the critic's corner

Seitz: There Has Never Been a Better Time for TV Criticism

Breaking Bad ep 509, shot on 12/6/12 by Ursula Coyote Photo: Maya Robinson

If you appreciate good TV, this is a fantastic time to be alive. If you appreciate good writing about TV, ditto. There seems to be consensus on that first statement, but not so much on the second — at least if writers of thinkpieces are to be believed.

In these pieces, recaps — or, as I prefer to call them, overnight reviews — represent the totality of TV criticism in some minds, even though they represent a small percentage of the often-fascinating work that’s out there right now, and even though the overnight review can itself be as provocative and artful as any other kind of criticism. Recent articles in The LA Review of Books, Bookforum, and The Wall Street Journal have nice things to say about aspects of TV crit, but they also sound notes of disappointment and alarm, and in places they feel like a revisit of last spring’s handwringing “Recaps: Bad for journalism, bad for art?” debate, which I wrote about here.

At this point, I find the whole discussion exhausting and frustrating, because it’s too often approached from a misguided and in some ways ignorant angle— one that presumes, or accidentally suggests, that overnight reviews somehow represent TV criticism itself, and that TV critics as a species aren’t trying hard enough to attain the lofty heights once scaled by the great literary, theater, and film critics.

John Jurgenson’s Wall Street Journal article — which quotes one of my bosses, Vulture deputy editor Gilbert Cruz — is a reported feature about recapping; but by largely omitting any other kind of criticism, it affirms the idea that TV crit equals recaps, and that critics are slaves shoveling copy into an insatiable content maw and wearing themselves out in the process. One part of the article profiles Austin’s Jacob Clifton, a freelancer who recaps five shows a week, usually without the aid of advance screeners, and relies on “MiO caffeine mix, 5-Hour Energy drink, Prolab caffeine tablets, stovetop espresso” to get through the work week. Reading the piece, one gets the sense that TV critics spend their lives on a virtual hamster wheel, racing around and around to earn a few measly pellets. In fact, the gun-to-the-head kind of writing is but one part of what most critics do.

At Bookforum, Ken Tucker reviews two books about the post-Sopranos wave of TV, Brett Martin’s Difficult Men and my old Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised. Tucker, Entertainment Weekly’s longtime TV reviewer, has few good things to say about TV criticism, past or present. He calls it “anemic,” says that it “has never yielded a significant body of work — or at least an acknowledged one enshrined with any permanence in book form,” and complains that it hasn’t produced a figure as important as Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris. A lot of the time Tucker is echoing his subject, Martin, who seems defensively resentful of TV critics throughout Difficult Men. Martin writes off most contemporary critics as “fan-cum-critics,” and says the recap, or overnight review, is a “strange practice” done only by “the most die-hard, or smitten.” This sounds uncomfortably like a swipe at Sepinwall, a pioneering online TV critic whose own book on this subject beat Martin’s into the marketplace by half a year, though it could apply to pretty much anyone who writes about TV anywhere, and has to do a certain number of overnight reviews to have skin in the game.

Like Martin, Tucker’s distaste for much current TV criticism is tied to the rise of overnight TV reviews. Tucker disparages this kind of writing as “ultimately a mug’s game — there is no way to maintain that kind of writing without becoming either burned out or a hack.” I’d counter that it requires endurance, speed, and obsessive focus to recap even one show in an intelligent, timely manner, especially without access to advance screeners, and that it’s petty to write off the mass of recappers as fools in the express lane to Hacktown, rather than people who are doing work that Tucker would rather not do.

Over at the LA Review of Books, Philip Maciak also writes a double-review of Sepinwall and Martin’s volumes, but he takes a more measured view than Tucker. He wishes both books made TV criticism more of a presence in their stories, and says its absence “haunts both books.” This is partly because the shows Sepinwall and Martin fixate on (The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and the like) are so overwhelmingly male-driven, and modern TV criticism is so much more receptive to female writers, and feminist critique in mainstream publications, than many other popular art forms; there’s too much testosterone on one side of the looking glass, and that’s the side the books favor.

But for the most part, Maciak’s view aligns with mine: Let’s all step the eff back, stop furrowing our brows over what TV criticism should be or shouldn’t be, and appreciate how astonishingly vibrant it is.

