Today Vulture is proud to welcome Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Magazine’s new TV critic. He’ll be a regular presence on this site, reviewing new shows, weighing in on ongoing series story arcs, and just noting anything odd or amazing he caught on TV the night before. But before he begins the formal process of dissecting shows (look for his reviews of Paradise Lost 3, Rob, Justified, and more in the next week), we asked him to dissect himself. We know he’s a Brooklyn resident, Dallas native, critic, filmmaker, and karaoke addict, but where does he stand on the important television issues of our day? We gave him the following introductory questionnaire to let you know just what kind of viewer will be steering your TV choices.
Please state your TV-nerd credentials.
I am so nerdy that when I was a kid in the late seventies, before home video became common, I used to record the audio tracks of my favorite TV shows on a Realistic tape recorder — the mono kind, where you had to press play and record at the same time. Then I’d stay up and listen to the tapes and try to remember the images.
Where were you before New York Magazine and Vulture?
Most recently I was the TV critic of Salon, where I also did a weekly series of slideshows on film, TV, and pop culture titled “Friday Night Seitz” (because hey, it rhymed). I’ve also been a TV critic for the Star-Ledger of Newark (Tony Soprano’s paper) and a film critic for the New York Times, New York Press, and Dallas Observer. I founded the pop-culture blog the House Next Door, which is now a part of Slant Magazine, and I recently started a film and TV blog at IndieWire called Press Play. I also produce, write, edit, and sometimes narrate short video essays about movies and directors. Subjects have included Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Kathryn Bigelow, zombie movies, the Muppets, Clint Eastwood, Mr. Spock, 24, and Freaks and Geeks.
What are your favorite current shows?
My short list includes Breaking Bad, Enlightened, The Good Wife, Louie, Mad Men, Justified, Community, Futurama (yes, it’s still on!), Portlandia, South Park, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, and Starz’s unexpectedly strong political drama Boss. The latter and American Horror Story were the two new shows last year that I expected to hate but ended up loving. Showtime’s Homeland blindsided me and held my attention from start to finish, even though there were a moments where I didn’t totally buy the main characters. And I question the wisdom of extending the series beyond one season because … well, I won’t say why, exactly, because a lot of you probably haven’t watched it yet. The best series that almost nobody is watching is TNT’s Southland, which starts its fourth season January 17. It’s the smartest, most emotionally engaging cop drama since season one of NBC’s Homicide.
I have a soft spot for ABC’s Pan Am and really hope they renew it (Community, too; NBC is being alarmingly coy about its prospects). I was crushed over the cancellation of TNT’s Men of a Certain Age, a brilliant and unusually gentle comedy. I still like The Office and hope they can do something fresh and interesting in the post–Steve Carell period, though they seem terrified of going too dark. And I’m all over the map on Boardwalk Empire and Glee, dramas that I’ve described as “bad relationship shows” — meaning most of the time they disappoint or depress me by not living up to their potential, and then they turn around and do something so surprising and brilliant that I temporarily forget how miserable they tend to make me.
On the nonfiction side, I like American Experience, American Masters, P.O.V., Whale Wars, Survivor, American Idol, The Voice, and Deadliest Catch. I’m still fond of The Daily Show, although they seem to have lost touch with that corrosive anger that fueled them during the Bush era. I generally don’t like the unscripted series in the Real Housewives and Jersey Shore vein — shows that put a bunch of narcissists together, lubricate them with alcohol, and watch them rip one another apart.
The only network news program that consistently engages me is 60 Minutes (which I’ve been watching regularly since I was 10). The cable news networks are almost all garbage, running the gamut from trivial to poisonous. I used to cover them regularly when I worked for the Star-Ledger; after I left the paper, I stopped watching them except during really intense news periods. My blood pressure dropped as a result.
What are your all-time favorite series?
My favorite show of all-time is Deadwood, which I’ve written about so frequently in so many different venues that I occasionally get e-mails asking me to please, please, please shut up about Deadwood. My pantheon of all-time greats includes The Wire, The Sopranos, The Simpsons, Twin Peaks, The Dick Van Dyke Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, The Prisoner, The Andy Griffith Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Battlestar Galactica (the remake), Crime Story, Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, Police Squad!, and seasons one through five of The X-Files (after they moved the show from Vancouver to L.A. and David Duchovny started drifting in and out of the story lines, it lost momentum and never recovered). The first season of Miami Vice, which aired when I was in high school, changed my burgeoning sense of what TV drama could do. It also set me down a lifelong career path that paid nearly equal attention to movies and television. That’s an aspect of my critical voice that I’ll delve into quite a bit — the ways in which scripted TV and theatrical cinema intertwine and are, in fact, becoming increasingly indistinguishable from each other in every way except length.
What other peculiarities do we need to know about?
When I write repeatedly about the same show, you may have a good laugh over how my opinions fluctuate wildly over time. I often fall hard for a new series that catches my fancy for whatever reason, then cut it loose after it’s let me down too many times; then I return to it a few months later and fall in love with it all over again. The X-Files, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under were all like that for me.
That’s probably the biggest difference between watching TV and watching movies: Movies are fixed, finite things. TV shows are organisms that coexist with us in time and space as we live our lives. They grow and change, blunder and destroy themselves just as people do. Committing to a series is like deciding to be friends with or date somebody. You experience pride and elation, tedium and heartbreak. And you hope that whatever frustrations that you experience ultimately seem worth it, and that you don’t get to the end and think, Well, that’s four years of my life I’m never getting back.
I also have a weakness for what one of my colleagues calls “sick puppy shows,” those that vanish quickly and tragically. My So-Called Life, The Comeback, Unscripted, Wonderland, Freaks and Geeks, Frank’s Place, the eighties remake of The Twilight Zone … Did anybody out there watch any of those shows? Anybody? Bueller?
What’s the biggest problem with TV?
Besides rampant stupidity, which has always been an issue, TV’s biggest problem is a greed-fueled inability to quit when it’s ahead. Television history is strewn with programs that were strong for two or three or more seasons, then got weaker and more desperate as they went along, laboring to fill the typical network order of 22 or more episodes. I call this the Hamburger Helper production model: a little bit of meat and a lot of filler. The cable model — which is to say the British TV model, which we imported in the nineties — is more sensible. A show should run as long as it needs to run and no longer, and there’s no need to rush a new season into production until the creators figure out precisely what they want to say and how they want to say it.
Breaking Bad is wise to go out after five seasons. The best thing that ever happened to Lost was the producers’ decision to end it after six* seasons; they were really floundering in seasons two and three; by assigning an end date, they managed to rally and make a much tighter, more daring and confident series, even though the end disappointed and baffled many viewers, as the ends of mystery-driven shows almost always do.
Okay, so did you like or hate the end of Lost?
Not to be as cryptic as Lost itself, but it was the right ending for that series. It almost doesn’t matter how a show ends as long as the ending is true to the show’s character, and that one definitely was. So was the final scene of The Sopranos, which I thought was perfect: a big middle finger to anybody in the audience who wanted closure from a show that had been doing the opposite of what people wanted for six seasons. Those shows all knew what they were and ended accordingly. The ends of Seinfeld, Six Feet Under, and The Wire were also perfect.
Do you respond to comments?
Absolutely. Especially if there’s an opportunity to make a cheap joke or share a factoid that nobody else cares about but me.
If you could be any TV character, who would it be?
Rob Petrie. He seemed really happy.
* This post has corrected to note that Lost ran six seasons, not five.