itself to that level at times, but they tend to be pretty straightforward in their meaning, if not their plot. With “Thrones,” I have a harder time remembering character names – and their proper spellings – than I do finding an angle to begin discussing each episode. Even the best episodes of that show don’t keep me up nearly as late as “Mad Men” has (and not just because it airs an hour earlier).

I don’t expect “Mad Men” to be the last series to engage me on this level. There’s too much evidence at this point that this new Golden Age of TV Drama isn’t close to ending, and I assume some other show will try to achieve this level of thematic density some time soon. And while I mostly hope that it’s a show from a creator who isn’t worried about critics seeing episodes in advance, there’s a part of me that might welcome the challenge of one more late-night writing sprint.

But preferably only the one.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com