I’ve been a film critic for over twenty years, and a film and TV critic simultaneously for fifteen. I have never seen anything as innovative and thrilling as what a lot of my TV critic colleagues have been doing since the mid-aughts. The flowering of modes and styles and the willingness to experiment is always engaging and sometimes amazing.

Before I cherry-pick a few examples of what I mean, here’s a qualifier: If TV is, as I’ve argued, an adolescent medium — not in terms of artistry, but timeline development, meaning it’s only been given carte blanche to be daring for maybe fifteen years — TV criticism is an even younger phase of its development.  There has always been good stuff; even back in the dark ages of the seventies, eighties, and early nineties, you could find writing that aspired to do more than tell you what’s on and whether it’s good. A few examples: Clive James of the Daily Telegraph, George W.S. Trow’s landmark New Yorker piece “Within the Context of No Context,” John J. O’Connor in the New York Times, Ron Powers of GQ, Tom Shales of the Washington Post (and now, Ken Tucker at Entertainment Weekly, Tom Carson at the Village Voice, and one of my New York Magazine predecessors, the great John Leonard, whose prose collapsed high and low art. As a teenager in Dallas, I read every published word by the Dallas Morning News’ Ed Bark and the Dallas Times Herald’s David Zurawik and Steven V. Reddicliffe (later one of Entertainment Weekly’s founding editors). I had no idea how spoiled I was having access to three writers of that caliber — sharp, often hilarious critics who managed to take the whole of pop culture, politics, and morality into account even when dashing off 500 words on a Super Bowl halftime show or an offensive cola ad. Other markets had their own equivalents, if they were lucky — and a good many were lucky.

But as great as they were, or are, these critics were all generalists, and they tended to work in one of two major modes: consumer guide/reviewer, or freewheeling cultural critic. (The exception on that list is Trow, whose particular genius defies categorization; astonishingly, most of his lucid and insightful “No Context” manifesto was dictated into a tape recorder and then transcribed!) What’s happening now, online for the most part, is an incremental expansion of TV criticism’s possibilities. There are great examples of traditionalists or generalists, plus new (mostly young) critics who don’t feel obligated to follow anyone’s template for proper criticism, and who use hypertext links, video, GIFs, and social-media conversation to expand TV criticism’s frontiers. Not every experiment works, and there’s definitely a lot of wheel-spinning or clock-punching going on, but that was the case when newspapers and magazines were the only game in town, too; the pace has just accelerated, the number of platforms have multiplied, and all bets are off.

“If the past 15 years of television production tell us anything, it’s that ‘proper artistic questions’ change and crumble over time,” Maciak writes. “[Andre] Bazin and Kael and Sarris did not change film criticism by importing the conventions of literary criticism wholesale from Henry James and Trilling. […] Critics shouldn’t be hamstrung by the intentions of a show’s creator, nor should they be beholden to literary or cinematic constructions of value. Television criticism has not developed as a discourse simply by aping Kael and Sarris, nor has it thrived by listening faithfully to the hectoring pronouncements of those ‘difficult men’ Martin and Sepinwall profile. Kael and Sarris changed film criticism by creating a form specific to and worthy of the medium, and, just as the time to equate television series with junk food is over, it is now time to consider how the culture of online television commentary has expanded, rather than degraded, our critical culture.”

Yes! Lord knows I’ve used the hamster-wheel comparison myself when talking about TV criticism, and there are times when I’ve agreed with The Wire creator David Simon’s gripe that recap culture prizes the parts over the whole, and sometimes obscures the true purpose and value of good shows. But for the most part, I think this period of TV criticism is incredibly exciting, because it’s so new and young and open to experimentation.

There are infinite variations of TV criticism — maybe we should say “coverage” instead, to differentiate imaginative writing that isn’t really criticism and isn’t trying to be. The kind that I practice is, as a friend pointed out, a strange merger of visual analysis, literary close-reading and bloggy psychodrama. My old beat partner Sepinwall, the fastest gun in this online Wild West, is much more interested in the practical aspects of storytelling and characterization than I am. He weaves in behind-the-scenes knowledge about how particular shows are made, and how the personalities of the writers and producer and directors might have influenced them. He’s as much a reporter as he is a critic — the kind of writer whom twentieth-century editors might describe as “a newspaperman,” one who happens to write online.

