Remember when "Mad Men's" last season premiered, all the way back in July 2010? I took New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley to task for featuring a key spoiler up high in her review, without so much as a warning.
This produced a mini-debate among laptop-stained wretches, with James Poniewozik of Time leaping to Stanley's defense, expressing confusion as to what qualified as a spoiler and objecting to the notion of writing with what amounts to one arm tied behind his back.
I can appreciate the second half of that, since tiptoeing around plot isn't fun, although it is possible to discuss such a familiar project in generalities. Moreover, the whole preview thing is a double-edged sword: Networks and producers certainly want the publicity, but as usual, they want it on their terms. ("Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner, incidentally, expressed his irritation with Stanley at the time.)
Personally, my feeling on spoilers is pretty simple -- and more about protecting journalists than TV shows: Why should critics risk alienating their best customers by potentially undercutting the viewing experience? Write whatever you want, but if you do plan to mention significant plot developments, then at least give readers the courtesy of a heads up, and keep them coming back. In this climate, who can afford to be cavalier about chasing away people who actually read reviews?
The irony is the Times can't cover "Mad Men" enough -- witness Sunday's exhaustive profile of Weiner -- because it's the kind of arty show the paper's editors, their friends, and presumably a few subscribers watch. That impression, anyway, explains why the show receives such a disproportionate level of attention.
At any rate, "Mad Men" returns March 25, and the two-hour premiere DVD came with a letter from Weiner. It says, in part:
I know you are aware how strongly I feel that the viewers are entitled to have the same experience you just had. My goal every season is first and foremost to entertain the audience, and I know that this is best accomplished when key storylines are not revealed in advance. I am asking you to please join with me to ensure this enjoyment by not revealing any of these answers or other issues. ... I truly look forward to your spoiler-free thoughts and insights.
Call me wacky, but even from a notorious control freak, that doesn't sound like an unreasonable request.
Will critics adhere to it? All I can promise is that this one -- who watched the DVD over the weekend -- will. So look for a review -- yes, spoiler-free -- closer to the premiere date.