When the lack of a question shouldn’t lead to an exclamation

Art imitating life isn’t the most uncommon of things, but when events set in “Mad Men” mirror those at Comic-Con, well, THAT is unusual. (And no, I’m not talking about fanboys paying local call girls to slap them silly after the panel for “The Avengers.”) Both “Mad Men” and Comic-Con dealt with the issue of access to public figures, and the roles each party plays, and the power dynamics therein. Personally, I’m fascinated by both sides of the equation. But while hardly a disinterested party here, I think I’m distanced enough from the spectacle in San Diego to align myself more with Don Draper than the reporter from Ad Age at the outset of the show’s season premiere than some of the disgruntled fans that left Comic-Con.

It all comes down to this: at what point do we as consumers feel that those on the screen (or the stage in Ballroom 20) owe us anything at all?

I’m going to try and table for now the issue between celebrities of various ilks and the press corps that covers them. In my “Mad Men” recap, I likened Don Draper to Lebron James, and I could liken them both to plenty of people in Hollywood that use access to their advantage to either spin themselves in a good light or ensure that the person to whom they are speaking will somehow “get” the message they are trying to convey. I realize that’s an awfully big table, one large enough to comfortably sit in the dining room of a home featured on MTV’s “Cribs.” But I want to table this because it’s in many ways another beast that what fascinating me over the past weekend.

What I’m interested in is not the consumer’s access to these celebrities. What I’m interested in is the ever-increasing illusion that there’s any access at all. Looking at it from the outside in, what I saw at Comic-Con was PROXIMITY, which is a whole other beast than ACCESS.

tru.jpgNow, proximity’s a pretty cool thing in and of itself. I’m not trying to sound snotty and come down on someone that waited 12 hours to get into the “True Blood” panel. I found myself green with envy, wishing I had been at the “Community” panel or the “Women Who Kick Ass” panel or a host of different events that transpired. Plus, Comic-Con feels like one of those bucket list endeavors in general, up there with skydiving, visiting Ireland, and overthrowing Michael Flatley and becoming the rightful Lord of the Dance. Being in those rooms at that particular time were unique, one-time, unrepeatable events that by definition cannot be replicated. Even if “Community” doubles its audience this upcoming season, it will not have as big, seismic, or meaningful Con panel next year. Just can’t.

Where I found the most disgruntlement was in the realm of audience participation, or rather, lack thereof, in some of the panels. The most famous one, by all accounts, was during the “Chuck” panel, which started late, had a bit too much opening act, and then was one of the few panels to have its end time strictly enforced. This left moderators Dan Fienberg and Alan Sepinwall (both of whom I know and have worked with, to varying degrees, over at HitFix) feeling bad, the cast/crew feeling sheepish, and the crowd acting as if Sarah had just rekindled her relationship with Daniel Shaw. On the stage. With a great deal of tongue.

Now, no one faulted those onstage for the lack of audience participation time, but it does call to mind a very basic question: Does the audience NEED to ask people onstage questions in order to validate the experience? I’m not talking about this as a “nice to have” feature, but rather, a “need to have” feature. I kept thinking back to this Louis CK bit on Conan O’Brien’s Late Show, in which he noted how quickly people complain about things that weren’t even conceivable even a few years ago.  Comic-Con, as the overbloated entity that it is, only has existed for a few years. Getting a show like “Castle” to Comic-Con in the mid-90’s? Ha. I can’t exactly see the cast of “Suddenly Susan” blowing the roof off the joint back then.