My predecessor in this job, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, might be TV criticism’s closest equivalent to a Pauline Kael — impassioned, funny, and conversational — but because she’s more interested in the politics of representation than Kael ever was, that comparison will only take you so far. The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan is great at a lot of things, but I most enjoy reading her on characterization and acting; there’s an empathetic quality to her writing on fictional characters that makes me think that, in another life, she’d have been a great teacher, or therapist. Nearly all of Alyssa Rosenberg’s writing at ThinkProgress has a strong, clear spine — the difference between TV’s representation of life, and life, specifically the fine points of race, sex, and power — and because she writes regularly about film, politics, literature, comics, and other topics, one gets the sense that she’s ultimately writing about life, and television is just one means to that end.

You could say the same about almost any other critic worth reading, come to think of it. When you read The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman, Time’s James Poniewozik, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, NPR’s Linda Holmes, USA Today’s Robert Bianco, Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times (soon to be NPR’s first TV critic), and the AV Club’s Donna Bowman and Todd VanDerWerff, you always get the sense that the writers aren’t just doing consumer guide work. They grind axes, float theories, tilt at windmills. And they all do it in their own distinctively personal way.

But these are all variations of what we traditionally think of as Serious Criticism, whether or not the writers crack jokes. Look beyond this mode and you get a sense of TV criticism’s variety. The landscape is as dazzling and sometimes confounding as any young ecosystem’s. The dedicated TV-watcher surveys it as Darwin might. How did that strange creature come into existence? What’s the point of the plumage? Why five legs instead of four?

It’s customary to decry much TV writing, recaps especially, as plot summary plus snark; I’ve done it myself. But as television criticism has evolved, this catch-all insult has started to seem as lazy and out-of-touch as cinephiles writing off the whole of television as an idiot box.

Even those sites that adopt a lighter touch — such as, the new site from Television Without Pity’s original founders — invest snark with imagination and a sense of play. Tara Ariano’s “Schraders vs. Whites” chart and Newsroom recaps, the “watch/skip index,” and “Ask the Experts” are all riffs, but not just riffs; the site’s a welcome reminder that most people watch TV because it’s fun. (Though they do get serious on occasion: see Sarah D. Bunting’s appreciation of Tony Soprano as a prototypical Jersey dad.) Pajiba’s Joanna Robinson does the most visually inventive recaps I’ve seen, using GIFs and screenshots as rimshots. At Lawyers, Guns and Money, Scott Eric Kaufman’s detailed breakdowns of composition and editing liven up the recap with a dash of film theory.

Look beyond the writers who churn out thousands of words a week, and you’ll find many insightful, sometimes powerful one-offs, such as Aura Bogado’s piece accusing Orange Is the New Black of being unthinkingly racist even as it strives to enlighten. Bogado’s target isn’t just the show, but the complacent white liberal point-of-view that dominates criticism in every field, not just TV.

Tom and Lorenzo’s style-oriented approach and Molly Lambert’s Grantland pieces — on Mad Men, especially — are a breed apart. They’re not recapping, exactly, and I don’t know if they’re reviewing or criticizing, either, but they’re definitely feeling and responding, and noticing, and at their best, they make art from art. Tom and Lorenzo’s coverage adopts an outside-in approach, looking at the clothes, architecture, colors, and textures, and then finding their way into the drama, but they do more straightforward criticism as well, and it’s often dazzling.

Lambert’s pieces seem to have been written from the not too distant future, by a novelist who’s more interested in re-creating the general look and feel of an episode than sifting through granular detail. She treats the characters as prisms we peer through to see ourselves more clearly. “Is Don capable of doing something that doesn’t benefit him directly in some way, even if it’s just to stoke his sense of self?” she asks. “Is anyone? Or do we all secretly expect that our favors will be returned, our contracts honored, and our affections requited? How, then, to accept a reality where the world is always unpredictably shifting between loving attachment and utter indifference with regard to what we want from it? Get a cat.”

The only thing these writers have in common is that they’re not interested in satisfying preconceived notions of what criticism should be. They aren’t losing sleep over answering the questions that some other critic believes are the “right” ones, or nudging TV coverage into line with the supposed grand traditions of older art forms. They’re just writing. Sometimes the show is the whole point. Sometimes it’s just a springboard for something else. If you don’t like what any particular writer is doing, read somebody else. If you read enough TV criticism, you’ll eventually find a byline worth returning to, believe me. The freer they are, and the more open-minded we are, the more impressive the landscape will become.  This world is young.

There Has Been No Better Time for TV Criticism