Personally, I blame Twitter. The notion that you can “follow” your favorite celebrities has clouded an already blurry line between artist/actor/entertainer and consumer. (Well, except when it comes to Prince, who declared the internet “over” a few weeks back. That statement brought the relationship into pretty clear focus right there.) I follow plenty of actors/writers who produce shows I enjoy, and it’s a kick watching Nathan Fillion rasp poetically about double rainbows. But I’m under no illusion that what I’m doing is participating in mutually-determined voyeurism. I’m not walking along side Nathan on the virtual highway. I’m behind him. I’m following him both literally and metaphorical.

nathan-fillion.jpgAt last check, Nathan has 584,000 people follow him. Not bad, Captain Mal. He’s in turn following 115. I looked up these stats in both his Twitter account and in the dictionary under the word “unidirectional.” Still, when Nathan tweets, there’s an unhealthy amount false intimacy that Twitter projects that removes any barrier that normally exists in, say, a magazine interview or TV profile piece. By following these people on Twitter, we buy into the fact that what we’re reading in 140 characters is true, unfiltered, honest selfery. (And yes, I just made up that word. I like it. So there.)

But there’s as much artifice in those 140-character bursts as usually spews forth on the Comic-Con stage, which is why I’m wondering why it’s such a big deal for certain panels there to be sans audience involvement. I’m not suggesting the masses are mere sheep, but for every “Ryan Reynolds recites the Green Lantern oath to a young kid” moment, there are a hundred more moments of evasion, subtle condescension, or at best, mere tolerance towards the person. It’s hard to be mad about a lack of conversation between audience and stage when said conversation is as riddled with half-truths and self-aggrandizement as existed in Don Draper’s interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Or, maybe it’s something else: maybe the audience recognizes just how fully one-sided this conversation truly is, and was upset about not being able to play their part. Maybe the removal of that particular piece of the pop-culture passion play highlights its artificiality, calling to mind the footlights that blind them from their normal lives and instead illuminate a world in which Nathan Fillion is talking to nearly 600,000 people, but at that moment in your Twitter feed, is really sharing his double rainbow with you.

I’m honestly unsure. I’m writing all of this out to work through it all. And yes, I understand this can come off as bitterness over not going to the Con and experiencing it for myself. What I missed was a lot of excitement. What I didn’t miss was a lot of access. If you wanted to hear the words coming out of your favorite stars as they spoke them in the same geographical location, it rocked. If you were looking for a personal connection, forged between two microphones and several dozen yards, well, you probably missed out even if you did get a chance to ask a question. So, while I missed out on some things, there were just as many that couldn’t be experienced even if I was there.

So much of the Con itself was captured on Twitter, a social service I love even as I loathe it, like so many of my “Suddenly Susan”-era ex-girlfriends. By reading about events at the Con through it, I saw the illusion of the illusion, doubly back and wrapping around like the dreamscapes of “Inception.” Cellphones and laptops just added to the distance between audience and stage, creating information while simultaneously consolidating the wall between the real self and the virtual self. We’re in an era in which more is publicly proffered than ever, and yet it’s never been more difficult to detect veracity in anything that’s placed online for consumption. This entry in and of itself is no less performance that Don Draper’s interview or Joel McHale’s onstage answers or any Comic-Con attendee’s query. (With, of course, the notable exception of the toddler with the excellent taste in comic books. Unless he’s a plant from the new reality show “Pwned Preschoolers.”)

The point is this: the lack of reciprocity between pop culture consumers and the people who produce the things we consume isn’t inherently evil. Other than being decent citizens of the world, I’m not sure any of these people owe me anything but providing entertainment, in whatever shape and form that comes in. Nathan Fillion seems like a nice enough guy, but I’m not sure he’s got the time or energy to satisfy the conversational/emotional needs of those 584,000 followers. I can barely call both of my parents in the same week. I get it. But I get the sense that some of those followers DO feel they are owed a chitchat with Fillion, whether it be 140 characters long or delivered from the stage in Ballroom 20. And that’s simply not the case.

I think I’ll get off this soap box and let you all have a turn at the helm. Does any of this make sense? Does it sound like ramblings from an inmate in Bitterville Penitentiary? If you follow celebrities on Twitter, why do YOU do it? And is Comic-Con and events of that size truly serving those in the audience or those onstage? Leave your thoughts below!

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